By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published March 20, 2008
The liturgical calendar made the feast day of St. Patrick so unusual that the archbishop reassured the congregation at the annual St. Patrick’s Day Mass that the overlapping of March 17 with Holy Week won’t occur again for over 150 years.
And then, less than 12 hours later, this slight difficulty of moving the feast to Friday, March 14, paled by comparison with an unheard of disaster—a tornado striking downtown Atlanta for the first time in its history.
And the St. Patrick’s Day parade, which was scheduled to pass through downtown on Saturday, March 15, with thousands cheering and watching, had to be canceled.
No doubt St. Patrick’s Day 2008 in Atlanta will long be remembered.
Before morning Mass at the Cathedral of Christ the King, harpist Christine Holt softly played, while people dressed in green filled the pews and young Irish dancers gathered to walk in the offertory procession and to perform at the reception that would follow.
With its special music provided by cantor Sam Hagan, organist Alan Brown and Holt and the reception afterward, the annual Mass is a tradition made possible by dozens of families in the Irish and Irish-American community who honor their families’ memories there.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, the principal celebrant, said the unusually early date of Easter this year won’t reoccur until about the year 2160. Because Easter is March 23, the feast of St. Patrick liturgically could not be celebrated on its traditional date, since that would be in Holy Week. The archbishop moved the feast to March 14.
By 2160, the archbishop joked, “I anticipate by God’s grace we will all be with St. Patrick” and won’t face the conflict again.
Assisted by Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue and a number of Irish-born priests, he gave thanks for “the gift of St. Patrick and for the wondrous faith of so many of his sons and daughters.”
Preaching the homily, Msgr. James Fennessy, who is Irish, recounted a story of how St. Patrick as a bishop faced a conflict at Easter.
When Easter fell at the time of a pagan festival in Ireland, St. Patrick lit the paschal candle, defying an order that said under pain of death no lights were to be ignited before those in the palace of the Irish king.
When the bright paschal flame could be plainly seen from the palace, the druids warned the king it had to be put out or it would become a light that would never be extinguished. They set out to kill St. Patrick, but he escaped.
The light of Christ has continued to blaze over the centuries, the homilist said, as the druids predicted.
“Let us next week celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus and once again make prophets out those druids,” Msgr. Fennessy said.
The readings at the Mass from the prophet Jeremiah also reminded him, he said, of the sufferings of St. Patrick, who was kidnapped, enslaved and barely eked out life as a shepherd before he was delivered into freedom. He was condemned for preaching the Gospel. The Irish people also have suffered like Jeremiah, he added.
“The history of Ireland is very much one of struggle and anguish … the penal laws—priests were condemned for celebrating Mass … the famine, when millions of people starved and families were evicted from their homes” and many had to leave Ireland, Msgr. Fennessy said.
“It is wonderful we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and make it a festival,” he said, but “the readings also remind us that as Irish we are never to turn a deaf ear” to the hungry, the poor or those displaced from home “because we were once victims of all those evils ourselves.”
Within a few hours the warm celebration of the Mass and reception that followed had to give way to disaster response in the city of Atlanta.
Ed Moran, committee member for the Atlanta St. Patrick’s Day Parade, said like many in the Irish community he was attending the Hibernian Ball at the Druid Hills Country Club when the tornado struck the heart of downtown several miles away.
Because of the distance between the two places, he drove home up I-75 unaware of what had happened. Then his phone rang.
“I looked at the phone and realized it was one of the (Atlanta) fire chiefs. I thought this can’t be good news at midnight, and it wasn’t,” Moran said.
The parade route crossed through many of the hardest-hit areas, and more violent weather was projected for Saturday.
“The Atlanta police offered to help us develop an alternate route,” he said, “but everyone on the committee agreed it was not a safe thing to do or a practical thing to do. About half of the committee was up all night talking on the phone and trying to decide what to do.”
His heart went out most to bands and groups who had spent months raising money so they could travel to Atlanta and march in the parade.
“There was a group from Kansas City. The kids had washed cars and bagged groceries to get here,” he said, but he has since heard from them, assuring him “we are having a good time. They made the most of it.”
The nonprofit parade organization will meet and figure out what to do now. There were some expenses that could not be prevented—a float company that was already in Atlanta and needs to be paid, dozens of two-sided parade banners posted on Peachtree Street lampposts that were destroyed, fees that need to be covered. About 200 units were going to march in the parade, quite a few from out of town.
“It was a disappointment,” Moran said, and unprecedented as far as he knows in the history of the Atlanta parade. But, he added, “The miracle of this whole thing is that not more people got hurt. There is always a miracle in there somewhere.”
“The committee was real resilient. The committee and a lot of the volunteers offered to do whatever it took,” he said, but “it wasn’t safe. We didn’t know what that next (weather) front was going to do. We didn’t even know when. We knew whenever it came it was going to be bad, and it was.”
The tornado also ravaged historic Oakland Cemetery, wrecking ornate tombstones.
Towering trees that shaded the plot of land reserved for the Hibernian Benevolent Society of Atlanta were toppled, said Davant Turner, a guide at the cemetery and member of the Hibernian Benevolent Society. He said none of the stones were damaged, however.
The Lynch family plot that was featured in the Georgia Bulletin’s March 13 edition was damaged. Turner said two large stones markers were broken by the storm.