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Catholic priest killed by Klan to be memorialized with Mass in August

Fr James E. Coyle was murdered by a White Methodist minister after marrying his Catholic daughter to a dark-skinned Puerto Rican in Birmingham.

Fr James E. Coyle Memorial Project director Jim Pinto speaks at the annual Coyle Memorial Mass in 2022. (One Voice Birmingham)

The annual memorial Mass has been scheduled for Fr James E. Coyle, the Irish-American Catholic priest murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1921. Scheduled for August 11, it will mark the 111th anniversary of his death, spurred by his celebration of an interracial marriage in Alabama during the height of Jim Crow.

The Fr James E. Coyle Memorial Project announced the Mass in late June, to be celebrated by Archbishop Thomas Rodi of Mobile at the Cathedral of St. Paul in Birmingham—Coyle’s former church.

“Father Coyle was shot and fatally wounded as he sat in the swing on his rectory front porch by an enraged minister whose daughter’s marriage to a dark-skinned Puerto Rican,” they said in an email inviting the public to attend.

“Let us honor the life and legacy of Father James E. Coyle by uniting together at Mass in memoriam.”

Born in 1873 in Ireland, Coyle was educated in Rome and ordained to the priesthood in his early twenties. The same year he was made a priest, he immigrated to Mobile and began service as an educator before later becoming pastor of St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Birmingham.

In 1921, Coyle agreed to celebrate the marriage of a local White convert, Ruth Stephenson, and her dark-skinned Puerto Rican Catholic fiance Pedro Gussman. Stephenson’s father, the Klansman and Methodist minister Edwin “E. R.” Stephenson, disapproved of the marriage and just hours after the nuptials, approached Coyle at his rectory and shot him dead. 

“He hated him because Father Coyle was a Catholic,” Ruth said in an interview with The Catholic Telegraph soon after the murder.

Protected by a meticulously maintained Jim Crow court system, Stephenson faced virtually no repercussions after turning himself in—despite his threats and premeditation before the shooting and his perjury during the legal proceedings. Among his KKK-funded defense attorneys was the future Supreme Court justice and Klansman Hugo Black

During the trial, Ruth’s husband Gussman was painted by the defense as being African American and was held on false suspicions of a murder in Illinois. The evidence against Stephenson notwithstanding, he was acquitted of murder in October 1921. Gussman was eventually released without charges and died in 1934.

“[Stephenson’s] trial was a travesty of justice,” the Coyle Memorial Project states.

Coyle’s funeral, held in August 1921, was reportedly one of the largest ever in the history of Birmingham, and as his fame grew, the diocese began celebrating annual memorial Masses in his honor. (Birmingham remained part of the Archdiocese of Mobile until 1969.)

A number of media projects have since covered Coyle’s life, including a 2010 documentary from his great-nephew Pat Shine. Coyle’s grand-niece published a novel in 2021 covering his story through the lens of his sister and fellow immigrant Marcella, and the Coyle Memorial Project released its own crowdfunded short film in 2019 based on Sharon L. Davies’ novel-length treatment “Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America.”

Alongside these and other items, the Coyle Memorial project also distributes a centennial edition of its director’s short text on the priest’s life, “Killed in the Line of Duty.”

A 2009 documentary portended a grander narrative, with the title “Saint James” suggesting a possible cause for canonization for Coyle. Unconfirmed reports in recent years claimed that the diocese has at least partially investigated Coyle’s life in view of that goal, and that the cathedral has added a crypt for the reinterment of his remains.

As it is, Coyle’s grave remains at Birmingham’s Elmwood Cemetery, and a plaque at the cathedral honors him simply as “Our beloved pastor” and founder of the church’s chapter of the Holy Name Society.

This year’s memorial Mass for Coyle will take place at 10am CT and will be followed by a reception. For more information, interested parties can sign up for updates on the Coyle Memorial Project website.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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