Today we enjoy the religious freedom to practice our faith openly and without fear. However, not long ago, faithful members of the Catholic Church in the United States used to face intense hostility and persecution in what is called “the deepest bias in the history of the American people.” With the second resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan following the 1915 film Birth of a Nation, anti-Catholic extremism reached a new height, so much so that Father James Coyle was murdered for performing an interracial marriage.

James Coyle was born on March 23rd, 1873 in Drum, County Roscommon, Ireland to Owen Coyle and Margaret Durney. He attended Mungret College in Limerick Ireland, and attended seminary at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Italy. Following his ordination at the young age of 23, he asked for permission to offer himself up to the American mission after hearing the inspiring accounts of the challenges the Catholic Church faced in the United States. He ultimately received permission, and arrived on these shores the same year he was ordained.

His first assignment was assisting Bishop Edward Allen in conducting parish missions for the diocese of Mobile, Alabama. After eight successful years he was appointed to succeed the pastor of the Cathedral of Saint Paul in Birmingham. As pastor, he was well received and loved by the congregation.

By 1916, many Catholics of various nationalities had been drawn to Birmingham for the many economic opportunities and for steady employment. Despite heavily outnumbering them, the Protestant population saw this increase that only fueled their mounting xenophobia, who believed Catholics were “plotting control of the city, state, and national governments in the name of the pope.” A Catholic school and church were burned down in nearby Pratt City, and Father Coyle started to receive death threats. In 1920, federal agents discovered a plot to burn down the Catholic school and church in the Birmingham, and warned Father Coyle to employ armed guards.

The violence against Catholics came to a tragic head a year later when on August 11, 1921, Father Coyle was shot in cold blood on the porch of Saint Paul’s rectory by E. R. Stephenson, a Southern Methodist Episcopal minister and a member of the KKK. His murder came just hours after Father Coyle performed a secret wedding between Stephenson’s daughter, Ruth, and Pedro Gussman, a Puerto Rican.

The sad story turned even uglier when at the murder trial, Stephenson’s defense lawyer, who was paid for his counsel by the KKK, argued he committed the act in self defense. Judge William E. Fort, defense lawyer Hugo Black, and the entire jury were all Klansmen. The jury acquitted Stephenson after one vote on the grounds of “temporary insanity” in a bogus caricature of justice.

The tragic death of Father James Coyle with the absence of even an ounce of justice had a chilling impact on Catholics, who were the targets of violence by the Klan for years to come. However, his death was not in vain. The farce of a trial caused enough Protestants to speak out against the hatred and turn the episode an embarrassment of the city. By 1941 persecution had fallen off enough that Helen McGough of Catholic Weekly in Birmingham wrote:

“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.”

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  1. Billy, bravo for a well-written article, but sadly, this action – though certainly not worthy of injury or death – was done in direct violation of both Canon Law and existing State Law in Alabama. You have justly identified the irrational hatred 19th century anti-Catholicism but you have mistakenly ennobled a greviously erroneous and provocative action as your example. When young, we easily forget that under Canon Law in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet the character of Friar Lawrence deserves to be defrocked. Blessings on your studies.

    • Are you saying that performing interracial marriage was against Canon Law? If so, please cite a source. If not, please clarify your point.

      • I believe Dr Scheibler is referring to the mixed marriage of a Catholic to a non-Catholic rather than the idea of a interracial marriage. It wasn’t until after Vatican Council II that mixed marriages became easier to attain. The Catholic Church has always encouraged Catholics to marry Catholics.

        • Mixed marriages, although not easily entered into, have been allowed much before Vatican II with certain conditions. A century ago, my Baptist father and Catholic mother were married within and with the blessing of the Church. As far as civil law, since when is it an illegitimate action to disobey a demonstrably unjust civil law. Why would a true scholar even bring up this nonsense when our country had its beginnings employing just such actions. Billy is the true scholar here and holds the high ground for his recognition of genuine martyrdom and sainthood when he sees it.

        • According to a history article I found with a very quick internet search, Fr. Coyle had previously received Ruth into the Catholic Church, so it was not a “mixed marriage.”

          • Yes, but her conversion was done in secret from her family. She was meeting with the priest when her family assumed she was elsewhere. This further enflamed her father’s hatred and distrust of Father Croyle and the religion he stood for

        • Ruth Stephenson was Catholic. She converted in April of that year, several months before the wedding. It was not a religiously mixed marriage.

  2. Why would one assume automatically that Ms Stephenson had not converted? Just because her father was a Protestant minister doesn’t mean she had not converted.
    I think the reference to Canon Law should be clarified.

  3. Terry Trombley: You said it better than I could have. Moral Law trumps Civil Law all the time. Just like the Roman Empire, we are seeing the slow decline from within of the America that we know.

  4. […] Blog A Key to Understanding the Pope, His Approach to Judgment – M. O’Loughlin, America The Priest Killed by Klan for Performing Interracial Marriage – Billy Ryan, uCatholic Note: A new post is published daily at 12:01 am U.S. Central […]

  5. Note that Hugo Black, future supreme court justice was a party to this farce. After getting appointed to the supreme court, he then proceeded to put the heavy burden of government involvement in our lives for expiation of his sins. Like Robert Byrd, another Klansman, contrition gives permission for continued oppression of lesser beings.


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