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Tragedy reshaped new Oklahoma City archbishop

The Most Rev. Paul Coakley will be installed Friday as the archbishop of Oklahoma City.
by Carla Hinton Modified: February 6, 2011 at 10:59 am •  Published: February 6, 2011

The young student was visiting an island off the west coast of Ireland, far from his Midwestern U.S. college, when the unthinkable happened.

Two of his friends — fellow University of Kansas students spending a semester abroad — drowned.

The tragedy led young Paul Coakley to seek spiritual guidance from a parish priest serving on the island of Inishbofin. The priest encouraged Coakley to seek solace from his heavenly Father in times of discomfort and travail.

Coakley, now 55, will become the new archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City during an installation ceremony set for Friday at Edmond's St. John the Baptist Catholic Church.

A kind priest's guidance in the aftermath of his friends' drowning is among the myriad influences that led him on his journey to the priesthood.

“I was 20 years old, 4,000 miles away from home and had no place to turn,” Coakley said. “The parish priest really kind of impressed me, giving me an appreciation of the priesthood and what it means to be a spiritual father.”

Coakley is well aware of the fact that his own role as spiritual father is to be broadened as he takes over the helm of an archdiocese representing about twice the number of Catholics than his previous diocese.

An avid bicyclist, outdoorsman and fan of social media (He doesn't have a personal Facebook page, but the Salina Diocese does), Coakley said the many positions he held during his 21 years as a priest in the Diocese of Wichita, Kan., will serve him in good stead.

He said his six years as bishop of the Diocese of Salina also resulted in a wealth of leadership experience that he will likely need as the new Oklahoma City archbishop.

“I think it turned out to be pretty good preparation, giving me an overall vision for things a bishop needs to be aware of,” Coakley said.

Coakley said he did not aspire to the role of archbishop, but he believes that the Lord has graced him with all he needs for the position.

He pointed to a quote by Mother Teresa to explain his views.

“She once said to a young priest who was feeling insecure about whether he was cut out to be a priest: ‘God doesn't choose the qualified. He qualifies the chosen.'

“So in that sense, I have a great deal of confidence in that it's the Lord who has called me to this. He has prepared me for this throughout my life and therefore He will give me the grace and the gifts that I need to serve Him in this new capacity.”

Coakley said he did not seriously begin to consider the priesthood until after college graduation, although the Inishbofin tragedy and his subsequent talks with the island's priest already had begun making somewhat of an impact on his career choice.

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by Carla Hinton
Religion Editor
Carla Hinton, an Oklahoma City native, joined The Oklahoman in 1986 as a National Society of Newspaper Editors minority intern. She began reporting full-time for The Oklahoman two years later and has served as a beat writer covering a wide...
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