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An American story about an Irish priest, a brave girl, and the KKK


Everett Collection and Courtesy of Birmingham Public Library Archives

Larry Peterson - published on 03/17/17

Father James Edwin Coyle lost his life because he loved his faith and his brothers and sisters.

Here is an “American” story about a Catholic priest, a brave girl, and a member of the Ku Klux Klan. It is about love and hatred in America. This happened in Birmingham, Alabama, in the year 1921.

Father James Edwin Coyle was born and raised in Ireland and at the age of 23 was ordained a priest in Rome. The year was 1896.  That same year he was dispatched to the Diocese of Mobile, Alabama, to begin his ministry.

Father Coyle served eight years in Mobile. While there he also became a charter member of the Mobile council of the Knights of Columbus.

Birmingham was rapidly growing and was turning into one of the primary steel-making centers in America. Thousands were flooding into the area  and  Bishop Patrick Allen assigned Father Coyle to be pastor of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Birmingham. This was in 1904.

In 1915, inspired by the silent film Birth of a Nation, the second generation of the Ku Klux Klan rose up. (The link provides more information on the first and third generations.) These folks were not only in favor of oppressing black people; they also hated Roman Catholics, Jews, organized labor and foreigners.

They started the use of the “burning cross” as their symbol. By the mid 1920s, there were over 4 million klansmen nationwide.

Father Coyle was a passionate priest who loved his faith deeply and this love was infectious. He taught and inspired his parishioners about the beauty and importance of the Mass and Holy Eucharist and he held a deep devotion to Our Blessed Mother.

The parish grew as Catholics gravitated to the Irish shepherd in their midst. He became the chaplain for the Birmingham Council 635 of the Knights of Columbus and his presence there brought in more members from the growing Catholic community.

As the Catholic population in Alabama grew, virtual hysteria on the part of the Ku Klux Klan began to permeate daily life.

The Klan was spreading rumors and innuendo about Catholics kidnapping Protestant women and children and keeping them imprisoned in convents, monasteries and Catholic hospitals. The Klan even spread the narrative that the Knights of Columbus was the military arm of the pope and that they were stockpiling weapons for an upcoming insurrection.

One of the leading Catholic haters of the day was a klansman by the name of  Edwin Stephenson. Stephenson lived a block or two away from St. Paul’s Church. His daughter, Ruth, at about the age of 12, had become fascinated by the coming and goings of the Catholics at St. Paul’s every day.

One day she walked down to the church and  Father Coyle was outside. They began to talk. Her father saw her talking to the priest and, screaming at his child, demanded she go home immediately. Then he had a few choice words to say to Father Coyle. He then went home and beat his daughter.

Young Ruth was undeterred, grew in her fascination with Catholicism, and eventually spent the next several years managing to secretly take instruction from the nuns at the Convent of Mercy. She was baptized a Catholic on April 10, 1921. She was 18 years old. When her parents found out, their response was the worst beating she had ever received.

On August 11, 1921, Ruth Stephenson, of legal age, was seeking full emancipation from her parents. She sought this by marrying Pedro Gussman, a former handyman who had worked at the Stephenson house several years earlier. The priest who performed the wedding was a reluctant Father James Coyle.

Later that afternoon, Mr. Stephenson loaded up his rifle and began walking to St. Paul’s Church. He had just found out that it was Father Coyle who had performed the wedding. He strode onto the porch of St. Paul’s where Father Coyle was sitting down reading, and shot the priest three times. The final bullet went right through Father Coyle’s head. He died in less than an hour.

Stephenson turned himself in and was charged with Father Coyle’s murder. The KKK paid for the defense, the judge was a klansman and the lawyer who defended Stephenson was Hugo Black, the future U. S. Supreme Court Justice. Although not a Klan member at the time of trial, Black did become a member afterwards. The verdict took only a few hours to come in. It was “not guilty.”

Father James Edwin Coyle was a Catholic priest who loved his God, his Church, and his brothers and sisters. He was hated and murdered because of it. May he forever rest in peace.

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