Fr. Coyle during 1918 flu pandemic
Priest supported closing churches during 1918 flu pandemic
The Rev. James E. Coyle, pastor of St. Paul’s Church (now Cathedral) from 1904 until he was shot to death on the porch of the rectory next to the cathedral on Aug. 11, 1921, wrote a column in the Birmingham News that appeared in the newspaper leading up to Sunday, Oct. 20, 1918, the second consecutive Sunday that churches were asked to stop public gatherings.
“We’re pretty on line with him in what we’re saying,” said Bishop Robert J. Baker, current pastoral administrator of the Diocese of Birmingham. “He emphasized social distancing, but talked about the ache in our heart. The message is very contemporary.”
During the 1918 influenza pandemic in Birmingham, churches were closed. The Birmingham News offered to print sermons, service outlines, scriptures and announcements sent in by various clergy to help people worship at home. Coyle kept copies of the newspaper clippings, which are still in the parish records of the cathedral. (See “What clergy said when influenza closed churches in 1918).
On Monday, Oct. 7, 1918, Alabama Gov. Charles Henderson ordered the closing of schools, churches and theaters to avoid the spread of the Spanish influenza. It was a similar situation to today, where the spread of coronavirus has forced the closure of most public houses of worship since March 15. Some have already announced they will continue to suspend public worship through May 17 as a matter of public safety.
Here is Coyle’s message from October 1918, as printed in The Birmingham News:
AN ADDRESS TO CATHOLICS.
By Rev. Father James E. Coyle, Pastor of St. Paul’s Catholic Church.
My Dear Catholic Brethren:
A situation unprecedented in the history of our State presents itself to you today.
By order of the civil authorities, and by the advice of your religious leaders, you will not assemble, as you were wont to assemble on Sundays, in your various Catholic churches to assist at Holy Mass. That you may have some words of uplift and cheer, The Birmingham News, with its wonted up-to-dateness, has courteously invited me to write a few words for its many Catholic readers, and I am thus enabled to address, by means of the printed word, a congregation greater far than the five congregations that Sunday after Sunday gather at St. Paul’s.  I gratefully accept the courtesy of The News.
You are for the first time in your lives deprived of the opportunity of hearing Mass on Sunday, and you will, I trust from this very circumstance, appreciate more thoroughly what Holy Mass is for the Catholics. Sunday service is no mere gathering for prayer, no coming to a temple to join in hymns of praise to the Maker, or to listen to the words of a spiritual guide, pointing out he means whereby men may walk in righteousness and go forward on the narrow way that leads to life eternal. No, there is something else that draws the Catholics, to the wonderment of non-Catholics, from their warm homes on cold bleak Winter dawns to trample through snow-covered streets in their thousands and hundreds of thousands to a crowded church, where they kneel reverently absorbed in the contemplation of a man, who in a strange garb, at a lighted altar, genuflects and bows and performs strange actions and speaks in a long dead tongue. What draws the multitude?
The Mass, the unutterable sweetness of the Mass. Nothing human could draw, but the Mass is the God-given sacrifice offered the Creator, it is Holy Thursday come down and Calvary made present today. Mass is God really and truly present on our Catholic altars, a living unbloody victim offered again for the sins of men, offered, too, in thanksgiving for all the wondrous graces that unceasing flow from God’s great mercy throne on high.
Yes, the Mass is the center of Catholic worship. It is the Mass that matters. Where the Mass is, there is God Himself, really, truly, though under sacramental veils. What a glorious history the history of the Mass! See it offered in the first centuries, in the catacombs over the bodies of martyrs by men who themselves will be martyred tomorrow. The Missionary leaving Rome for lands afar brings with him to sway the hearts of men, when the persuasive words of human wisdom fail, the Eucharistic God, made present in the Mass. See, in Ireland an entire people kept true to St. Patrick’s faith by the Mass. See Columbus and his men, kneeling at Mass on the early morn of the day, when they sailed away from Palos, to lift forever the mists from the Atlantic, and to win half a world for God. Ah, brethren, let us today reflect on the meaning and the history of that great sacrifice at which we may not assist, a sacrifice that links us with the saints and sages of every age from Christ’s time till now, and let us beg God in his mercy to remove from us that sickness that keeps us deprived of the great sacrifice, so that soon we may again with glad, worshipful hearts, meet in our churches and assist in offering to the All High that clean oblation, seen by the prophet Malachy in vision, that sacrifice that is offered in every place from the rising to the set of sun.
Notes from the Rev. Bryan Jerabek, current pastor of St. Paul’s Cathedral:
 Father Coyle here means that here would have been five distinct Masses each Sunday morning at St. Paul’s at that time.
 Mass was only offered in Latin then.
 Here Father Coyle refers to an Old Testament passage from the prophet Malachi that has traditionally been understood as referring to Christ’s sacrifice as perpetuated through Holy Mass: “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a clean offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.” (Malachi 1:11)
And here’s another message from Coyle published in The Birmingham News in October 1918:
A MESSAGE TO CATHOLICS.
(By Rev. James E. Coyle, of St. Paul’s Catholic Church.)
The vigorous efforts made by the health authorities of our city to stamp out the epidemic is, in one form or another, working hardship and discomfort to every single citizen, and this hardship and discomfort is cheerfully endured for the universal good. “All partial evil universal good.”
Sunday without holy mass is the chief discomfort the Catholics have to put up with. To many the memories handed down from penal days, “when godless persecution reigned, and Ireland hopelessly complained,” vividly arise. We can appreciate how they felt in those days now happily passed forever. Sunday for Birmingham Catholics was wont to be a joyful day. These Sundays it is the reverse. It is certain as good comes from every evil, that a deeper appreciate of the holy sacrifice will result from this necessary legislation. How true it is that we never really appreciate our blessings till deprived of the same for a season.
After mass the sacraments are missed. When we speak of the sacraments we ordinarily mean the two of the seven that are so frequently received by the devout Catholic, the sacrament of mercy, penance and the sacrament of love, holy eucharist. Sunday after Sunday, thank God for it, large numbers of our people, having cleansed their souls in the blood of the lamb by a sincere confession of sin, have knelt at the altar rails and received into their hearts the very body and blood of the Son of God. Nay, not only on Sundays, but the piety of some induced moreover the reception of the sacraments on Thursday at holy hour, and some there were that every day took daily supersubstantial bread,the living bread coming down from heaven, His flesh for the life of the world.Deprived of this they grieve and hope and pray that the time of exile will be short, and that soon again daily mass and daily communion will bring some of heaven’s brightness into their daily lives.
Indeed and indeed, “the times are out of joint.” Holding as we do with firmest faith a belief that to many is folly, that holy mass is calvary continued, that our sins, when repented of sincerely and confessed to one of those who inherit apostolic powers, through holy orders handed down, are washed away, that holy eucharist is the true, real substantial body and blood, soul and divinity of God’s Son, the incarnate second person of the trinity, Jesus Christ, small wonder that deprived of access to these we hope and pray fervently that the epidemic will soon pass away, that our churches may once more be thrown open to our devout worshippers. Darkness in a sense is at present over the face of the city. May there soon be a fiat lux.
Notes from Jerabek:
 This is a quotation from “An Essay on Man” by Alexander Pope, first published around 1733 – which evidently was better-known to readers in 1918.
 He quotes from a poem called “The Penal Days” by the famous 19th century Irish Poet, Thomas Osborne Davis.
 Here Fr. Coyle refers to the Lord’s Prayer as it came down through the Latin Vulgate, in which, instead of saying, “Give us this day our daily bread”, said, “Give us this day our supersubstantial bread”. This variation arises from the fact that there are many different biblical manuscripts in existence among which there are differences. Because we do not have the original copies of any of the biblical manuscripts, scholars have the task of determining which variants are closest to the original; this they do through critical evaluation. Therefore, since Fr. Coyle’s time, scholarship has settled largely on the “daily bread” version instead of “supersubstantial bread”. Both variants are an important part of our Catholic textual tradition.
 It must be remembered that Holy Communion was generally not received as frequently in Fr. Coyle’s time. Devout Catholics always attended Mass but did not always receive Holy Communion at every Mass they attended.
 This appears to be a quotation from a 1904 work of fiction by Herbert Hayens, “My Sword’s My Fortune: A Story of Old France”. Fr. Coyle’s frequent use of literary quotations indicates that he was well-read.
 “Fiat lux” is Latin for “Let there be light” – the first words that God spoke in the book of Genesis, as they came down through the Ancient Vulgate version of the Sacred Scriptures.