Daniel Coughlin, House chaplain, marks 10 years of service

Daniel Coughlin was appointed House chaplain 10 years ago by then-Speaker Dennis Hastert.
Daniel Coughlin was appointed House chaplain 10 years ago by then-Speaker Dennis Hastert. (Susan Walsh/associated Press)
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By Ben Pershing
Tuesday, April 27, 2010

In the beginning, there was partisanship.

When Daniel Coughlin was chosen to be the first-ever Catholic House chaplain in March 2000, Democrats made clear that he wasn't their pick. A top Democratic spokeswoman called the decision to appoint him -- made unilaterally by then-Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) -- "a graceless, tactless, partisan maneuver."

Ten years later, Coughlin is still in the job, and there is ample evidence that the rancor that accompanied his selection has disappeared: Last week, lawmakers from both parties streamed onto the House floor to honor his decade of service.

"He has seen us through the dark and through the bright," Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said of the chaplain. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) confessed to being "a better person for having known Father Coughlin and having been counseled by him." Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.) called him "an inspiration."

That Coughlin would receive such praise was not foreordained, given how his service to Congress began.

After the previous chaplain, James Ford, decided to retire, a bipartisan committee of lawmakers was formed to vet possible replacements. The committee forwarded three names to Hastert, who then selected one -- Charles Wright, a Presbyterian minister -- as his choice for chaplain.

But Democrats complained that another of the three candidates, a Catholic priest, had more support on the committee. Some Democrats suggested that Hastert's choice might reflect an anti-Catholic bias among Republicans.

Furious at the allegation, Hastert nonetheless urged Wright to withdraw. And then the speaker decided to hand the job to a Catholic priest who hadn't been on anyone's list of candidates: Coughlin.

Having spent most of his first four decades in the clergy near his native Chicago, Coughlin was blissfully ignorant of the ways of Washington.

"I didn't follow politics at all," Coughlin recalled last week.

When Hastert picked Coughlin on the advice of Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago, Coughlin was serving as the vicar for priests, meaning he was a counselor to his fellow ministers during their times of trouble.

That job, it turns out, wasn't so different from his current one.

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