By Larry Peterson
Each and every one of us is an individual work of art, crafted by God for Himself. Why would He do that? He does it because He is Love and wants to share Himself with us. We all are truly special in His eyes. He loves us all, individually and without reservation.
He will forgive each and every one of us for anything we might do to offend Him. All we have to do is admit it and ask Him for his forgiveness. However, that great interloper called “Pride”, oftentimes places for many, immovable roadblocks to humility, everyone’s needed ally on their path to Love.
What follows is an “American” story about a Catholic priest and a member of the Ku Klux Klan. It is about love and hatred in America. This is not about the present day. This happened in Birmingham, Alabama in the year 1921.
Father James Edwin Coyle had been 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 Mobile Council 666 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 can explain the first and third generations). These folks were not only anti-black 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 the upcoming insurrection.
One of the leading Catholic-haters of the day was a klansman by the name of Edwin Stephenson. Stephenson lived about a block or two away from St. Paul’s Church. His daughter, Ruth, at about the age of 12, had become fascinated by the comings 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 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 and over the next several years even managed 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 wedding gift to her 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 did this by marrying Pedro Gussman, a former handyman who had worked at the Stephenson house several years earlier. The priest that 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. His heart was not filled with love. Rather, with hatred spilling from his eyes, he walked up 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 afterward. 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 Faith, and his Church. He was hated and murdered because of it. May he forever rest in peace.
copyright©Larry Peterson 2017