Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Ceremony Honors Father O’Reilly’s Courageous Act

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published March 18, 2004

The zeal of an Irish missionary priest, Father Thomas O’Reilly, was honored on March 12 as the Hibernian Benevolent Society held its annual ceremony outside old City Hall, commemorating the priest’s selfless courage in convincing Union Gen. Sherman to spare five churches, City Hall and the Court House in his burning of Atlanta.

Father Mark Noonan and Father Bob Whiteside, president and vice president, respectively, of All Hallows College in Dublin, Ireland, the seminary where Father O’Reilly studied, placed a wreath at the historic marker honoring him, which depicts a phoenix, the symbol of Atlanta, and which was erected by the affected churches and the city.

The five churches, all located around the state Capitol during the Civil War, were the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where Father O’Reilly was pastor, Central Presbyterian Church, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, now in Buckhead, Second Baptist Church (now Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church) and Trinity Methodist Church.

Representatives of the Fire Emerald Society of Metro Atlanta and the Metropolitan Atlanta Police Emerald Society took part in the ceremony, along with girls in their sparkling Celtic costumes with shiny curls from the Montaine Irish Dance Group in Dublin, in town for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, who performed Irish step dancing.

Rev. Steve Bacon of Central Presbyterian Church spoke of how that congregation and the Shrine, both still in the shadow of the Capitol, carry on Father O’Reilly’s ecumenical spirit by collaborating in running a night shelter for homeless men in the winter. Dr. David Sapp, pastor of Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church, spoke of the legacy of Father O’Reilly in preserving Atlanta history.

“As a Baptist of Irish descent, I’m grateful to be here and pay homage to our Father O’Reilly,” he said. “He certainly laid some foundation blocks for (ecumenism) and that in my opinion is the true spirit of Christianity.”

Rev. Michael Jones presented Father T. J. Meehan, on the staff at the Shrine, a Phoenix Award from Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin commemorating Father O’Reilly’s saving act. A letter was read from Gov. Sonny Perdue expressing Atlanta’s great debt of gratitude for his intervention, which actually spared over 400 structures in the defeated city.

Father Noonan said that Father O’Reilly left Ireland in 1857 with a Father Hooke, and was one of a thousand priests who left All Hallows in the 1850s to come to the United States. There has been a trail of All Hallows priests coming to Georgia up to the present day, he added. He noted the courage and great sacrifice of the missionaries in leaving their homeland never to return in order to build up God’s kingdom in America.

“As I relive his memory during these few days in Atlanta, I am experiencing a time of great emotion,” Father Noonan said. “The missionary zeal of these early missionaries is unequalled. Like St. Patrick, whose feast day we are celebrating next week, thousands and thousands of missionaries left Ireland over the centuries and never returned home. Father Hooke and Father O’Reilly are among those extraordinary people. They have left us—the present generation of staff and students in All Hallows—an extraordinary legacy of great faith in God and great love for preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They have also left us a legacy of unsurpassed zeal for the kingdom of God. As we follow in their footsteps today may we too be inspired by their courage and love.”

The war between the states indeed didn’t suppress Father O’Reilly’s missionary spirit. According to accounts compiled by Kevin Martinez of the Hibernians, when Atlanta was under siege by the Union Army, Father O’Reilly ministered to soldiers on both the Union and Confederate side, becoming friends with the Irish troops and going out to the battlefields, as three major battles were fought outside the city within eight days of each other in July 1864. He turned his church, the Shrine, into a supplemental infirmary as hospitals began to overflow. On his “March to the Sea,” Sherman ordered the entire city to be burned, and an outraged Father O’Reilly arranged a meeting with Gen. Henry Slocum of Sherman’s staff, arguing that the order to burn churches was beyond the normal rules of warfare.

He argued that for soldiers to burn churches was a sin against God, not an act of war, and that if he burned the Catholic Church Father O’Reilly would urge all Catholics in the Union Army to desert or mutiny or be excommunicated. The priest also demanded that Atlanta’s other churches be spared as well as City Hall and the Court House. The general complied. After the Union Army left, Atlanta’s residents began to return and found a large part of their city saved, and the doors of Immaculate Conception opened again as a shelter for those who lost their homes.

Charles Lynch came to the ceremony with his father John, as his great-great-grandfather Patrick Lynch, who hosted Atlanta’s first Mass in his home, helped Father O’Reilly in his efforts. Active in the music ministry at All Saints Church, Dunwoody, Lynch said, “We’ve grown up and seen Atlanta change a tremendous amount and we want to preserve Atlanta heritage as much as we can.”

In his reflection on Father O’Reilly, Martinez, who chaired the wreath-laying ceremony, wrote of the patriotism, remembrance, faith and community by which Father O’Reilly is defined and which have guided Atlanta as a city and its Irish residents as a group for generations.

He was “a man whose faith allowed him to single-handedly prevail against an army and a man who loved his community to such an extent that he weakened his already fragile health to ensure its survival.”