By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published March 30, 2006
There was music with a plaintive sound and children in sparkling costumes. Green and white flowers decorated the altar, and the cantor sported a green tie. There were plates of homemade soda bread, green-jacketed men, and girls with hair tightly curled that bobbed as they danced.
There were moist eyes and a catch in many a throat as a prayer was prayed and someone’s name was remembered who was gone from sight, but not from the heart where love is burning still. But there was laughter and warmth as well.
They spoke of their childhoods: Bridie O’Connor from Galway, Cora Riedlinger from Cork, and Nancy Scanlon Poitras, who grew up in the Irish enclave of South Boston, where her father had emigrated from County Clare.
But they and others at the annual St. Patrick’s Day Mass at the Cathedral of Christ the King also spoke of their children, of seeing them graduate from Notre Dame and St. Mary’s, of gathering together interested families years ago to bring authentic Irish dance teachers to the Deep South for their children.
They cherish the texture of their heritage—its Catholicity, its music and dance, its tight-knit quality—and they have generously worked to pass that on to the next generation and to the North Georgia archdiocese they now call home.
They reflected on the remarkable growth of Atlanta and its Catholic community where the Hibernian Benevolent Society started a St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1858 that now attracts hundreds of thousands.
They looked back at the saint who brought the Catholic faith to Ireland, and they listened to a message from today’s Irish woman president, Mary McAleese, speaking of blossoming economic development and cultural diversity.
St. Patrick first came to Ireland unwillingly, as a 16-year-old abducted by Irish rovers and he spent six years there in slavery, Father James McGoldrick, SM, said.
While a captive, “he must have taken a long time to master the language and the customs” of his captors, the homilist said March 17. That knowledge would infuse his missionary work when he returned decades later to proclaim the Gospel for the first time to a region that did not know Christianity.
He was arguably the “first missionary” in Christian history, Father McGoldrick said, when in the late fourth century he ventured outside the Roman Empire to bring the message of Christ to a druidic culture.
While enslaved, Patrick also had a lot of time to spend in prayer and meditation as he cared for a chieftain’s flocks. He “came to know God as his Creator and Jesus Christ as his Savior” and his profound relationship with God took root.
“Personal revelations” from God “were part of his experience.” He “followed one of these to his escape and freedom,” the pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption Church said, returning to safety in what was then Gaul.
However, this “marvelous missionary” was encouraged in a dream to return to Ireland and bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the priest said. Patrick was determined to study first, and when he did return as “the apostle to the Irish nation” he was a bishop, and he was 47 years old. “Fortunately he lived for another 30 years.”
Although there was only barbarism outside the Roman Empire, Patrick’s efforts to proclaim the Gospel met with success, the priest said, in part because as a former slave he understood the people’s misery and could speak to them with understanding.
“He preached with a compassion for his people,” comprehending “their culture and their virtues” as well as their weaknesses and their need for Christ.
Sponsored annually by the Hibernian Benevolent Society, and coordinated by Rose Begley and Michael Mulligan, the St. Patrick’s Day Mass is always held on March 17, while the parade this year was held on Saturday, March 18, so more could take part and attend. The Hibernians also sponsor an annual black tie St. Patrick’s Day ball and a wreath-laying honoring Father Thomas O’Reilly, pastor of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception during the Civil War.
The altar flowers, a colorful Mass program, the music by organist Alan Brown, a trumpeter, and cantor Sam Hagan, and the reception afterward with Irish food and dancers, were made possible by friends and members of the Hibernians.
Children and teens from Irish dancing schools brought up the offertory gifts.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue and 16 other priests concelebrated the Mass.
The church in Atlanta has been “so deeply blessed” by members of the Irish community, Archbishop Gregory said, including by the many priests who have come from Ireland to the once-missionary archdiocese. He prayed the Irish community would continue to grow in faith and hope, in peace and joy.
He especially thanked “the young people who are here in such great numbers and who made the very heroic sacrifice of missing school to honor St. Patrick.”
Nancy Scanlon Poitras said her happy childhood memories of going to the Irish social club every Friday night in South Boston to listen to Irish music and watch the dancing is something she wants to pass on to her children, Colleen, a 10-year-old dancer, Ryan and Sean.
“St. Patrick’s Day is up there with Christmas in our house,” she said, wearing a green sweatshirt with a stream of shamrocks across it.
“If you believe that it is a good heritage, that it has done good things in the whole world, you want to continue it and tell others about it,” said George Lane, a green-jacketed member of the color guard for the Mass. “We believe the Irish have done fantastic things in the world and especially in the United States.”
The Hibernian Benevolent Society of Atlanta was started to help Irish immigrants make their way in an unfamiliar land, Lane said, giving newcomers someone they could turn to and trust for advice on every topic.
His parents, both from County Cork, “had to struggle just to make a living,” but they did what many others did by sponsoring nieces and nephews to come from Ireland to the United States one at a time and live with them for a year or two until they got “their feet on the ground.”
“Then they would bring others over. There was no opportunity for them in Ireland” in those days, Lane said.
Despite the limitations they had as immigrants, his parents were “very dedicated to education. … The Irish always carried with them that you have to be educated.”
A member with his wife, Catherine, of St. Ann Church in Marietta, he has been honored to assume a role in the color guard recently, serving at the Mass, the ball and in the parade.
He said the efforts go on virtually year-round with key individuals and a core support group beginning two days after one parade is over to start working on the next.
In Ireland St. Patrick’s Day “was always a holy day—that was the most important thing—going to Mass,” said Eileen McGing, a member of St. Brigid Church, Alpharetta, who was recruited as a nurse from Ireland by Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.
“It was a day off school, but you had to go to church, then you’d march in the parade,” said Cora Riedlinger, who grew up in Cork City. “The faith was in the culture and you didn’t quite separate the two.”
Her husband, Art, is in his 16th year running the Peach State Feis, a festival of Irish music and dance that will be held on the third weekend in May with over 600 competitors expected.
The St. Patrick’s Day Mass “is more needed today than ever,” Cora said, as she brought more soda bread and refreshments from the kitchen to the hall. “Sometimes through this people fall back into their faith.”