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James Coyle

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James Edwin Coyle (March 23, 1873 – August 11, 1921) was a Roman Catholic priest who was murdered in Birmingham, Alabama.

Early life

James Coyle was born in Drum, County Roscommon, Ireland to Owen Coyle and his wife Margaret Durney. He attended Mungret College in Limerick and the Pontifical North American College in Rome, and was ordained a priest at age 23 on May 30, 1896.
Later that year, he sailed with another priest, Father Michael Henry, to Mobile, Alabama, in the United States, and served under Bishop Edward Patrick Allen. He became an instructor, and later rector, of the McGill Institute for Boys. In 1904 Bishop Allen appointed Coyle to succeed Patrick O'Reilly as pastor of the Cathedral of Saint Paul in Birmingham, where he was well received and loved by the congregation. Father Coyle was the Knights of Columbus chaplain of Birmingham, Alabama Council 635.


On August 11, 1921, Father Coyle was shot in the head on the porch of St. Paul's Rectory by E. R. Stephenson, a Southern Methodist Episcopal minister and a member of the Ku Klux Klan. There were many witnesses.Sharon Davies, "Tragedy in Birmingham", Columbia Magazine, vol. 90, no. 3 (March 2010), p. 31. The murder occurred just hours after Coyle had performed a secret wedding between Stephenson's daughter, Ruth, and Pedro Gussman, a Puerto Rican she had met while he was working on Stephenson's house five years earlier. Gussman had also been a customer of Stephenson's barber shop. Several months before the wedding, Ruth had converted to Roman Catholicism.
Father Coyle was buried in Birmingham's Elmwood Cemetery.

Trial and aftermath

Stephenson was charged with Father Coyle's murder. The Ku Klux Klan paid for the defense; of the five lawyers, four were Klan members. The case was assigned to the Alabama courtroom of Judge William E. Fort, a Klansman. Hugo Black, a future Justice of the Supreme Court and future Klansman, defended Stephenson.
The defense team took the unusual step of entering a dual plea of "not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity", essentially arguing both that the shooting was in self-defense, and that at the time of the shooting Stephenson had been suffering from "temporary insanity". Stephenson was acquitted by one vote of the jury. One of Stephenson's attorneys responded to the prosecution's assertion that Gussman was of "proud Castilian descent" by saying "he has descended a long way".
The outcome of the murder trial for Father Coyle's assassin had a chilling impact on Catholics, who found themselves the target of Klan violence for many years to come. Nevertheless, by 1941 a Catholic writer in Birmingham would write that "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".{{sfnMcGough1941p=
On February 22, 2012, Bishop William H. Willimon of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church presided over a service of reconciliation and forgiveness at Highlands United Methodist Church in Birmingham.
;Works cited
  • {{Cite book last = Davies first = Sharon title = Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America publisher = Oxford University Press year = 2010 isbn = 0-19-537979-9 ref =
  • {{Cite journal last = Davies first = Sharon title = Tragedy in Birmingham journal = Columbia Magazine volume = 90 issue = 3 date = March 2010 ref =
  • {{Cite web title = Fr James Coyle publisher = Community of Drum date = 20 March 2010 url = accessdate = 20 July 2010 ref = url-status = dead archiveurl = archivedate = 10 October 2010

Further reading

External links

  • Father Coyle's Memorial Project website

Category:Incidents of anti-Catholic violence
Category:1873 births
Category:1921 deaths
Category:American Roman Catholic priests
Category:Religious leaders from Birmingham, Alabama
Category:People from County Roscommon
Category:Murdered Roman Catholic priests
Category:Irish emigrants to the United States (before 1923)
Category:People murdered in Alabama
Category:20th-century Roman Catholic martyrs
Category:Victims of religiously motivated violence in the United States
Category:American murder victims
Category:Deaths by firearm in Alabama
Category:Burials at Elmwood Cemetery (Birmingham, Alabama)

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