Racism and reconciliation: remembering the priest who was killed for performing a wedding

This involves a tragic incident from our not-so-distant past that I’d never heard about — but leave it to The Anchoress to find this and send it my way:

More than 90 years after a Methodist clergyman killed a Catholic priest in Birmingham, members of both churches gathered to seek forgiveness and reconciliation.

“There is no statute of limitations on forgiveness,” said Passionist Father Alex Steinmiller, president of Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic High School in Birmingham, during a service at Highlands United Methodist Church.

The service focused on the Aug. 11, 1921, murder of Father James Edwin Coyle by the Rev. Edwin R. Stephenson, who was angry with the priest for presiding over his daughter marrying a Puerto Rican man.

Bishop William H. Willimon of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church reminded the congregation in his sermon at the Ash Wednesday service of Christ’s words as he hung on the cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Bishop Willimon called it “a national scandal” that Rev. Stephenson was acquitted of the murder by a jury that included members of the Ku Klux Klan, who were influenced by both racist and anti-Catholic attitudes. The presiding judge, who denied an eyewitness to the murder an opportunity to testify, also was a Klansman.

“It was a sad day in our history – our judicial history and interreligious history,” the bishop said.

The Rev. Mikah Hudson, senior pastor of Highlands United Methodist Church, led the congregation in a prayer of confession and reconciliation.

“This night we ask forgiveness for the indifference of our beloved Methodist Church to the unjust death of Father James Coyle, a servant of God among us, whose ministry was tragically ended,” he said. “Heal us, we pray, of dissension and hatred for brothers and sisters of other faiths. Reconcile us to those who we have wronged or who have wronged us. Embolden us to witness to the love of Jesus Christ by loving others as he loved us. Amen.”

Read more.

And you can find out more about Fr. Coyle at this website.


  1. That’s a sad story, but I have a problem with people asking for fogiveness who weren’t even alive when the events happened. And for forgiving people who didn’t commit any sins/crimes. Who exactly is asking for forgiveness and what sin/crime did they commit? Apologizing for past generational sins are silly. As a person of Italian heritage, should I ask to be forgiven for the ancient Romans conquest of Celts, North Africans, Germanic tribes, Semitic people, Greeks, and other mediterranian cultures?

    This is all feel good stuff without any meaning. Talk about sentimental pap.

  2. Reminds me of this only it’s not intranet-Christian rivalry but one between gays and Catholics. Gays believe the church is teaching ‘hatred and bigotry’ and should be stopped.

    “On May 16, the day after Barack Obama announced that he supported same-sex “marriage,” St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Acushnet, MA, countered with its own message. It posted the words “Two men are friends, not spouses” on the church’s outdoor billboard.

    Almost immediately the church received hateful phone calls and Facebook page posts. Among the menacing, profanity-laced phone calls was at least one arson threat. Homosexual activists and local liberals waged a vicious campaign against the church because it posted a message on its outdoor sign disagreeing with “gay marriage.” A local CBS TV report parroted their language, calling the sign “anti-gay.”

    Homosexual activists also came and put hateful signs on the Church property. One sign said “Holy Mother Virgin Whore” and another said “Jesus freaks pray for death.”

    On Sunday, May 20, Vanessa Raymond and about a dozen of her pro-homosexual activist friends staged a “protest” demonstration in front of the church during services.

    The Catholic Action League of Massachusetts has demanded a “hate crime” investigation by the district attorney. C.J. Doyle, Executive Director of that Boston-based group, has been in close contact with Msgr. O’Connor and others at the church since the incident began.

    Threats against Mass. Catholic church for anti-gay marriage sign

    “The staff at St. Francis Xavier in Acushnet says police are watching the property after someone called and threatened to burn the church down.”

    Remember what they did to Sarah Palin’s church? They burned it down with people inside. Luckily no one was killed.

  3. I also was reminded of the current gay marriage issue, but, obviously, of the priest’s willingness, insistence even, of recognizing a marriage that the local bigoted community opposed, at risk of his own life. In that case, the priest was on the side of the oppressed. How George reads this post and finds it a starting point to talk against gay marriage advocates is so partisan it’s absurd.

  4. Is “partisan” bad ? I don’t think so. Homosexuality is a behavior choice of people born with free will. It is not the same as being born black, white, etc. Why not recognize polygamy ? Is there ever to be a line not to be crossed ? Equating “no to homosexual marriage” with discrimation against ethnic/racial groups is absurd.

  5. pagansister says:

    As if the reputation of Birmingham isn’t bad enough—they resurrect the far past of the is a preview of the 1960′s. I lived in that town form 11 years old until 17 when I went off to college—parents lived there 40 years, and a sister still lives there, so I visit a lot. Would never move there again—but this situation really doesn’t, IMO do anything except bring up horrible memories of hatred.

    David W. Totally disagree that being a homosexual is a choice one makes. Why would one choose to have people (still in many cases) hate you for your sexual orientation?

  6. pagansister says:

    Whoa! Correction of first sentence— ” they resurrect the far past which was a preview of the 1960′s”.

  7. We do not choose the color of our skin; we choose to act out on our sexual orientation. Notice that I said “act out”. Even if anyone believes they are “born that way” which I do not believe, there is still an act of the will involved. Supporting marriage between a man and a woman does not make one a bigot. Marriage is more than two people loving one another. It is not about a feeling. It also involves the ability to procreate (the two become one) and have children together and form a family. I use the word “ability” because homosexual activists are very fond of pointing out that some couples are infertile and older couples are “too old” to procreate. The point is heterosexuals have the ability because of their physicality!

    Comparing this story to the “bigotry” and “hatred” of those who defend traditional marriage is inappropriate and desperate! Homosexual activism is about the desire to be accepted. Distorted activism that involves hate and violence on the issue of same sex so-called marriage is symptomatic of the need for acceptance.

  8. Excellent point, perfectly expressed!

  9. Perhaps I was too harsh yesterday. If I could edit my comment above, I would take out that last sentence. It may be feel good stuff, but perhaps it doesn’t cross over to sentimental pap.

  10. So hatred and violence is acceptable in the goal for acceptance? Wow, our society is doomed if that is logical.

    Homosexuality is a behavior not equal to the color of one’s skin. You engage in a behavior you can not change the color of one’s skin. The thought that violence and hatred against those who don’t condone your behavior as what happened to the church above is acceptable by posters here is disturbing.

    If groups can use force, violence, intimidation to get ‘acceptance’ for their behaviors, then pretty much opens the door to anything under the sun and the end of religious freedom.

  11. LoneThinker says:

    I did not see reference to the defending clergyman’s lawyer who went on to practice his bigotry as a former Klansman on the US Supreme Court, Hugo Black. Amazing that today another black is tearing up the US Constitution as POTUS.

  12. Deacon Herb says:

    There was a book written by Sharon Davies: Rising Road about the murder.

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