Joseph B. Coleman of Ashland, N.H., died on March 6, his wife Sandra, at his side. Mr. Coleman was born September 10, 1928, in Providence. He was the son of the late Dr. George V. Coleman and Anna (Burns) Coleman. He attended La Salle Academy in Providence, St. Mary University in Baltimore, Md. After obtaining his degree at St. Mary’s, he spent the next four years at St. Mary’s School of Theology, also in Baltimore. He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest on June 4, 1955. As a priest he had a great reverence for God’s presence in the Eucharist and it carried over to seeing God’s presence in every human being. He was assigned to Our Lady of Mercy in East Greenwich from 1955 to 1962; Holy Name in Providence from 1962 to 1969; chaplain to the students at Rhode Island School of Design from 1962 to 1969; and St. Augustin in Newport from 1969 to 1974. In 1975, he was appointed pastor to St. Mark’s in Jamestown. In 1984, Mr. Coleman left the priesthood to marry Sandra Carlson. At that time he said, “I love the priesthood, I love the Church. I have struggled to be a good priest for the last 29 years. I wasn’t always successful. I could not always live up to the high standards the Church demands of her priests. For me, it was a daily struggle. When I married Sandra, the struggle was ‘over.’”
During his priesthood, however, he received many civic awards for his devotion to God’s people. In 1962, the East Greenwich Jr. Chamber of Commerce chose him as “Man of the Year” for “outstanding community service through loyal and unselfish efforts resulting in lasting contributions to community and nation.” On March 27, 1966, he received the Andrew Carnegie Medal for heroism for rescuing two young parishioners from a disturbed gunman. In 1974, the Newport City Council cited Mr. Coleman for his service to the community. In 1978, the Rhode Island House of Representatives recognized his courage and selflessness in saving more than a dozen lives on the Newport Bridge. Mr. Coleman was often called to the Newport Bridge to deter desperate people from jumping to their death. In the case cited in its award, Mr. Coleman climbed the cable 400 feet above Narragansett Bay to lead a woman to safety. In 1980, the Jamestown Town Council in celebration of his 25th anniversary as a priest, declared June 28th, 1980, as Father Joseph B. Coleman Day and further stated, “He made all of Jamestown his parish.”
In 1982, the American Legion of Rhode Island nominated Mr. Coleman with Rev. Charles Cloughlin of St. Mathew’s Episcopal Church, and Dr. William Litterick of the Central Baptist Church, all in Jamestown, to the Legion of Honor in the “Chapel of Four Chaplains” in Philadelphia, Pa. The citation stated, “The honor was in recognition of the service to all people, regardless of race or faith.” Their membership “symbolizes for all Americans and for all time, the unity of this nations, founded upon the Fatherhood of one God.”
Mr. Coleman had great admiration and respect for first responders. He volunteered as chaplain to various police and fire departments in the communities in which he served. Before 9/11, the contribution of police and fire departments was often not fully understood or appreciated by the general public. During the social unrest of the ’60s and ’70s, police were often called “pigs” and together with the firefighters were sometimes stoned as they performed their regular duties. Mr. Coleman in his talks and presence at crime and fire scenes gave support to these men and women. He was particularly interested in professionalizing the role of chaplain. In 1974, Mr. Coleman as one of the founders and first vice president of the International Conference of Police Chaplains. An organization formed to recruit and educate chaplains to serve the specific and unique needs of the individual police officer. This organization has, today, over 2,000 members in 17 countries.
Mr. Coleman served as fire chaplain in East Greenwich and Newport and police chaplain in Providence, Newport, Middletown, and Jamestown. He was deeply involved in the lives of the men and women in these departments. The same compassion and sympathy he displayed for the desperate people contemplating suicide on the Jamestown and Newport bridges, was also evident in his police work. In two separate incidents he successfully persuaded an officer “not to eat the gun.” The officers of various departments trusted him. The F.O.P. Lodge #3 in Providence chose him on two separate occasions to be their arbitrator in labor disputes with the City of Providence. They were more than satisfied with his efforts.
After 1984, when he left the active ministry, Mr. Coleman worked for several social agencies. They included Newport County Mental Health, D.C.Y.F. in Rhode Island and D.C.F. in New Hampshire and Grafton County Senior Citizens Council in New Hampshire. He said, “At my ordination, the ritual proclaimed that I was a priest FOREVER according to the order of Melchizedek. I never forgot that. I succeeded. Judgment Day will tell.” A veteran social worker at D.C.Y.F. did say however, “Joe Coleman was the most compassionate C.P.I [child protective investigator] I have ever worked with.”
Mr. Coleman is survived by his beloved wife, Sandra, and three nephews and five nieces. He was predeceased by his sisters, Margaret and Constance, and a brother, George.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated in the Holy Trinity Parish, St. Mathew Catholic Church, 11 School St., in Plymouth, N.H., at 11 a.m. on Friday, April 14. Friends may call at the church from 10 to 11 a.m. prior to the service. Burial will be in the New Hampshire Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen, N.H., at 3 p.m. on Friday, April 14. Dupuis Funeral Home in Ashland is handling the arrangements. For more information go to Dupuisfuneralhome.com.
Rest in peace, Father Coleman
Read more about Fr. Joe’s time in East Greenwich HERE.