The Rev. Charles E. Coughlin, "The Radio Priest" whose fiery and controversial broadcasts in the 1930s conmanded audiences of millions, died Saturday at his home in Bloomfield Hills, a suburb of Detriot. He was 88.
Catholic Church officials said he had been in ill health and bed-ridden for some time. They did not give the cause of death.
Since his retirement in 1966 from the Shrine of the Little Flower parish in Royal Oak, Mich., Father Coughlin had been heard from only on rare occasions.
"The Lion of the Airways," as he was also called, came to national prominence in the depths of the Great Depression and for a brief time he was regarded as one of the most powerful political and social forces in the country.
He first supported the New Deal and then denounced it. He inveighed against the "international bankers" and the Federal Reserve System and advocated a "just and living annual wage" for every American working family. He said all currency and sources of credit should be "nationalized" and based on silver to "end the reign of gold."
At one time, he supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1936, he called him a "liar and betrayer" and said he was "anti-God." Referring to Roosevelt and communism, he called for the use of bullets when any up-start dictator in the United States succeeds in making a one-party government and when the ballot is useless."
Father Coughlin's rise to national power was assisted by the Depression. His radio listeners -- it was estimated that as many as 40 million people heard his weekly broadcasts -- were largely those who were unemployed and without hope.
If the Depression gave him his following, radio gave him the means of reaching it. He brought to the medium a remarkable voice. The late John Cogley, who was a senior fellow of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, described Father Coughlin's "mighty Wurlitzer voice" as the priest's "greatest asset."
"The voice could do anything," Cogley wrote in The Washington Post in 1973. "It purred with satisfaction when his leadership proved to be effective; it roared with indignation when he was criticized; it dripped honey when he sought support; it spit out venom where he was crossed; it beckoned people invitingly when he used it to suggest that the little people had no better friend on earth than their own radio priest."
In 1934, Father Coughlin founded the National Union for Social Justice, which claimed 9 million members at its peak. He also founded a publication, Social Justice, as a vehicle for his views.
The decline of the populist priest was as rapid as his rise. In the 1936 presidential election, the National Union for Social Justice ran Rep. William Lemke for president. Father Coughlin predicted Lemke would get at least 9 million votes. In fact, he got fewer than a million.
A week after the election, Father Coughlin announced that the National Union was "thoroughly discredited" and that he was "withdrawing from all radio activity in the best interests of all the people."
He remained off the air until the fall of 1937. In 1940, his broadcasts were discontinued for good and in 1941 the federal government barred the publication Social Justice from the Mails "because it mirrored the Axis propoganda line."
In addition, he was censured by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church for many of his political views.
But if he drew the enmity of the federal government and his church, as well as other groups, both public and private, he also drew praise.
Bishop Michael J. Gallagher, his superior in Detroit, said at the height of the controversy that surrounded him: "It is the voice of God that comes to you from this great orator . . . Rally behind him . . ."
In 1966, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Father Coughlin's ordination, the late Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston issued a statement calling his old friend a man "decades ahead of his time . . . the giant of his generation among committed priests." The cardinal added that long before "clergy marched for the disenfranchised and dispossessed . . . he besieged the Congress with the voice of the people."
Except for a skill in debating that was noted while he was still a youth, there was little in the background of Charles Edward Coughlin to suggest that he would attain such fame and notoriety.
He was born in Hamilton, Ont., on Oct. 25, 1891. His parents were Thomas J. and Amelia Mahoney Coughlin. He was raised in Canada and graduated from St. Michael's College of the University of Toronto in 1911 with a degree in philosophy. He also starred on the university's base ball team.
Shortly after graduation, he entered the Basilian novitiate to study for the priesthood. While still in the seminary, he spent a year teaching in Waco, Tex., for reasons of health. On June 29, 1916, he was ordained.
For some years he taught in Canada. In 1923, he moved to the Diocese of Detroit, serving in Kalamazoo and North Branch as well as in Detriot. In 1926, Bishop Gallagher ordered him to establish a parish in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, which became the Shrine of the Little Flower.
At first, he served fewer than 30 families. In an effort to build up membership and raise funds, he began broadcasting over a Detroit radio station. After the stock market crash in 1929, he began to emphasize social and political issues rather than purely religious ones and these soon became his stock in trade. (Until repeal, prohibition was one of his favorite targets.)
The Columbia Broadcasting System began to carry the broadcasts, but dropped them because of their content. Father Coughlin then financed his own nationwide broadcasts with small contributions from listeners. His mail was estimated at 40,000 pieces a week and the cost of the broadcasts at $15,000 a week.
With his radio base secure, he rose in influence until his attacks on President Roosevelt and the debacle of the National Union of Social Justice in the 1936 election. From the point, his fortunes declined until his broadcasts were stopped and his magazine was banished.
Early in the 1940s, the Catholic heirachy ordered him to take up full-time parochial duties at the Shrine of the Little Flower. He continued to live at the church even after his retirement as its pastor in 1966. After he went off the air, he rarely gave interviews.
In March, 1934, Father Coughlin said: "I enjoy a perilous popularity. Sooner or later, I must pay the price."
The price was the ecclesiastical order to return to his parish and obscurity. In 1962, he told the Detroit News the order was difficult to obey "because I still think I was right on many things."