These days, St. Paul’s cathedral boasts a diverse congregation, beautifully maintained historic structures, and bells that mark the hours for Loft District residents. But its back story is far more complex than the casual passerby would imagine. From its architecture to its role in a shocking murder, St. Paul’s Cathedral reveals forgotten histories of Birmingham.
The congregation has been downtown since 1872, according to the cathedral website, beginning in a more modest church near the current site, not acquired until 1880. Construction on the current cathedral began in 1890 and was completed in 1893, the site explains. The most complete description we found of the building’s architecture comes from its application to the National Register of Historic Places, which notes that St. Paul’s was established in a brand new Birmingham and grew with the city:
The present cathedral was built during the city’s first major period of expansion, which was touched off by the ironmaking and real estate boom of the late 1880s. In addition to its importance as an individual structure, it is an important remnant of the city’s first major public square, the heart of which was the Jefferson County Courthouse (1889-1930), which stood on the western half of the cathedral block. The spires of the cathedral and the bell tower of the nearby First Presbyterian Church (1888) contribute to a distinctive urban skyline that was formerly dominated by the central tower of the Richardsonian Romanesque courthouse.
Its chosen Christian imagery represents the parish’s ethnic origins ⏤ St. Anthony for the Italians and St. Patrick for the Irish ⏤ while a Holy Family image features the carpenter father Joseph, who resonated with the many laborers in early congregations, notes the cathedral website. But the symbols that now appear as historic markers of an immigrant community also hint at that community’s outsider status in the Magic City, demonstrated most dramatically with the murder of Father James Coyle in 1921.
“The assassination of Father James Coyle is a memorable tale of early Birmingham, played out at the intersection of romantic love and religious hatred,” writes Weld columnist Courtney Haden. “The ensuing trial caused a national sensation and the chief attorney defending the murderer went on to become one of the most influential U.S. Supreme Court justices in history.”
Haden describes Coyle as an eloquent advocate for Birmingham’s Catholic population, comprised largely of immigrants, who penned letters to the local news rebutting anti-Catholic rhetoric. Coyle was a man used to being threatened for his vocal defense of an unpopular faith, according to Haden, but it was a marriage that would prompt his ultimate end.
Popular versions of the story from long-time St. Paul’s parishioners will tell you that Fr. Coyle married the daughter of a Methodist minister to a Catholic and that the enraged minister shot Fr. Coyle on the rectory porch the evening of his daughter’s wedding.
But the version Haden tells provides a more complicated view of the events, starring a strong-willed daughter who had herself become Catholic and who sought marriage to escape her father’s corporal methods of control.
Haden also details the role that Birmingham’s racial tensions, fueled by a revived Klan organization, played in the murder and the resulting trial of shooter Edwin Stephenson. Stephenson turned himself in immediately after the shooting, and he was represented at trial by future supreme court justice Hugo Black, she writes. Stephenson claimed to have fired at Coyle in the midst of a fight and in self-defense, but Black pursued a more persuasive defense strategy, Haden explains. He argued that Stephenson had been temporarily insane following the extreme stress of his daughter’s conversion and marriage, both enabled by Fr. Coyle. The jury found Stephenson not guilty.
Each year the cathedral holds a mass on the anniversary of Coyle’s death. The event is a remembrance of Coyle and his leadership, but the event invitation also highlights Coyle’s ministry and death as a continued reminder of the challenges Birmingham’s Catholic communities once faced.