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Rev. Charles McCoy, pastor, coach, and war hero

At BC High in 1967, the Rev. Charles McCoy talked with his former student James Cotter, the school’s football coach. At BC High in 1967, the Rev. Charles McCoy talked with his former student James Cotter, the school’s football coach.
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / December 3, 2009

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Newspaper reports of his slight stature vary, but the Rev. Charles McCoy was at best 5 foot 8 and hardly hefty in 1943 when, as a 17-year-old freshman, he was sent in to replace Boston College’s injured starting quarterback in a game against Harvard. He may have been a skinny youth from South Boston, but he had confidence to spare.

“Hey, McCoy, get in there,’’ assistant coach Moody Sarno called out, according to Reid Oslin’s 2004 book, “Tales From the Boston College Sideline.’’

“I said to Moody, ‘Don’t worry, we’re all set,’ ’’ Father McCoy told Oslin. “What did I know? Being from South Boston, first of all, I was a wise guy. And, second of all, you don’t worry about a thing.’’

No one needed to worry. Father McCoy led the Eagles to a touchdown, and the game ended in a 6-6 tie.

Father McCoy, who was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his actions in battle while serving as a Navy chaplain during the Vietnam War, died Monday in St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton after a period of failing health. He was 83 and lived in Milton.

Speaking to the Globe’s Ernie Roberts in 1977, he laughed when asked whether he had been nervous in the Harvard game.

“A kid with more smarts might have been,’’ Father McCoy said. “But being young and being from Southie, it didn’t bother me any more than if we were playing tag rush at City Point.’’

His bravery extended beyond the gridiron and the streets of South Boston. At 18, he joined the US Marine Corps and was sent to China during World War II. At 41, he was a priest coaching football and teaching at St. Sebastian’s Country Day School in Newton when he volunteered to serve as a Navy chaplain on the front lines in Vietnam.

“I know there are a lot of guys over there today who miss attending Mass, just like I did,’’ he told the Globe in 1967 on the eve of his departure for Vietnam. “That’s one of the main reasons I requested to go overseas. Guys are stationed all over the place in Vietnam, and chaplains are scarce. I sort of feel I belong there.’’

Riding boats that patrolled the Mekong Delta, Father McCoy ministered to the brave and the scared, the injured and the dying. Though reluctant to discuss what happened, his actions during one rocket attack led to his being awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.

“He was a giver,’’ said Joe Fitzgerald of Roslindale, who was 16 when he started playing football for Father McCoy at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Jamaica Plain. “If you spoke to Charlie and tried to talk about him, he would change the subject. He would never, ever want to talk about himself. He was a very unique, special man.’’

“He was quite a hero,’’ said Frank Furey of Winchester, who was captain of the first football team Father McCoy coached at Boston College High School, in 1951.

Charles J. McCoy Jr. was born in Boston, the son of Charles J. McCoy Sr. and Louise (Mahoney). His younger sister, the late Louise M. McCoy, was for many years a principal in the Boston public schools.

Even as a boy, Father McCoy had a quick wit and was just as fast in any competition.

“He always had the last word; he always had a zinger,’’ said Jack Walsh of Milton, who grew up with Father McCoy in South Boston. “At 16 years old, he was one of the toughest guys in Southie, a champion handball player down at the L Street Bathhouse.’’

Because of World War II, many schools had accelerated programs for teenage boys and young men. Father McCoy finished Boston College High School in 3 1/2 years, graduating in 1943. As quarterback his senior year, he led the team to its first undefeated season in a dozen years.

He started at Boston College a day shy of his 17th birthday, and his playing career lasted only one season, because he left to join the Marines. He didn’t play when he returned after the war to finish his bachelor’s degree in English and mathematics. In 1952, he completed a master’s in education at Boston University.

Though he served 24 years as a Navy chaplain, Father McCoy remained loyal to the Marines.

“My wife once asked him, ‘Father Charlie, who did you think is better, a sailor or a soldier?’ He said, ‘A Marine,’ ’’ Fitzgerald said, laughing. “He was very passionate about the Marine Corps.’’

While still at Boston College, Father McCoy began coaching football at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Jamaica Plain. He coached one year at St. Mary’s High School in Waltham before BC High recruited him in 1951 to teach history and coach football. In 1982, he was inducted into the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame, and in 1993 he received the St. Ignatius Award, the highest honor BC High bestows on an alumnus.

“Father McCoy was not your traditional coach,’’ Furey said. “He actually respected the players and spoke with them. He was sincerely interested in us as people, as young men trying to find our way.’’

While teaching with the Jesuits at BC High, Father McCoy decided to become a priest. Ordained Feb. 2, 1961, his 35th birthday, Father McCoy was assigned to churches in Scituate and Somerville, and then taught and coached football at St. Sebastian’s Country Day School for four years. He left to become a Navy chaplain.

“He put his life on the line in Vietnam,’’ Fitzgerald said. “He didn’t have to go up and down the river in the boats, but he was there for his men. And he didn’t carry a gun.’’

Leaving the Navy as a captain, he became pastor of St. Philip Neri Church in the Waban section of Newton for 12 years before retiring at 78.

“He was a genuine person,’’ said Mary Kineavy of Quincy, a home health worker who cared for Father McCoy and for his sister previously. Kineavy said that even when Father McCoy was ailing in his last months, he called her at home to check on her husband’s health.

“He took a lot of people under his wing and never let them go,’’ said Paul McNamara of Boston, a friend of Father McCoy’s and his attorney. “He wouldn’t just do you a favor and you’d never see him again. He always wanted to follow up and see how you were doing.’’

Frank Taylor of Milton, who went to BC High with Father McCoy, said he “was truly a God-given gift to everyone who knew him.’’

“It’s tough to lose a good friend,’’ Taylor said, “but I know where he is now - we all do - so that’s a pretty good feeling.’’

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley will be principal celebrant at Father McCoy’s funeral Mass at 11 a.m. tomorrow at Gate of Heaven Church in South Boston. Burial will be in New Calvary Cemetery in Boston.

“I’m wondering what he’s going to think of the festivities,’’ Fitzgerald said with a chuckle. “Cardinal O’Malley’s going to say the Mass and everything. I don’t think Charlie would have wanted the notoriety.’’