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COFFEY, THOMAS, printer, newspaperman, and senator; b. 12 Aug. 1843 in Castleconnell (Republic of Ireland), son of Patrick Coffey and Ellen O’Keefe; m. 23 May 1869 Margaret Hevey in London, Ont., and they had one daughter; d. there 8 June 1914.

Thomas Coffey’s formal education was meagre and probably did not extend beyond elementary school. After his family arrived in Lower Canada on 1 June 1852, they settled in Montreal, where he was taught by the Brothers of the Christian Schools. Leaving the relative security of the city’s thriving Irish Catholic community, Patrick Coffey by 1856 had moved with his wife and son to London, Upper Canada, a predominantly Protestant town. Any schooling that Thomas received in London must have been brief. According to Edward Clissold, a boyhood friend and fellow printer, Coffey as a junior apprentice at the London Prototype in the 1850s was so small that he could scarcely reach the bed of the Washington hand press on which the paper was printed.

As a journeyman printer he was much in demand. He worked at the London Free Press and Daily Western Advertiser, owned by Josiah Blackburn*, but chiefly at John Cameron*’s London Advertiser. He was one of the printers who set the Advertiser’s inaugural copy on 27 Oct. 1863. Over the following 16 years, except for a brief interlude as a grocer, Coffey rose steadily through the ranks, a rare achievement for a Catholic in a business owned by a non-Catholic. He became foreman of the Advertiser’s composing room, then of the job department, and lastly superintendent of the mechanical department. His years as a printer would deeply influence his public defence of the rights of workers to fair treatment at the hands of capitalists and of religious minorities to equality under Canadian law.

Coffey’s affiliation with the Advertiser ended when he took over the Catholic Record. Its first issue had appeared on 4 Oct. 1878. Warmly supported by Bishop John Walsh*, it was published in London by Walter Locke. The history of the English-language Catholic press in Canada had been characterized by repeated failure. All attempts to establish a viable and purely Catholic newspaper outside Quebec had been “valiant but short-lived.” The Record nearly suffered the same fate. Locke was an abysmal failure as a publisher, and ownership of the paper officially passed to Coffey on 30 May the following year.

He was proprietor and editor of the Catholic Record for 34 years. He had bought a bankrupt paper, saddled with unpaid debts, limited type, and an ancient press, and he turned it into the premier Catholic weekly of its day. He never missed a deadline or offended a bishop. He also used his presses to build up a lucrative job-printing enterprise. The paper was politically independent but fiercely Catholic whenever drawn into matters that directly touched upon the church’s place in Canadian society. Its pages offered a steady diet of diocesan news, apologetics, editorials, fiction, and the latest in Irish politics.

Under Coffey’s prudent administration, the Record evolved into an accurate reflection of Catholic culture in English-speaking Canada at a time when the church was becoming less Irish and more urban in its make-up and a great deal more sensitive to the social teachings of the popes, especially Leo XIII’s encyclical of 1891, Rerum novarum. By 1913 the Record enjoyed a circulation of almost 30,000 readers. The key to the paper’s success was Coffey’s “careful scrutiny of editorial comment and judicious selection of instructive matter from various sources.”

In politics, Coffey was staunchly Liberal and never passed up an opportunity to trumpet the genius of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. The prime minister finally awarded him a seat in the Senate on 12 March 1903. His 11 years in the upper chamber were characterized by the usual business: he presented petitions, introduced a number of bills, and sat on two committees, printing and debates and reporting. His expertise in managing a newspaper was much in demand in ensuring the timely production of the Senate’s debates and journals.

Coffey’s natural eloquence shone forth on three occasions. In 1903, recalling coal shortages the previous winter, he voted against a bill that would have outlawed American labour agitators. “If capitalists combine to raise the price of the necessaries of life . . . ,” he said, “how can you blame the workingman if he combines to raise the price of his labour in order that he may be enabled to live?” Speaking on the Autonomy Bills that created the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905 but severely restricted separate schools, he declared, “Catholics will at all times and in all countries make sacrifices for the training of their children in that faith which they hold dear as life and which they wish to transmit to their descendants.” Out of loyalty to Laurier, he voted in favour of the compromise clause on education but could hardly “compliment the majority upon their sense of fair-play.” The Manitoba Boundaries Extension Bill (1912) gave him a platform to re-open the entire Manitoba school question [see Thomas Greenway*]. He ended his lengthy and impassioned plea on behalf of that province’s Catholic population by reminding his colleagues that the Senate should be “the champion of the weak, the defender of the minorities, the court whose decisions are above and beyond all that is petty and mean.”

In private life, Senator Coffey was a member of the Catholic Mutual Benefit Association for 38 years, a supporter of the Canadian Clubs, and an ardent proponent of home rule for Ireland. His dearest wish was to attend the opening of a parliament in Dublin. His genial personality and Christian charity made for few enemies. In 1907 the College of Ottawa awarded him an honorary lld for his contributions to Catholic journalism. At his requiem in St Peter’s Cathedral in London, Bishop Michael Francis Fallon* dispensed with a long-standing Catholic tradition of no eulogies by calling Thomas Coffey “a good, high-minded, honest servant of the State and a typical representative of the Catholic Church. . . . A man who reverenced his conscience as his king, who served God and his country.”

Michael Power

AO, RG 22-321, no.11990. St Peter’s Cathedral (London, Ont.), Marriage certificate, 23 May 1869. Univ. of Ottawa Arch., Record of honorary lld, 1907. Catholic Record (London), 30 May 1879, 20 June 1914, 23 Oct. 1948. Globe, 9 June 1914. London Free Press, evening ed., 9, 11 June 1914. Can., Senate, Debates, 1903, 1905, 1911/12; Journals, 1903–12/13. Canadian annual rev. (Hopkins), 1908. CPG, 1903. Directories, London, 1856/57, 1863/64, 1871/72; Middlesex County, 1864/65. J. K. A. Farrell, “The history of the Roman Catholic Church in London, Ontario, 1826–1931” (ma thesis, Univ. of Western Ont., London, 1949).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Michael Power, “COFFEY, THOMAS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 23, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/coffey_thomas_14E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/coffey_thomas_14E.html
Author of Article: Michael Power
Title of Article: COFFEY, THOMAS
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1998
Year of revision: 1998
Access Date: November 23, 2014