The Murder of Father James Edward Coyle

RJ Carr
5 min readJul 26, 2023
Photo via CanvaPro

No one knows if the Reverend James Edward Coyle, a missionary priest from Ireland, knew when he sat on his front porch swing at his Catholic rectory in Birmingham, Alabama that he was about to enter his final rest but in fact, it came soon after on that Thursday night in late August 1921.

On the hot, Alabama evening of the twenty-first of August, the Rev. Edwin Stephenson, a licensed preacher in the nearby Methodist-Episcopal Church approached the resting priest; he fired three shots into the target of his ire. Two did not cause life-threatening injuries but the third which pierced the priest’s brain killed him hours later during an operation to remove the bullet.

Birmingham, Alabama headlines exploded about the death of Father Coyle, the preacher who killed him and the wedding that spurred the crime. The priest just presided over the marriage of the preacher’s daughter, Ruth, a recent convert from Methodism to the faith of the Roman Catholics so that she could marry her now beloved husband a black man from “Porto Rico”. Ruth's parents did not agree with her daughter’s marriage nor her new faith.

Father Coyle, Irish Immigrant

The Reverend James Edward Coyle was a native of Ireland, ordained in Rome in 1896, he soon came to Alabama beginning his tenure in Mobile. In 1904, he came to St. Paul’s Parish in Birmingham, where he remained until his death 17 years later. Several months earlier he celebrated his twenty-fifth anniversary of his ordination at a high Mass — the local bishop the Right Reverend Edward Allen presided.

An activist priest, Father Coyle was a strong supporter at the time of an independent Ireland, which received her freedom from Great Britain the year after his death.

The American South in the early decades of the Twentieth Century was a place where immigrants, people of color, Catholics and Jews had their detractors, these were the enemies of the notorious Ku Klux Klan (KKK) founded after the American Civil War. The wedding which spurred the murder of the priest by the bride’s father, contained three of the most despised elements of society by such groups.

Bishop Edward Allen ordinary for the diocese of Mobile which included Birmingham at the time railed in his…