Saturday, June 02, 2012

Methodist Service: Forgiveness for priest, Fr. James E. Coyle, murder 91 years ago

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." Father Coyle, born in Drum in Ireland's County Roscommon and ordained in Rome, came to Alabama in 1896 to serve Catholics in what was then the Diocese of Mobile, which covered the state of Alabama and several Florida counties. Ruth Stephenson, daughter of the Methodist clergyman, said in grand jury testimony that she first approached Father Coyle about joining the Catholic Church when she was 12. She was baptized at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in Birmingham without her parents' knowledge when she turned 18. Father Coyle presided at Stephenson's marriage to Pedro Gussman at St. Paul's Catholic Church in Birmingham two hours before Rev. Stephenson fatally shot the priest. At the Feb. 22 service in Birmingham, James Pinto Jr., director of the Father James E. Coyle Memorial Project, read comments from several people who were unable to attend. Bishop Robert J. Baker of Birmingham, in a letter to Bishop Willimon, said he was "deeply moved by your courageous initiative to sponsor a repentance and reconciliation service regarding the tragic death of a dedicated and faithful priest." Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi of Mobile, also writing to Bishop Willimon, said the service was "a powerful sign of your commitment, and that of many others, to make certain that evil does not have the last word." "As people of faith, we know that God can bring good even out of the worst of events," he said. Father Kevin Bazzel, rector of the Catholic Cathedral of St. Paul, told Bishop Willimon: "It has been over 90 years since the passing of Father Coyle, but as was true then so is true now -- we hold no ill will toward the Methodist community for this tragedy." Pinto said he also received congratulatory letters for Bishop Willimon from three of Father Coyle's grandnieces in Ireland. By Catholic News Service y Catholic News Service Posted: 6/1/2012 


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