St. John’s Mourns the Passing of Frank J. Coppa, Ph.D.

January 15, 2021

St. John’s University mourns the passing of Frank J. Coppa, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Department of History, St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the founding Director of the doctoral program in World History. He was a brilliant, internationally renowned scholar whose impact on the study of modern Catholic history was felt from the halls of the Queens, NY, campus to the Vatican and beyond. Dr. Coppa was 84 years old.

Dr. Coppa was a member of the faculty from 1965 to 2010 and was honored with the title of Professor Emeritus in 2012. Among his numerous accomplishments, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholar award and earned several National Endowment for the Humanities grants. He authored 12 pioneering books on critical topics such as the life of Pope Pius XII and the relationship between the papacy and the Holocaust. In addition, he introduced a groundbreaking course on the role of the papacy in the modern world. 

“I am dedicated to clearing up misperceptions and making 20th- and 21st-century Catholic history relevant and understandable,” he once said.

“He was a giant in his field,” observed Konrad Tuchscherer, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History at St. John’s. “The very existence of our thriving doctoral program is just one part of his exemplary legacy.”

Born in New York City, Dr. Coppa earned a bachelor of arts degree from Brooklyn College in 1960 and his master of arts and Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America in 1962 and 1966. His dissertation was titled, “Giolitti and Industrial Italy: An Analysis of the Interrelationship between Giolitti’s Economic Policy and His Political Program.” He was awarded a Fulbright grant to study in Italy from 1964 to 1965.

During a five-decade academic career, Dr. Coppa was known as a highly respected historian and published scholar of the modern papacy and was a regularly sought-after consultant and expert in Catholic Church history and Italian history. He was a longtime and active member of the American Catholic Historical Association; upon his retirement, he was honored with their first-ever Lifetime Distinguished Scholar Award.

Known to combine a courtly manner with personal humility and kindness to all, Dr. Coppa was beloved by the students whom he taught and mentored and the colleagues whom he served alongside—who were not only witnesses to history, but who also experienced the transformation of the department and the University. His book, Religion in the Making of Western Man (1974), is dedicated to his senior History department colleagues, Walter L. Willigan, Arpad F. Kovacs, and Borisz de Balla, “for many years of distinguished and loyal service to St. John’s University, New York.” 

During his long and proud association with St. John’s, Dr. Coppa often cited the University’s supportive environment for enabling him to be so productive. In particular, he credited the University’s Catholic heritage and the library’s gift to him of the Holy See encyclicals. “St. John’s has been a good place for me to pursue my scholarly interests,” he noted. 

“Professor Coppa was a guiding figure for students and faculty in the History department. He was an extraordinary scholar, a generous mentor, and a role model for us all,” remarked Nerina Rustomji, Ph.D., Chair and Associate Professor, Department of History. “I have long missed how he would greet everyone each morning and how he loved sharing stories about St. John’s. I learned from him that being a scholar means committing both to academic excellence and to the people around you. He will be remembered and missed in the History department.”

Always affable and approachable, Dr. Coppa combined profound scholarship with great humanity, and lay the foundations for a department based on scholarly excellence, collegiality, and fairness. He was known to always argue that the interests of students and the untenured members of the department should be put first.

“Frank was department Chair when I was first hired, and eventually, I was Chair for the last decade of his career at St. John’s,” recalled Mauricio Borrero, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of History. “I was fortunate to have him as a generous and supportive colleague; he was a true role model. In his capacity as Director of the Doctor of Arts program, the predecessor to our current Ph.D. in World History, I witnessed firsthand his deep concern for the well-being of our students.” 

Dr. Coppa is survived by his wife, Rosina Coppa; his daughters, Francesca Coppa and Melina Coppa; and two grandchildren, Zola Coppa and Joseph Coppa Rizzo.

A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, January 19, at St. Finbar Catholic Church, 138 Bay 20th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11214.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to The Frank J. Coppa Endowed Scholarship in History at St. John’s University.