Priest's slaying in Birmingham to be remembered in church service
Feb 22, 2012
The 1921 slaying of a Catholic priest in Birmingham by a Methodist minister will be the subject of repentance during a 6:30 p.m. Ash Wednesday service at Highlands United Methodist Church, 1045 20th Street South, led by United Methodist Bishop William Willimon.
"It's going to be a powerful and a historic event," said Jim Pinto, director of the Father James E. Coyle Memorial Project. "We're not going to live in the past, but we want to more fully understand the past."
The Rev. James Coyle, who had been pastor of St. Paul's Cathedral since 1904, was shot to death on the porch of the wood-frame rectory, the priest's house next to the cathedral, on Aug. 11, 1921.
The murder trial was historic, partly because of the role played by future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. Black defended the accused killer, the Rev. Edwin Stephenson, who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan paid the legal expenses of Stephenson, who was acquitted by a jury that included several Klan members, including the jury foreman, according to the book "Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race and Religion in America," by Ohio State University law professor Sharon Davies.
Stephenson, who conducted weddings at the Jefferson County Courthouse, was accused of gunning down Coyle after becoming irate over Coyle's officiating at the marriage of Stephenson's daughter, Ruth, to a Puerto Rican, Pedro Gussman.
"I found it a fascinating story, deeply disturbing," Willimon said. "I became not only disturbed by the event and the trial, which was a national scandal, but by the Methodist church's response, or lack of it."
Willimon said there's no evidence Stephenson was ever disciplined by the church. The official Methodist publication at the time carried an anti-Catholic essay weeks after the killing, he said.
...."It's a perfect time and a fitting service to make such an act of repentance and reconciliation," said the Rev. Mikah Hudson, senior pastor at Highlands United Methodist Church and a 1994 graduate of McGill-Toolen High School, where Coyle was the first rector. "Telling those stories and unearthing the truth is part of the process of repentance of reconciliation. There are quiet resentments between Protestants and Catholics, Christians and Jews and Christians and Muslims. In dealing with them, we discover the roots of such oppressive things that continue."