On August 11, 1921, Methodist Episcopal Church, South preacher E. R. Stephenson stepped onto the porch of the rectory of the Catholic Cathedral of St. Paul in Birmingham and shot to death Father James Coyle, pastor of the Cathedral. Father Coyle, a native of Ireland, had been a teacher in Mobile and had served St. Paul's for seventeen years. He was renowned for his preaching and teaching on racial justice and the Christian faith. Just hours before he was shot, Father Coyle had officiated at the marriage of Stephenson’s daughter to a Puerto Rican man. Stephenson, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, was tried in Birmingham in a trial that attracted international attention. He was defended by Hugo Black and was acquitted. Stephenson’s acquittal was a nationwide scandal. There is no record that Stephenson was ever disciplined by the church.
Father Croyle’s great-nephew produced a documentary called A Cross in Alabama about the murder of Father Coyle. It recently aired on PBS. The film noted the continuing hurt within the Roman Catholic community over the murder and the acquittal. North Alabama Conference Bishop William H. Willimon also has done research on the Father Coyle tragedy and the response of the Methodist Church at that time.
On Ash Wednesday, February 22, 2012, Bishop Willimon will be leading a service of Repentance and Reconciliation at historic Highlands United Methodist Church, 1045 20th Street, South in Birmingham, at 6:30 p.m. During the traditional Ash Wednesday service, Bishop Willimon will preach and lead the congregation in repentance, particularly related to the death and the response to the death of Father Coyle. Representatives of the Catholic Diocese of Alabama will be present and will participate in the service. A light supper will be served before the service at 5:30 p.m.
In preparing for this special service Bishop Willimon said, “Highlands is one of our most historic and beautiful churches, in existence during the time of this sad event. It is therefore fitting that we should gather on this holiest of days to consider our past, to seek God’s grace and to move forward into a more faithful future.”