BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — On August 11, 1921, Father James E. Coyle of the Cathedral of St. Paul Catholic Church in Birmingham officiated a secret wedding between Ruth Stephenson and Pedro Gussman.
An hour later, Coyle was shot dead by Stephenson’s father, E.R., as he sat on the porch of the rectory.
Months earlier, his 18-year-old daughter had converted to Catholicism, which was the religion of the 43-year-old Gussman, who was Puerto Rican.
The timing of Coyle’s death came at a difficult time for Catholics in not just Birmingham, but across the South. By the time Irish-born Coyle had arrived in Birmingham from Diocese of Mobile in 1904, there was already a growing hostility toward Catholics in the area.
In Arthur Remillard’s “Southern Civil Religions: Imagining the Good Society in the Post-Reconstruction Era,” it was reported by 1920, Birmingham had 12 Catholic churches, making it the largest Catholic population in the state.
“That year Birmingham’s Robert E. Lee Klan No. 1 drew a strong following through the recruitment efforts of James Esdale,” Remillard wrote. “The growth of the Klan paralleled the rise of religious violence in Birmingham.”
E.R. Stephenson, a Methodist minister and a member of the Ku Klux Klan, despised Catholics. However, Stephenson was not alone in the growing hostility toward Catholics. In Sharon Davies’ “Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America,” the problem was citywide
“The better part of Birmingham feared that Catholics were plotting to overthrow the government,” Davies wrote. “The fear had fueled the resurgence of the Klan, and set the agendas for other secret fraternal anti-Catholic organizations as well: groups like the Masons, the Knights of Pythias, the Odd Fellows, the Guardians of Liberty (G.O.L.S.), and the True Americans, or ‘T.A.s,’ as they were popular around town.”
After shooting Coyle, Stephenson turned himself over to the police. In his murder trial, the KKK paid for his legal bills. Hugo Black, a lawyer and KKK member who would later serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, defended Stephenson. Stephenson used the insanity defense, but there were other issues explored during the trial, such as race.
“The olive-toned Gussman was not Black, but the defense team feverishly tried to prove that he was,” Remillard wrote. “A fear of miscegenation along with the jury’s staunch nativism spun a web of paranoia that all but assured Stephenson’s acquittal.”
In Remillard’s book, it is noted how news outlets reported that when Gussman took the stand, the lights were arranged to make him look darker.
“Black wanted the jury to believe that Gussman was, in fact, Black–thus appealing to both their religious and racial prejudices,” Remillard wrote.
Black also accused Coyle of being responsible for influencing Ruth Stephenson to convert from her family’s Methodist faith to Catholicism.
“A child of a Methodist does not suddenly depart from her religion unless someone has planted in her mind the seeds of influence… (No) man has the right to invade the home of another in an attempt to induce any member of that household to accept a new religion,” Remillard quoted Black as saying.
It is reported that both the judge and some members of the jury were members of the KKK. Ultimately, Stephenson was found not guilty. In the wake of the trial, many Catholics and non-Catholics alike viewed the acquittal as both dishonest and an injustice. Then Alabama Gov. Emmet O’Neal called the verdict an example of “religious intolerance and bigotry” that “made an open season in Alabama for the killing of Catholics.”
A hundred years later, St. Paul’s continues to honor the memory and legacy of Coyle, holding a memorial service for him every year on the anniversary of his death.
More on Coyle’s life and legacy can be found here.