By CHAI BRADY, Catholic News Service | Published August 13, 2021
DUBLIN–Irish Father James E. Coyle faced prejudice and threats and ministered during the height of the Spanish flu pandemic. One hundred years ago, he was shot and killed by a Protestant minister in Birmingham, Alabama.
After ministering in Mobile, Alabama, for eight years, Father Coyle served as pastor of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Birmingham for almost 17 years. In Birmingham, he became chaplain for the Knights of Columbus, and his contemporaries cited his passion and fervor for the faith. At the time, the Catholic population of Birmingham was growing rapidly due to an influx of thousands of Italian miners and steelworkers.
The growing Catholic presence was not universally welcomed. The Ku Klux Klan was the predominant influence in Alabama and dubbed itself a “patriotic” fraternity that targeted Catholics, Jews, African Americans and others.
Anti-Catholic laws fueled by hysteria
It was a time when laws were passed that allowed Catholic convents, monasteries and hospitals to be searched without a warrant. The KKK fueled hysteria that the Knights were the military arm of the pope and were stockpiling weapons and planning an insurrection. It also claimed Catholics were kidnapping Protestant children and women.
The Rev. Edwin Stephenson, a minister in the now-defunct Methodist Episcopal Church and a member of the KKK, had a well-known hatred of Catholics. Ruth, his daughter, became fascinated with Catholicism when she was 12 and began secretly taking instruction from the nuns at the Convent of Mercy. She was baptized a Catholic when she was 18. However, she was beaten badly when her parents discovered what she had done.
Just months later, on Aug. 11, 1921, Father Coyle celebrated the wedding of Ruth Stephenson and Puerto Rican Pedro Gussman, who had worked at Rev. Stephenson’s house several years earlier. Shortly after the wedding, enraged by the ceremony, Rev. Stephenson went to the Catholic church with his rifle. There he found Father Coyle reading on the porch and shot him three times, once in the head. The priest died shortly afterward.
Rev. Stephenson immediately turned himself in and was charged with murder. He was defended by a lawyer, Hugo Black, who later joined the Klan. The Klan paid Rev. Stephenson’s legal fees, and he was found not guilty. Black went on to serve in the U.S. Senate and subsequently served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court until his death in 1971.
Priest remembered in his native land and adopted home
But on the centenary of his murder, Father Coyle is still remembered with pride in his native County Roscommon. Speaking to The Irish Catholic newspaper, Father Coyle’s greatniece, Chrissy Killian, explained how her Great Aunt Marcella Coyle — Father Coyle’s sister — lived with her after returning to Ireland from Alabama. In the U.S., she had helped out in the parish where Father Coyle was killed; after the murder, she moved to Mobile, before returning to Ireland in 1963.
“She was in the rectory when Stephenson walked up and shot Uncle Jim. She went out and she screamed and called for a doctor,” Killian told The Irish Catholic.
Killian recalled Father Coyle being spoken of as “a very poetic man, a strong-minded and principled man — a strong Fenian (Irish nationalist) back in the early 1900s.”
By the standards of the day, Father Coyle was progressive, Killian said.
“He allowed Black people into his church, and I think he founded the first Black school in Birmingham, which was very badly received by the Ku Klux Klan. He was honored by the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama, and they have a library dedicated in his honor and a website.
“They remember him everywhere in Alabama,” she said with pride.
Seeking reconciliation and forgiveness
In May 2012, Catholics and Methodists gathered at Highlands United Methodist Church in Birmingham for members of both denominations to seek forgiveness and reconciliation.
A report on Father Coyle’s funeral appeared in the September 1921 Catholic Monthly. A Mrs. L.T. Beecher wrote there were “thousands of men and women of all classes and denominations gathered around St. Paul’s Church long before the hour of three o’clock, which has been fixed for the funeral service. …”
It said “all the Catholics of the district have been so stricken with grief, have received such a test of their Christian patience and fortitude as, pray God, may come no more to us personally or collectively while this earthly trial lasts. Deep in the hearts of all who revere simple goodness and loyalty to an ideal was our priest who, for 17 years, went about among us doing good.”
Then-Bishop Edward P. Allen of Mobile said Father Coyle “labored and preached the word of God in season and out of season, visiting the sick, instructing the little ones of the poor and needy and afflicted. He especially labored to bring the people to the holy sacrifice of the Mass.”
Ministering during the Spanish flu
During the Spanish flu, a pandemic in which it is estimated 50 million people died, places of worship in Alabama were closed to stop the spread of the virus — much like what happened in many jurisdictions due to the current pandemic.
Father Coyle reached out to his parishioners at this time to emphasize the importance of the congregation coming together for Mass. He said: “You are, for the first time in your lives, deprived of hearing Mass on Sunday, and you will, I trust, from this very circumstance appreciate more thoroughly what the Mass is for Catholics.”
Brady is a reporter for The Irish Catholic.