The Passing of Father Coyle
Mrs. L.T. Beecher
CATHOLIC MONTHLY September, 1921 Volume Twelve
During the past month the members of St. Paul’s parish and, indeed, 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 seventeen years went about among us doing good. We shall not dwell upon the deep damnation of his taking off being still too desolated for expression. Our purpose is to give here a plain account of some momentous hours, and how we bore our grief to help us pay a fitting tribute of respect to our revered dead. In this Catholic Monthly*, so associated with his personality we wish to preserve for ourselves and our children and our children’s children a simple record of events, and, as many as space will permit, of the tributes of affection an respect that poured in from every direction.
We shall take the account of events from the daily press as far as possible. The story is between the lines, and that is where the deepest truth always is. It is a fitting tribute to Father Coyle, for it shows that his influence among us triumphed gloriously, and caused us all to behave as befits our high calling as followers in the One whose blessed sign is the Cross. The Catholic attitude is the outstanding truth in these weeks. All the rest is indeed Sound and fury signifying nothing. They have killed all they could kill of Father Coyle, and God has already comforted us with a vision of how little that really is. His tragic taking off has only underscored the simple gospel that he was forever expounding by word and example. If the words were written in fire they could not be burned more indelibly into the hearts if the Catholics of this district: Blessed are you when men shall revile you an persecute you and shall say all manner of evil against you for my sake: rejoice and be exceedingly glad for great is your reward in heaven….Yea, the time cometh that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service….But these things have I told you that when the time shall come ye shall remember that I told you of them.
On that beautiful summer evening Father Coyle was sitting alone in the porch of his Breviary when he fell by the bullet of an assassin. He was in St. Vincent’s hospital in seven minutes, thanks to the remarkable expedition of the LigeLoy Ambulance Department. The finest medical skill of the city was at his service almost instantly, but he lived only long enough to receive the Final Sacrament of the Church, the Holy Mother whom he had served all his life, and then his soul drifted peacefully out of the turbulence that we call life. When the news of their calamity that had befallen us was spread through the Catholic population, hundreds hurried to the hospital, to the parsonage, hoping against hope that the sheer finality of the message would be reversed. When all hope was gone the crowds quietly dispersed, and that night of grief and prayer in a thousand homes is an invisible bond between us forever.
The first mass at six-thirty the next morning with Father Brady as celebrant will long live in the memory of the members who heard it. A fine moment in the life of St. Paul’s will be forever associated with the youthful priest, so soon to follow his revered friend. The solemnity of the requiem mass forced upon the consciousness the finality of the thing that had happened to us. The church was tense with emotion at the final requiescat in pace. The following is a paragraph from an article contributed to the Birmingham News by one present:
The priest left the sanctuary, the lights were extinguished. It was over- the first gesture of the church as she followed her faithful child with wistful tender eyes of pity. The kneeling company did not stir; and then the young priest walked from the sacristy to the alter rail, breaking the poignant silence. His eager young face was full of grief, for the dead man was his dear friend as well as his mentor and guide. He had dined with him last night and had been in conversation with him five minutes before the tragedy. He tried to recall to his mind and to ours the attitude of spirit with which Father Coyle met life, how simple and entire had been his conformity to the will of God; how sincerely he had tried to follow the shining Great Example; how he should expect his friends to honor him now; how would he wish us to behave in this crisis. Then the thing happened that so often happens if we were not too dull to notice it-Father Coyle’s whole life and character were poured into the words: God forgive them, for they know not what they do. It seemed infinitely right, infinitely like Father Coyle that the first mass for the soul of Father Coyle should end as it did, in an earnest, sincere prayer that God in His infinite compassion would have mercy upon the wretched creature guilty of the blood of this just man.
All day long Friday the Church was filled with silent, prayerful people, and in the late afternoon in a deep hush the casket was borne to the steps of the alter, before which Father Coyle had reverently moved during so many years. There the body lay in state until it was carried to its resting place on Sunday afternoon. During the hours it remained in the Church, thousands filed by the casket which had for a guard of honor young men from the Knights of Columbus and the Yupka Club. The simple dignity of these splendid youths, one at the head, the other at the foot of the casket, will remain a part of the picture never to be forgotten.
On Saturday morning at nine thirty, the Solemn Pontifical Mass of Our Right Reverend Bishop Edward P. Allen of Mobile officiating, assisted by many members of the clergy. Many of the clergy who were unable to attend the services on account of distance, sent condolences by long distance telephone and by telegram. The following is the account of Bishop Allen’s sermon from the Age-Herald: Father Coyle was a zealous and devoted missionary and afterwards a successful professor and rector of McGill Institute, one to whom the students could look up and whose wise direction they could follow. I felt that he would make a worthy successor of the late Father O’Reilly. In this, I have not been disappointed.
He came up here somewhat reluctant to give up the literary work that he was engaged in, but to him the voice of his superior was the voice of God. He came up and all can see that his labors have been successful. He 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, the unbloody sacrifice of Calvary which was offered first by our Divine Lord at the last supper. This sacrifice looked forward to the bloody sacrifice of Calvary which was to take place, the following day, and every sacrifice of the mass since then looked back to the bloody sacrifice of Calvary. Thru this sacrifice the merits of Christ’s passion and death are applied to the souls of men for their sanctification and justification. Hence, Father Coyle’s anxiety to bring the people to Mass and to induce them to receive in the Mass, the body and blood of our divine Lord.
When I first visited Birmingham 25 years ago, I was pleased beyond measure, not only at the cordial greeting extended to me by the members of my own flock, who looked upon me as the one sent by the Vicar of Christ, to rule, guide and direct them, but as I was also gratified beyond measure at the kindly, cordial greeting extended to me by our non-Catholic brethren. Their broad-minded sympathy, their outspoken liberality and cordiality pleased me beyond measure. I found this generous, kindly sympathy in old Birmingham an even under Frank O’Brien when greater Birmingham was coming into being.
This sentiment continued down until greater Birmingham was accomplished, until, in fact, 1915.
What has brought this change? Who is responsible for bringing the crowd of mountebanks to misrepresentthe doctrines of the church, to assail her clergy and malign the Sisters of Charity, Sisters of Mercy and the Benedictine Sisters, the noblest of women in the land?
These disturbers were brought here by politicians and secret societies for their ignoble purposes. These people call themselves true Americans! But they are un-American because they are false to American principles of charity and justice and equality. I realize that these sentiments were not indorsed by the great majority of the city of Birmingham, but they allowed this clique to misrepresent and dishonor them.
Would he have committed this outrageous act if he had known the Catholic Church as she is and the doctrine she teaches and the pure and self-sacrificing life exacted from the ministers? But the people of Birmingham have permitted themselves to be misrepresented, with what result this tragedy! the last chapter of which will be enacted today.
To our Catholic people, I remind them of the duty of prayers for the dead pastor. Father Coyle was a noble, self-sacrificing and devoted priest. Still Almighty God scans the hearts of men and sees blemishes where we see none. Scripture tells us Nothing defiled can enter heaven. It also tells us the It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins.
Father Coyle was your devoted friend in life; do not forget him in death.
Thousands Attend Funeral
Thousands of men and women of all classes and denominations gathered around St. Paul’s church long before the hour of 3 o’clock, which had been fixed for the funeral service, while within the church auditorium every inch of available space, except that which had been reserved for the immediate mourners and members of the escort organizations of the church was taken.
As the organ and choir joined in singing the old-time hymn, Abide With Me: Fast Falls the Eventide, Rt. Rev. Edward P. Allen, bishop of Mobile, with his retinue if priests an assistants, entered from a side entrance in therear of the alter, followed by heads of the various church organizations, and grouped their banners and flags around the coffin, while the American flag was placed in the most prominent position at the head.
The hour of the funeral was set for three o clock on Sunday. The following account is from the daily press:
Just before the bishop began the final prayers, the immediate relatives and close friends of the dead priest entered by the side entrance, crossed the chancel and took their reserved seats, while sobs could be heard and a great hush fell on the audience It was noticed that the voice of the bishop faltered several times during the prayer preceding the sermon of Father Henry, and it was even necessary for him to stop to compose himself sufficiently to proceed.
The funeral sermon was preached by Father Michael Henry, of Mobile:
Father Henry, perhaps more than any other man, was qualified to preach this funeral sermon, for as boys he and Father Coyle had played together. The had gone to Rome and studied in college together, were ordained as priests at the same time, had been designated as missionaries at the same time, came to the United States in the same boat, to Mobile on the same train, labored together for years at Mobile and up to the day of the tragedy which cost Father Coyle’s life, they had been close and intimate friends. But the spirit of charity which, in the face of circumstances, permeated the sermon of Father the Catholics as well as non-Catholics Monday.
You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, was the text of Father Henry’s sermon, and as he opened his final tribute to his friend, he spoke deliberately and very slowly and carefully. There was not the least sign of bitterness, his manner of delivery was calm and yet that tall, white-haired figure in the pulpit won all hearts by the fine sentiments of Christian charity which he expressed even though at times with somewhat broken voice.
Recalls Close Friendship
After referring to the close ties between him and Father Coyle, and their coming together to this country carried here by the same desire to work at the call of Jesus Christ, Father Henry declared he felt this loss most keenly. Though James Edwin Coyle is gone, the memory of his good works will go on forever.
You will remember, dear brethren, the interest Father Coyle took in you, the words he spoke, and if he were with us now it would be his wish that each be faithful to his trust, that we continue steadfast in the faith.
Would any one of you wish Father Coyle were in the place of the unfortunate man who is now in prison with the stain of blood on his hands and soul? Would not any of you rather be in place of poor Father Coyle than in the place of that unfortunate man?
Catholics Dismiss Case
The Catholic Church will say to those who persecute it and its priests of even Jesus Christ himself said, Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do. That is the kind of people we Catholics are. We believe in law and order and the institutions of the land which upholds these.
We dismiss this case as far as we Catholics are concerned, and as Catholics we say, Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!
Today, dear brethren, there is sorrow in your heart, and tears in your eyes. Dry your tears, for they are not necessary. We honor him, and the bishop honored him, and the priests were his devoted friends. The people of St. Paul have never failed to respond to any call and if father Coyle were here today he would say, Hold fast to the faith and carry on the work. And I make this appeal to you for the sake of the sacrifice he made for you that you carry on the work. I appeal to the children, to those who are grown up, to the old men and women, to those he loved so much, to pray for his soul. It was a great and noble soul. In your charity pray for the repose of his soul and unite in one solemn prayer that it may enter into the glories of the Lord.
Following the service, which lasted exactly one-half hour, as it had been announced, the request was made that the center aisles be cleared of the multitude which had thronged into them for the service, and after this had been done the choir intoned Lead Kindly Light, the hymn being used as a recessional, and with a priest carrying the cross and accompanied by priests carrying candles, the procession from the church began. The American flag preceded the banner of the Knights of Columbus and these in turn were followed by the bishop and assisting clergy, who were in turn followed by the active pallbearers carrying the casket to the curb.
The immediate family and friends of Father Coyle preceded the honorary pallbearers, Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Charity and Benedictine Sisters, and the various church organizations, including the Yukpa Club, the procession leaving the church doors at 3:35 bound for the Southside Catholic cemetery.
As the procession began all traffic was suspended. Automobiles were still leaving the church when the head of the procession had reached the cemetery, nearly three miles away.
*Fr. Coyle founded The Catholic Monthly while pastor at St. Paul’s in 1909.