Tragedy in Birmingham
Remembering the 1921 slaying of Father James E. Coyle
By Sharon Davies
This original article appeared in Columbia Magazine, March 2010 and is re-printed with the permission of the Knights of Columbus, New Haven Connecticut.
Father James E. Coyle courageously spoke against anti-Catholic prejudice in the South. (Bill Fex Collection, Birmingham, Alabama)
Father James E. Coyle, an extraordinary priest and Knight of Columbus in the early 20th century, courageously stood up against widely-held anti-Catholic views at the risk, and then cost, of his life.
The Irish-born priest was scarcely in his 20s when, after his ordination in Rome, he was dispatched to Alabama to begin his priesthood. The Catholic population in Alabama had exploded with a promise of jobs, especially in and around Birmingham’s network of coal mines, steel mills and iron foundries. Father Coyle arrived in the city shortly before a wave of anti-Catholicism flooded the country, and the revived Ku Klux Klan (KKK) rebranded itself as a “patriotic” fraternity, targeting blacks, Catholics, Jews and foreigners.
It was a tense time in America, and fear of the new immigrants gripped more than a small band of hysterics. A number of states passed “convent inspection laws,” which authorized the warrantless search of convents, monasteries and even Catholic hospitals. Investigators looked for Protestant women and children purportedly being held against their will and for weapons and ammunition the Knights of Columbus had supposedly stashed there. Knights were plotting an insurrection, the fear-mongers said. They were the pope’s secret foot soldiers and could never be “true Americans.”
Against these baseless accusations, Father Coyle defended the faith and the Order, becoming a lightning rod for attacks. Federal agents warned Bishop Edward Allen of Mobile, Ala., of threats against Father Coyle’s life and of plans to burn his church to the ground.
Then, on Aug. 11, 1921, Rev. Edwin R. Stephenson, a Methodist minister and Klansman, stepped onto the porch of St. Paul’s rectory with a loaded handgun. About an hour earlier, Father Coyle had officiated the wedding of Rev. Stephenson’s 18-year-old daughter, Ruth, to Pedro Gussman, a Catholic migrant from Puerto Rico. Like many other Klansmen, Rev. Stephenson despised Catholics. When he learned that Father Coyle had married his daughter to Gussman, he was livid. He shot the priest in cold blood, and Father Coyle died within minutes.