Coyle, Father Edward

1954, April 20

Date of Birth: 1878, November 21

October 11, 1954

Fathers and Dear Confreres:

Father Coyle was to have celebrated his golden jubilee on June 26, 1954. But on the morning of April 20th, Father Coyle, who had been hospitalized some weeks before, left us for a more glorious celebration of his anniversary. A little while previous when his confessor, Father Cerny, gave him Extreme Unction, he followed the prayers with much piety and astonishing vigor. When it was over, he said, “It was a long trip, but I hope to have something to report at home!” His health varied from day to day; sometimes better, sometimes worse. But he had some moments when we were thinking that he would be with us to celebrate his jubilee in June. When the end came, it was calm and quick, in the early hours of the day.

On November 21, 1878, Patrick and Mary Teresa Coyle were the happy parents of a little boy, Edward, at Taunton, Massachusetts. It is doubtful that they realized it was the Feast of the Presentation. At best, they knew with typically Irish joy, that it was a feast of the Blessed Virgin. Later, Edward could celebrate his birthday on the same day as the patronal feast of St. Sulpice and recall the parallelism of his life and his very important work of the training of priests for Christ’s service. After elementary school, he entered St. Charles in 1893. Bishop Ireton, who was his junior by two years, said that he was second in his class. At the time of his graduation in 1899, his photograph shows us the alert, lively, manly face of one we have known for a long time. He studied Philosophy at St. Mary’s, and it must have been in those days that Edward came to know Father Dissez and Father Boyer, whose names were often on his lips in the succeeding fifty years. In 1901 he took up residence in St. Austin’s in Washington as a student of Theology at The Catholic University. There he contributed to Maurice Egan’s Recollections of a Happy Life not so much by literary collaboration as by the warm enthusiasm he had for this scholar, a poet and critic of the time.

Cardinal Gibbons tonsured him in 1901, and he received subdiaconate from Bishop Curtis, old friend of Father Tabb. All his life Father Coyle exhibited the evidence of Father Tabb’s influence on him in his St. Charles days.

After his ordination in 1904 by Bishop Stang of Fall River – he was the first to be ordained, it is said, in the then new diocese – he spent a year at The Catholic University. The following year he taught Literature at St. Charles and then he left to make his Solitude at Issy (1906-1907). He came back as a full-fledged Sulpician and made up his mind to live according to the ideal of the Society and to throw himself with all his might into the pursuit of one single objective: to train worthy priests. His years were spent in the teaching of Homiletics and English at St. Mary’s, St. Charles, St. Patrick’s in Menlo Park, the Basselin Foundation, and St. Edward’s in Seattle. He spent his last years in retirement at St. Mary’s, Paca Street.

Here are some extracts from the sermon preached at his funeral by Father Bazinet, S.S.

“Above all he was a scholar. But what is a scholar? A scholar is not, as the old proverb says, simply someone who goes to school from time to time, but one whose whole life is one of study, of knowledge, not by a profession merely, but by a deep love of study in books. Father Coyle was scrupulously exact. He felt almost physical pain at what was not right. That could be seen in him throughout his whole life. He was a purist in his language; that is to say, he practically never used slang. He was a classicist in the best sense of the word. He sought out in antiquity what was best conceived, best expressed, and best developed in clear and meaningful words even by pagan thinkers such as Aristotle, Horace, Cicero – with Quintilian being one of his select friends.

“He also had a particular affection for the author of the well-known English dictionary, Doctor Samuel Johnson, who, like himself, was a classicist at heart and at the same time a deeply religious Christian… All his life, then, he was a student. It is easy to understand the influence he had on all those who came in contact with him. Nothing, in fact, that he said was banal or trite. He was careful to avoid meaningless and empty words and worn-out expressions. ‘Do not use a word of six syllables when a strong Anglo-Saxon word of one syllable will do the job.’ ‘Avoid clichés, words without meaning, repetitions, all that is only for effect …, words empty of thought, platitudes, banalities…’

“Inasmuch as he was a scholar, Father Coyle could not by a hair’s breadth, put aside the very high ideal which governed his whole life as a man, his life as a man of thought. He was scrupulously exact, I repeat; and in some way, it was almost unthinkable that Father Coyle be involved in anything that was not the best or, at the very least, striving towards the best. As you can easily imagine if you have had the privilege of hearing him speak, the English language was the pure Anglo-Saxon; Anglo-Saxon has the force and vigor right for the Gospel message. It was in Anglo-Saxon that he considered the genius of our language to be found.

“He was not only a scholar, but a teacher – and a wonderful one. In so speaking you are not paying him an empty compliment. For Father Coyle, teaching was a professional career. All his life nothing gave him more heartfelt pleasure than to watch the progress of his boys and young men. He had the gift of arousing enthusiasm in the young, and thanks to that enthusiasm, he helped his boys to become men. Of the young men he made young clerics ready to bring Christ’s word to the people.

“In class it was not a question simply of going on, although he was capable of rapid advance. He was in no wise one of those men who can without hesitation express themselves brilliantly but with no concern about whether their words sink into minds and hearts. Quite the contrary with Father Coyle. He tried to raise their sights above the ordinary and the common. He helped them, he encouraged them until their sights were trained on something worthwhile. As for the correction of papers – that purgatory of all teachers – his brief jottings, his questions, his suggestions will remain in the memory of many of us for many a year.

“In other words, teaching was for him a discipline of the mind, a discipline of the heart. He wanted his men – his boys, too – to be perfect in language, as humanity aided by divine grace can be. He worked to that end all his life without compromising his ideal, living out that ideal before his students, among his students, away from his students.

“Such was Father Coyle, the teacher. Scholars and teachers are sometimes subject to not being altogether understood. Other men who are less sensitive, who are perhaps less up-to-date in the nuances of words and ideas, do not always comprehend or grasp the artist’s way of thinking. Father Coyle was an artist in his erudition, an artist in his mode of teaching, who was aware of the sensible ups and downs and the barometric changes, so to speak, which made themselves felt in the minds and hearts of boys.

“No need to emphasize the priestliness of Father Coyle. He was a seminary priest. He did seminary work. Seminary priests doing seminary work are generally, as you know, little understood outside the seminary. It is true that those who have been in the seminary and have become priests, understand a little of what that means. But even there, as students they are looking in from the outside. Seldom do they pierce through to the inner meaning and ask themselves this question: ‘What keeps these men going? How can they do it? What do they expect to get out of it?’

“However, in all his work as a seminary priest, the kindness and humility of Christ and the knowledge of his own limitations deeply permeated Father Coyle. That he was kind and merciful, his penitents and those who sought his counsel can witness to from the bottom of their hearts. That he was humble – despite his demeanor which might make you think otherwise – all who knew him will agree. His wish was to know how he could first of all be like Christ in his dealings with his boys.

“One of the facets of his life in the seminary was the interest that he took in and the advice that he gave to young Sulpician confreres. What always interested him, what was a real joy to him, was to hear about a young cleric, perhaps still a student, or just starting out, who had already acquired a discipline of mind and heart, a certain bent for what is best in the English language and literature and an understanding of how the riches of that language can be of value in the preaching of the Gospel. The truth, he used to say, can be expressed only in exact and strong words. Your language must be worthy of the sublime message of Our Lord, and the Gospel of Our Lord will never have its rightful effect with anything less than what is worthy of it. So, Father Coyle believed and taught.

“His life, then, was the life of a Sulpician. If sometimes, even in such a priest, he seemed to exhibit a certain aloofness, it isn’t even worth mentioning. If his love for exactness was such that he suffered visibly from anything that was less than perfect, that is quite understandable in the artist, in the man of ideals, and in the priest that he was.

“One last remark. All his life Father Coyle was a sick man. A long time ago, confiding in one of his friends, he declared that at the beginning of 1900, when he was a young priest, he felt a terrible headache for the first time which since that day had never ceased to give him severe pain. But we think that God used that trial to sanctify his soul. On his white hospital bed he raised his eyes to the little picture of the Sacred Heart which was fixed to the wall and in accents of unfaltering faith said: ‘That gives me peace, courage, and certitude.’ ”

Please, Fathers and dear confreres, keep on praying for the soul of the dear departed, and accept the expression of my fraternal affection in Our Lord.

Pierre Girard, S.S.

Superior General of the Society of St. Sulpice