Published November 8, 2013
ATLANTA—Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and an ecumenical group of religious leaders Nov. 17 will begin an observance of the 150th anniversary of the actions of the Irish Catholic priest who saved downtown churches and civil buildings from the burning of Atlanta in 1864.
Father Thomas O’Reilly, who treated the wounded of the Confederate and Union armies in the Civil War, told Union generals their Catholic soldiers would revolt if ordered to burn down a Catholic church. His appeal saved the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where he was pastor, along with the Atlanta Court House, City Hall, and other churches, including St. Philip’s Episcopal, Trinity United Methodist, Second Ponce de Leon Baptist, and Central Presbyterian Church. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman ordered the rest of Atlanta burned.
The Shrine is focusing on the anniversary for these church congregations that remain a vital part of Atlanta, three in the same locations. St. Philip’s and Second Ponce de Leon are now in Buckhead.
“We are celebrating 150 years of continued faith and service by these churches. If General Sherman had his way, those churches would have been destroyed. We don’t know what would have happened next,” said Donal Noonan, director of music ministries at the Shrine.
He pointed out that the Shrine, Central Presbyterian and Trinity United Methodist still minister together in a variety of ways in the Capitol area. “The link is still there between the three churches,” he said.
The event on Sunday, Nov. 17, at 10 a.m., kicks off the sesquicentennial observances of the actions of Father O’Reilly. The public is invited.
A ceremony is to take place at mile marker zero, the southern end of the Western and Atlantic Railroad, where the settlement that became Atlanta started. There will be reflections and Scripture readings.
The reason for the Irish and Catholic presence in Atlanta at the time was the railroad, so it is appropriate to start there, Noonan said.
The marker is located near Wall Street, between Central and Pryor streets, adjacent to the southern entrance of Underground Atlanta. In addition to religious leaders from the five churches and civic officials, there will be a historical re-enactment group dressed in period costume.
After the ceremony, the group will march to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for the 11 a.m. Mass where the archbishop will preside.
Noonan is himself from County Clare outside of Dublin.
“What happened was huge for our faith communities and a point of pride for our Catholic community,” he said of Father O’Reilly’s impact.
Noonan said the Irish have historical experience with conflict over religion. “We know what it takes to stand up for our faith, to stand up for our belief systems,” he said.
Future scheduled events include a celebration of music in March. Performers from the other saved churches will be invited.
In October 2014, musicians from the parish have been invited to All Hallows Seminary in Ireland to perform a concert and Cavan Cathedral. Father O’Reilly was from County Cavan and went to All Hallows Seminary. A concluding event is planned for November 2014.