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.”