On the list of the most dangerous jobs, you’re unlikely to see “Catholic priest” unless he is a missionary serving in a field with governments and/or locals hostile to Christianity. Indeed, more than one Catholic priest has lost their life due to serving their convictions; strictly by way of example, there was St. Andrew Kim Taegon, who was tortured and beheaded in South Korea in the 1800s, per Catholic News Agency.
You would think that the United States of America would be a reasonably safe “mission field” for foreign-born Catholic priests. But as it turns out, anti-Catholic sentiment has been a thing in pockets of this country off-and-on for centuries. And in an extreme example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, an Irish-born Catholic priest was murdered in the U.S. at the turn of the century for simply doing his job in a time and place when anti-Catholic sentiment was not infrequently backed up by extreme violence.
James Coyle married the wrong people at the wrong time
Back in the early days of the 20th century, Jim Crow was alive and well in parts of the U.S. In the South, the Ku Klux Klan had enjoyed a resurgence, and the organization didn’t reserve its hate for just Black people: According to the Knights of Columbus, the Klan also hated Catholics, Jews, and foreigners. Irish-born Father James Coyle checked off two of those boxes.
On Aug. 11, 1921, Coyle did what Catholic priests do and performed a marriage. Specifically, he wedded Ruth Stephenson to Pedro Gussman. It seems a mundane thing for a priest to do, but there were several problems with this marriage. First, it was done in Birmingham, Alabama; second, Gussman was a Puerto-Rican, Catholic immigrant; and third, the bride’s father was a knight of the Ku Klux Klan. Though Coyle performed the marriage in secret, Stephenson’s father found out about it, walked up to Coyle’s home with a loaded gun, and shot him dead in cold blood.
As you’re undoubtedly aware, at the height of the Jim Crow era there was usually a zero chance that someone who committed an act of murder in the name of their prejudices would pay for their crimes. Such was the case with Coyle’s murderer, Edwin R. Stephenson. As Knights of Columbus reports, the prosecutor had to spend weeks just to convince a grand jury to return an indictment against Stephenson. Once he did go to trial, he found himself being judged by a jury whose foreman was Klansman, as was the presiding judge. Perhaps not surprisingly, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.
These days, Coyle is remembered around Birmingham as a model of devoted priestly service even in the face of persecution. The local Knights of Columbus, of which Coyle had been the chaplain, is named in his honor. “It is our hope that the sharing of the life and death of this holy man may promote greater understanding, reconciliation and peace among all of God’s children,” wrote James Pinto Jr., a member of the Knights chapter named in Coyle’s honor who helped organize the Father James E. Coyle Memorial Project.
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