Father Coyle Remembered
Things I Remember About Father Coyle, His Death, Twenty Years Afterwards
THE CATHOLIC WEEKLY August 1, 1941
AUGUST 12, 1921
On this particularly pleasant afternoon, I sat reading the funny papers in our bakery in upper Second Avenue, which, with one block intervening, faced St. Paul’s Rectory. The store was almost empty of customers, but suddenly the air was electrified as a hatless, breathless man burst through the door and rushed up to my father I the rear of the store, speaking to him in a low but excited voice.
Dad turned around and took a few steps to the back of the store as if he would get his hat, and then turned again and they both ran toward the front. I was following their movements, my eyes begging to know what had happened, but such a look of grief and shock transformed my father’s face that I shrank from speaking to him.
The man who had caused such excitement was Mr. Bender who operated the furniture store in the block above St. Paul’s. When they were gone I ran out to follow them, but was stopped by a friend who had already heard the dreadful news that Father Coyle had been shot.
It was only a short while later that my father called and told us that our dear friend had passed away in the operating room at St. Vincent’s.
A few years before his death, Father Coyle instructed me for my First Communion. Since that time I have known many good priests, but without disrespect to any of them, none has ever impressed me so much as being God s direct representative as did Father Coyle. Of course a great deal of this, no doubt, was due to the impressionability of childhood. The children of St. Paul s, though, loved him without exception, but had unbounded respect and no little awe for- the dignity of his office. His first thoughts always were for the religious up-building, of his parishioners, and frequent Communion for all was the dominant theme of most of his sermons. Though possessed of a sly sarcasm which at times delighted and at times pricked his people, they knew his heart was filled with kindness and compassion. How well I remember when the baby of our family was apparently dying. Though she was too young to need a priest, my parents longed for the consolation of their pastor. So at 3 o’clock in the morning he was called. They knew that it was alright, they knew that he would come unhesitatingly, and so he did, walking the seven blocks to our house because his old T-model Ford wouldn’t start in the cold. And for an hour he stayed with us and prayed at the bedside of the baby and gave us hope and courage and resignation until at last she was pronounced out of danger.
Love of Poetry
Other things I remember about him – his love for books and poetry; and what a poor singer he was, and how the congregation always hoped he wouldn’t sing the high Mass; and how he loved his native Ireland, the poems he used to write about her and the articles and letters. Some there were who criticized him for his outspokenness on this subject, but the accumulated wrongs of all the centuries suffered by Ireland at that time culminating in the bitter death struggle of the Sinn Fein movement, bore heavily on his heart, and he cried out against the wrongs that hurt him terribly.
And now he was dead- shot through the head while reading his breviary on his front porch. In the block above the church and across the street lived the Stephenson family, father, mother and daughter Ruth. Father was a minister, a rather furtive figure, bearing the title of the “marrying parson” earned by his practice of marrying run-away couples while he hung around the courthouse. Ruth was an intelligent but apparently erratic girl, unhappy and restless in her home environment. Instead of disliking everything Catholic as she had been taught, her inquisitive mind became interested in this much maligned Church, and she spent many hours in the quiet of St. Paul s seeking the consolation her soul seemed to crave. Later she began stopping in and talking to Father Coyle. About this time she became engaged to Pedro Gussman, a Puerto Rican Catholic, and upon their insistence was married secretly by Father Coyle. Hearing of the marriage the father became enraged and finding Father Coyle alone on his porch, he walked up to him and shot him through the head, later making the statement that he shot in self defense.
The marriage of Ruth and Pedro ended abruptly in less than a week, and some there are, to this day, who believe that Ruth and her father and his colleagues planned the whole sorry affair to give Stephenson an excuse to murder his victim. I do not believe that is true.
But those were the days when Catholics were a detestable lot. Those were the days when I got my first taste of organized intolerance. Those were the days of the “escaped nuns” who came to Birmingham and gave lectures to overflow audiences; when a prominent politician published the “Menace” a paper given over to shocking lies and twisted half-truths about the Church; when a prominent furniture dealer spent thousands on newspaper ads to ridicule the Church; when the Ku Klux Klan politicians had the infamous “Convent Inspection” bill passed by the State Legislature.
How well do I remember those days! Days when walking to school some mornings we were never surprised when a child burst out of a house and hollered after us, “Catholics, yah! yah! yah!” in a queer adenoidal voice. And in the summer how we watched the park near our house and stayed out of it if a certain type of child was there because we knew he would start all the other kids razzing us about being Catholics. Early we learned that our best defense was a stony, and we hoped, dignified silence. Perhaps our neighborhood was worse than others, it now being frankly called the slum district, and even 20 years ago, it wasn’t too exclusive.
And in the midst of all this intolerance our dead pastor laid in state for two days, while the curious and the ignorant came and stared at him glad some of them, that the old priest got what he deserved. The ugly bullet wound, in spite of the undertaker s art, showed plainly over his eye.
And then the funeral, the people who loved him were shoved around and the Divine Presence desecrated by those jibbering, vacant-eyed curious who came to be entertained by the queer “carryings-on” of the Catholics.
And now in the fall came the trial of the killer. It was opened with a feeling of dread among the Catholic people of Birmingham. Crude rumors were spread that the reputation of Father Coyle would be left in sorry shreds after the trial. That not one word against the character or morals of Father Coyle was brought out at the trial, is entirely due to the irreproachableness of his life, and not to any feelings of decency or delicacy on the part of Stephenson s defenders, chief of which was Hugo Black.
And here let me pause to give honor to the late Bishop Allen that kind, wise, and tolerant gentleman who so admirably held in restraint the more hot-headed element among the Catholics of the state. That was no easy task for resentment and bitterness burned in their souls. Among other things they wanted to engage great legal talent to see to it that Stephenson would not escape the punishment they felt he so richly deserved. But the Bishop would not allow the leaders to concern themselves only to protect Father Coyle s honor.
To that end it was felt advisable to locate Ruth Stephenson who in the excitement had disappeared and bring her back to Birmingham. She was found in Tennessee and was asked to return, which she readily consented to. But none of the hotels or rooming houses would take her in, so finally she came to stay at our house. What unbearable excitement for us children! We were made to promise we would tell no one. She and a companion got off the train at Boyle and were drive into the alley in the back of our house so she could come in unnoticed. The weight of our secret was simply odious to us, as everyone, including the newspaper people were wondering aloud as to Ruth s whereabouts. If there was any deceit, or cunning in Ruth Stephenson s makeup, it was entirely unapparent at the time. She seemed filled with great regret and remorse for the tragedy which she precipitated. It was indeed a dramatic bombshell when she appeared one day in the courtroom, but she was never called upon by either side to testify in her father’s trial.
The trial caused great excitement. One little incident stands out in my mind. The courthouse at that time was next door to the rectory and one day a group of us children stood gazing up at its windows during the trial. Some men were sitting in the window and made what we thought was an uncomplimentary remark to us. Some of us shook our fists at them and stuck out our tongues in childhood s ancient act of derision. The next day this episode was mentioned in the papers a we thought ourselves very smart until Sister (now Mother) Annunciate gave us a stern lecture of the virtue of propriety.
Acquitted with Honors
Well, it was over at last, and Stephenson, as expected, was acquitted with honors. And they say that even to this day he can still be seen hanging around the courthouse, now a lonely and un-honored figure, forsaken and despised by those who once were pleased to call him brother.
But 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. It took a long time to accomplish this, and the feeling has broken out again periodically at odd times. We know that it will never be entirely wiped out, but today I should venture to say that the Catholics of Alabama enjoy the respect and good will of 85 per cent of the state. Let us not forget the martyred priest, who by his death was the instrument for bringing about in such large degree this happy state of affairs.