Victim of the Klan: Father James Edwin Coyle, Alabama

James Edwin Coyle was born March 23, 1873, in Drum, Athlone, County Roscommon, Ireland, and ordained in Rome on May 30, 1896.  Having heard so many inspiring accounts of the challenges the Catholic Church faced in America, Father Coyle asked for, and received, permission to offer himself to the American mission. He came to these shores the same year he was ordained. He was only twenty-three.

Father Coyle’s first assignment was to assist Bishop Edward Allen in conducting parish missions for the diocese of Mobile, Alabama. He was also appointed as an instructor, and later rector, at the McGill Institute for Boys. After serving eight years in Mobile, the bishop assigned him as pastor of Saint Paul’s Catholic Church in Birmingham. The state’s largest city, Birmingham’s population had grown rapidly in the early 1900s on account of its rich mine deposits and booming steel factories.

The young Irish priest’s unpretentious faith and genuine humility helped him ignite a dynamic and apostolic zeal within the parish.  In just a few months the faithful began to take their Sunday obligation more seriously than they had, and a renewed devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary brought many back to confession and a Catholic spiritual life.

Economic opportunities and steady employment had been drawing many Catholics of various nationalities to Birmingham.  Seeing this, the Protestant population, which far outnumbered the Catholic, was gradually becoming more and more apprehensive.  Latent anti-Catholicism only fueled their mounting xenophobia.  By the year 1916, their bigotry materialized into violence.  Riots reminiscent of the Know-Nothing conflagrations of the mid-1800s broke out in Georgia, Kentucky, and other southern locales. A new anti-Catholic party called the True Americans was formed, allied with the goals of the more secretive Klu-Klux-Klan.  A Catholic church and school were burned down in Pratt City near Birmingham.  Father Coyle began receiving death threats.  Federal authorities gave him information that forced him to hire armed guards to protect his church and rectory.

The anti-Catholic political parties swept municipal elections in Birmingham that year and all Catholics with government jobs were fired.  Employers were threatened with boycott if they hired any Catholics.  Those who did not comply were “visited” by a member of the vigilance committee. The general success of the boycott forced many Catholics to leave the city.  Other Catholics refused, and had to get by through their  own resourceful ingenuity.  The fact that not all Catholics left Birmingham, no doubt accounts for the fact that no one laid a finger on Father Coyle.

That is until 1921. That year, Ruth, the daughter of a local itinerant preacher converted to Catholicism. The preacher, Mr. E. R. Stevenson, was furious over his daughter’s conversion.  I do not know if Father Coyle had anything directly to do with the conversion, but he was the priest who performed the girl’s marriage ceremony.

Well, it wasn’t just another wedding.  For this couple to get married – and especially in Birmingham – took a lot of courage. And, for Father Coyle to perform the ceremony, a priest whose life had been seriously threatened by bigots, took even more courage. Why? Because the groom who married this white-skinned Anglo girl was a dark skinned Puerto Rican. Pedro Gussman, had had met Ruth while doing work for Stephenson at his house and he had been a customer of Stephenson’s barber shop.

The marriage sent Mr. Stevenson over the edge.  The crazed preacher showed up with a rifle at Saint Paul’s rectory.  The pastor was sitting on the rectory porch in his swing chair. Stevenson walked up to the priest and pulled the trigger.  Father James Edwin Coyle was shot in the head; he died within the hour.

After the murder the sad story turns even uglier.  You see, at the preacher’s trial, the defense never denied that the accused killed Father Coyle; instead they argued, at first, that he committed the act in self-defense.  It was a bogus caricature of justice, commandeered from the start by the members of the Klan. With secret gestures thrown back and forth between Judge William E. Fort, a Klansman, defense counsel Hugo Black, a Klansman, and the jury, all hand-picked bigots, most of whom were Klansmen (the foreman was a field organizer), it was a done deal.  The jury acquitted the Methodist preacher on their very first vote. Stevenson was not acquitted on the self-defense plea, but on the grounds of “temporary insanity.”

Hugo Black would later lie about his Klan affiliation in order to gain a seat in the U.S. Senate.  He ended up having a long career on the U.S. Supreme Court.

The outcome of this trial left Catholics in Alabama feeling totally helpless.  It took a long time before the Klan’s influence died out, but it finally did. Enough Protestants of good will spoke out against the travesty of justice to make the whole episode an embarrassment to the city. By 1941, Helen McGough, could write in the Catholic Weekly:  “…the death of Father Coyle was the climax of the anti-Catholic feeling in Alabama. After the trial there followed such revulsion of feeling among the right-minded who before had been bogged down in blindness and indifference that slowly and almost unnoticeably the Ku Klux Klan and their ilk began to lose favor among the people.”

Postscript. One of the requirements to be declared a martyr is to offer one’s life for Christ at the hands of those who are killing you out of hatred for the Faith – in odium fidei, as the Church defines it.  It would seem to me that Father James Edwin Coyle certainly qualifies.

Mr. James Pinto, Jr. a Protestant convert, is just one of, only God knows how many, good fruits of the sacrifice of Father Coyle. Like E.R Stevenson, Mr. Pinto was a minister, not a Methodist, but an Episcopalian. I will end this account with a short and moving excerpt from his own personal testimony in gratitude to Alabama’s Irish martyr:

I can vaguely recall hearing the story of Fr. Coyle’s courageous life and tragic death when I arrived in Birmingham some 24 years ago to begin my ministry in the Episcopal Church. Approximately two years ago, this vague recollection of Father’s earthly life became a vivid encounter with his current life in the Lord.

I had been struggling for over a year, considering a possible return to the church of my infancy-The Roman Catholic Church-when I came across a Fr. Coyle Memorial Card at a local Catholic bookstore. I felt compelled to immediately locate and pray at Fr. Coyle’s memorial in Elmwood Cemetery. Within minutes, I humbly stood before the beautifully strong Celtic cross that honors this holy man and marks his resting place. I prayerfully introduced myself, prayed and gave thanks for his life, and asked his intercession that I might know if I should return to the Catholic Church. I will save the precious details for another time, but I will bear witness that my life was altered from that encounter onward. Shortly thereafter, I laid down my priestly garments and ministry upon the altar of an Episcopal Church and journeyed home to the church of my birth and baptism-the Catholic Church.

Father Coyle pray for us.