By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published March 24, 2005
On a chilly, overcast day, like many St. Patrick’s Days in their native Ireland, the Irish faithful of Atlanta gathered at the Cathedral of Christ the King for the annual Mass to honor the saint who converted many to Christianity.
The March 17 Mass, sponsored annually by the Hibernian Benevolent Society of Atlanta, was celebrated for the first time by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, who expressed his gratitude for his St. Patrick’s Day welcome.
“This celebration gives us a pause from our Lenten sobriety, when we are able to celebrate the life and ministry of St. Patrick,” he said. “I’m especially thankful that so many daughters and sons of Ireland have come to this Church in North Georgia to help sustain the faith with their great witness.”
Green in hues of kelly, lime, olive and emerald washed over the church as natives of Ireland and those of Irish heritage filled the Cathedral, along with 14 priests who concelebrated the Mass with Archbishop Gregory.
Irish-born Father John Walsh, pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Peachtree City, gave the homily and said that he felt “very at home today,” under the cloudy Atlanta skies. He reminisced about his time at St. Patrick’s College Seminary in Ireland, where in the hall stood a large bust of St. Patrick.
“We would pass it every day, all the time. And we’d see this man who was very bold, very strong and very determined. And we’d say ‘this is the great evangelist. This is the one we are trying to imitate. This is our example,’” he said.
St. Patrick’s Day is a time for fellowship and prayer, Father Walsh said.
“For many of us, it is a tradition to come together this day. It’s a day to renew acquaintances and to see those we don’t see very often,” he said. “It’s a time to pray together and to celebrate together, but it’s also a day when we can reflect on the words of St. Patrick.”
Father Walsh read some of the writings of St. Patrick, which showed his great faith and surrender to God.
“Patrick could face anything in his own life because he knew God was with him,” he said. “Let that be our lesson today. We need to fling ourselves into the hands of almighty God and turn to Him for strength and grace.”
Last year on St. Patrick’s Day, Father Walsh arrived at the Shannon airport in Ireland where he said there was a “great buzz of joy.” He encouraged those celebrating the feast day to spend it “drowning in shamrocks.”
“As Patrick knew that God would never turn away, we too know that God will not abandon us.”
The Mass continued with music led by cantor Sam Hagan. The soft plucking of the harp provided the background as the gifts of bread and wine, as well as a small statue of St. Patrick and a Celtic cross, were brought forth by young members of various schools of Irish dance in their ornately sparkling costumes and tightly spiraled bouncing curls.
Following Communion, Michael O’Brien read a message from Irish President Mary McAleese, who wrote of the current vibrant state of the Irish economy, and sent a special message to the Irish faithful of the world.
“As our global Irish family and friends celebrate this day through the expression of our culture and heritage in our language, literature, games, poetry, music and dance, I hope that the legacy of St. Patrick will long encourage us to treasure our strong community spirit and tradition of welcome and care for one another.”
As the Mass concluded, the congregation packed into the Cathedral’s parish hall, where plates of Irish soda bread and other baked goods were shaded by helium balloons in Ireland’s colors of green, orange and white. The room was filled with laughter and music as the Irish dancers performed.
There are over 40 Irish priests serving in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Father Stephen Lyness, a native of Lurgan, County Armagh, and the campus minister at Georgia State University, said that though the festivities of St. Patrick’s Day make him a bit homesick, he sees many similarities between the culture in the American South and his homeland.
“When I first arrived here, it was a culture shock. But I enjoy American culture. I see a lot of similarity, especially in Georgia, to Irish culture,” he said, pointing out the roots of bluegrass music, popular in the South, which was formed when the Scottish and Irish people immigrated to Appalachia. “But also, the Southern attitude—laid back, hospitable—is very similar to Ireland.”
Father Paul Flood, a native of Ireland and pastor of the Church of St. Benedict in Duluth, said that St. Patrick’s Day is a day of great meaning.
“For Irish priests, today is a very special day because you identify with home and also with those far away,” he said.
Mike Mulligan, a parishioner of Our Lady of the Assumption in Atlanta, said that his Irish heritage means a lot to him.
“I’m a member of the Hibernian Benevolent Society,” he said. “My Irish heritage has given me tremendous strength.”
The O’Dwyer family is also proud of its Irish heritage. Dan and Kathy O’Dwyer have taken their children Meghan and Brendan to Ireland, and Meghan, a senior at Blessed Trinity High School in Roswell, has been taking Irish dance since she was a young child.
“It’s important to us to be here, to celebrate the Christian aspect of it—starting at Mass. Like Father Walsh said, we want to be ‘drowning in shamrocks,’” Kathy O’Dwyer said. “We are just really trying to keep the Irish heritage alive in our family.”