Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Mystery Surrounding Heroic Priest Recalled

By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published March 22, 2007

It’s the stuff of legends … a story passed down throughout generations.

A young Irish priest serving in the midst of a war-torn Atlanta hears of the impending doom his city is to suffer. With only his faith as a shield, he makes his way to speak to Union forces and pleads with Gen. William Sherman to spare five Atlanta churches as well as City Hall and the Fulton County Courthouse. He becomes a hero not only to Catholics, but to the entire city of Atlanta. Later, over 100 years after his death, the crypt containing his remains is unearthed beneath the church he pastored during the war.

Though it could easily be mistaken for folklore, the life of Father Thomas O’Reilly is a true story of the heroic actions of a man who saved a part of Atlanta’s faith history.

On Friday, March 9, a small group gathered at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Atlanta for a tour of Father O’Reilly’s crypt.

Msgr. Henry Gracz, pastor of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, led the tour and spoke of his parish’s most famous pastor, Father O’Reilly, who died in 1872 at the age of 41.

The crypt, which holds the remains of Father O’Reilly along with Father Francis Cleary, a pastor of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception from 1881-1883, is now set up like a museum with artifacts and articles about the two priests. But that wasn’t always the case.

In the early 1980s, a fire nearly destroyed the Shrine. It was during the process of rebuilding the historic church that the crypt, long lost to memory, was discovered.

Chris Knott, who worked in facilities management for the Archdiocese of Atlanta for more than 25 years until his retirement a few years ago, often tells the story of the discovery of Father O’Reilly’s crypt.

Knott and a small group of men involved in the reconstruction work at the fire-gutted church detected and uncovered the vault in late November and early December 1982. Lifting out flooring brick by brick, they uncovered two caskets in separate, adjacent crypts in a basement room that had been used as a storeroom.

Previously, as they began the process of cleaning out the church after the fire, Knott said several parishioners approached him with the knowledge that Father O’Reilly had been buried in the church.

“People, off and on for many decades, had tried to ascertain where he had been buried,” Knott said.

Different accounts had him buried in the Shrine or in Savannah or even taken back to Ireland. But Knott and his crew knew they had to make an effort to search the Shrine before they began the rebuilding process.

They worked for nearly five months, in secret, in the evenings, with just their temporary lights to guide their work.

In a 1982 article in The Georgia Bulletin, Knott recalled that the storeroom where the caskets were eventually found was so packed with things that “on the day of the fire we couldn’t even open the door.”

The crew researched documents on Father O’Reilly and his funeral and eventually narrowed their search to the storeroom, located in the basement below the altar in the main church.

According to the article, head stonemason Mitchell Joyner and job superintendent Jim Johnson, along with Knott, painstakingly looked for the burial sites.

When the speculation focused on the basement, Joyner and Johnson noted that the storeroom had two particular qualities: It was directly beneath the altar and the three granite steps leading up to it seemed peculiar. The steps, the only granite ones in the building except for those used in the main church entrance, were of no use, Joyner said, unless the floor had been raised to allow a crypt to be built. Even when the search focused on the room, attention first turned to the brick wall at the rear and a hollow space behind. That search proved fruitless.

The room was completely swept and the floor covering pulled up. It revealed the original brick floor. There, outlined by bricks set in pattern were two rectangles positioned lengthwise in the room’s floor.

The two small caskets of Father Cleary and Father O’Reilly were found beneath the rectangles.

“When we spoke to Father O’Reilly’s family in Ireland, I have never heard people so excited to have a mystery solved,” Knott said in a recent phone interview.

Knott said it was only after the discovery of the crypt that he realized the important historical significance of the find.

“To me, as a Catholic and as an Atlanta native, it is important to understand this history—it’s something truly meaningful not only to us but to the whole city of Atlanta,” he said. “This was a man who was honored by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. This city loved him.”

The crypt now has a special entrance in the basement of the Shrine. A small hallway leading to the burial site is lined with cherry wood walls. The two caskets are in the small room, covered with glass and surrounded by the original brick.

Father John Adamski, now pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Atlanta, was pastor of the Shrine when the crypt area was renovated.

“We knew that if we were going to draw attention to this and claim this history that we had to create appropriate access and an environment for people,” he said.

He called the history of the Shrine and Father O’Reilly a “point of pride.”

“For those of us who grew up in Atlanta, it’s a measure of the history of Catholicism in North Georgia,” Father Adamski said. “But for the vast majority of Catholics who are not from here, it gives an insight into an important dimension in history. Most people have heard of Gen. Sherman’s March to the Sea, but they might not hear of (Father O’Reilly’s) part in it.”