New England priest devotes life to helping those in crisis situations

On the morning of March 27, 1966, 7-year-old Catherine L. Waters and her 11-year-old sister Janet were getting ready to go to morning mass in a neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island, where they lived with their mother in a second-floor apartment. But at around 11 a.m., an ex-boyfriend of the mother broke into their apartment and threatened to kill the three of them with a .32 caliber semi-automatic pistol.

Hero Fund investigator Ronald Swartzlander noted that the 26-year-old gunman was said to be, “greatly disturbed emotionally and talked of committing suicide if it became necessary to kill them.”

After eight hours of holding the family hostage, the man sent the two girls outside to retrieve his coat from his car parked on the street. With the gunman watching the girls from the top of the stairs as they exited the apartment’s front door, the mother sensed an opportunity and fled through the apartment’s back door to an outside stairway. She told the occupants of the first-floor apartment what was happening, and they notified the police.

Janet and Catherine returned to the apartment with the coat, and, shortly, three policemen arrived at the scene. As they made their way up the interior stairway, the assailant fired at them from the top of the stairs. The police retreated immediately, taking cover.

One of the officers radioed for assistance from a patrol car parked directly across the building. The gunman broke two bay windows with the pistol and fired five times at him.

Two more police officers responded to the scene and the gunman fired five shots toward them. One took cover in a nearby house and the other hid behind a patrol car.

Soon, around 50 police officers responded.

A few officers covered the gunman with rifles from positions in adjoining houses, but were afraid to shoot because the man continued to hold Catherine and Janet hostage.

Joseph Coleman, a 37-year-old parish priest from Providence, Rhode Island, was at his church in the area when he learned about the standoff. Coleman was a police chaplain with duties to serve the spiritual needs of police officers of his faith. He was not, however, expected to endanger his life or negotiate for the safe return of hostages. He had no related training nor experience. He responded anyway, telling the Hero Fund investigator that he feared for the girls’ lives.

The gunman, recognizing Coleman as a priest, shouted greetings. From the street, Coleman attempted to reassure the assailant that he would not be harmed if he surrendered himself and released the children, but the assailant was agitated and talked irrationally. He cursed at the police, and then apologized to Coleman, who slowly moved to the house, onto the front porch, and then climbed up onto concrete blocks that brought him closer to the broken-out bay windows.

Coleman continued to plead for the children’s safety with the gunman for 20 minutes and felt he managed to calm the man down fairly well. He urged the armed man to lower the children down to him, but the gunman remained unconvinced the police would not shoot him.

It was then that one police officer shouted to the gunman that he was a coward.

Coleman later noted to Swartzlander that the remark irritated the gunman and, he “feared he had been aggravated to the point of desperation.”

The man brandished his firearm and fired two more shots toward police. The bullets passed over Coleman’s head which was a mere 2.5 feet below the window.

Coleman told Swartzlander that it was at this time he felt he would not escape this situation alive. He prayed – the Act of Contrition – and ran back under the porch.

Police fired four tear gas grenades. Two made it into the dwelling, and the gunman, Catherine, and Janet stuck their heads out of the window, seeking relief from the choking gas. Janet begged Coleman for help.

The other two grenades hit the side of the house and sent fumes onto the porch where Coleman had taken cover. Despite the tear gas, when he heard Janet, Coleman again climbed the blocks beneath the window. From there, he again urged the gunman to surrender the girls, which the gunman agreed to do but was still unconvinced the police would not shoot him if he complied. Coleman tried to reassure him that the police would not harm him, but the gunman ultimately did not trust him. He then told Coleman that he would surrender the children if the priest entered the house to get them.

Coleman hesitated to do so out of worry that the gunman would take him hostage as well. The gunman reiterated his offer and threw a ten-round ammunition clip to the ground.

Coleman proceeded through the gas fumes and entered the front door. Police did not provide backup.

He ascended the stairway to the second-floor landing and attempted to open the door of the apartment, but furniture barricaded the entrance. Blinded by the tear gas, Coleman pounded on the door and shouted. The gunman removed the furniture and opened the door.

The gunman cooperated with Coleman, surrendering his pistol to the priest. It still contained one round of ammunition.

Holding the pistol in one hand and holding Janet in the other, Coleman instructed the gunman to carry Catherine and follow them down the stairs. They descended the stairway together and, emerging onto the porch, the ordeal for the girls was over.

The gunman was immediately taken into custody by police, and the girls were treated for tear gas exposure.

Both girls recovered from the incident. Coleman sustained no injuries. Although Coleman did not know it at the time, Janet and Catherine were both part of his parish and were getting ready to go to his church that morning.

Acts such as this were one of many examples of how Joseph Coleman lived until his death on March 6, 2023. Eventually leaving the priesthood and marrying his wife, Sandra, Coleman was known in his community for giving aid. In a letter written to the Hero Fund, Sandra Coleman described her husband as a man who spent his life, “helping others to a degree he forgot about himself.”

Coleman would later be known as the ‘bridge priest’ in Jamestown, Rhode Island.

The Newport Bridge in Jamestown became a common location for people who attempted suicide, but the standard protocol for bridge authorities, according to a 1981 article by The Voice (Miami), was to “call the state police, alert the Coast Guard and send for the ‘bridge priest.’”

Coleman would utilize a safety harness and ascend to heights 200 feet or higher above the Narragansett Bay, where he would then attempt to reason with the individuals. He would try to give them reassurance that not all was as grim as it seemed.

“Every time I go up there, I pray I say the right words,” Coleman told The Voice. “There is no set formula; each person up there is an important individual.”

Despite his own fear of heights, Coleman always remained calm through prayer and regarded all those he helped as ‘special creations.’

“The day no one cares and lets them go, we put a cheapness on life,” he told the reporter.

During his priesthood, Coleman received many civic awards for his community service. Along with the Carnegie Medal, Coleman was recognized by the Newport City Council in 1974 for his service to the community. In 1978, the Rhode Island House of Representatives recognized his courage with a citation of congratulations for saving more than a dozen lives on the Newport Bridge.

After 1984, when he left the active ministry, Coleman worked for several social agencies including the Newport County Community Mental Health Center, Department of Children, Youth, and Families in Rhode Island and Department of Children and Families in New Hampshire, and the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council in New Hampshire.

– By Griffin Erdely, communications intern