By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published March 18, 2016
ATLANTA—The Hibernian Benevolent Society of Atlanta and Atlanta civic leaders remembered and celebrated the life of Father Thomas O’Reilly whose heroics during the Civil War left an imprint on the current city of Atlanta.
The civic honor of the wartime Irish pastor of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is one of the celebrations associated with St. Patrick’s Day in Atlanta.
The priest is credited with protecting five churches and several civic buildings from destruction in Atlanta as it was occupied by Union forces under Gen. William T. Sherman. As the troops left for the march to Savannah, Atlanta was largely destroyed by fire.
A monument to Father O’Reilly is located on the grounds of Atlanta City Hall. A wreath is laid there every March. Father O’Reilly is interred in a crypt beneath the main altar of the Shrine.
On Friday, March 11, the 12:10 daily Mass at the Shrine included more than a dozen members of the Hibernian Benevolent Society, one of the oldest civic groups in the city, noticeable in green suit jackets and blouses. The HBSA was formed in 1858 and Father O’Reilly was its chaplain.
At the Mass to celebrate Father O’Reilly, Msgr. Henry Gracz linked the day’s Gospel from St. John to the actions of the honored priest. As Jesus reached out to people, the Civil War priest aided soldiers who wore both the blue of the Union and the gray of the Confederates. Msgr. Gracz, the current pastor, said the church was converted to a hospital to treat the wounded on both sides of the battles. The priest strived to knit ties between the warring sides.
“He was probably called crazy and wrong, but he did it. He was building bridges” as Jesus commands, said Msgr. Gracz.
Later, in the marbled atrium of Atlanta City Hall, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Irish Consul General Shane Stephens both recalled the events of the past as a springboard to the future. The haunting sound of two bagpipes reverberated in the civic center as played by members of the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office and Stone Mountain’s Atholl Highlanders.
The speakers talked about the disarray in the city 152 years ago. They praised the boldness of the foreigner. They acclaimed the courage of this spiritual leader.
Reed said when the city was most endangered, Father O’Reilly through his efforts saved important civic institutions and houses of worship that helped the city rebuild.
“He did what people of character and courage do,” Reed said.
The Irish priest convinced Union troops not to raze downtown churches and Atlanta City Hall before the troops departed to march to Savannah, he said. Reed said the efforts of this one man showed “extraordinary heroism.”
“His life deserves to be commemorated,” said Reed, “and I am honored to do so.”
After a morning meeting with an Irish delegation about economic links with area businesses, the mayor said the ties between Atlanta and Ireland are “growing stronger every day.”
Stephens said he appreciated the “deep Irish roots of this global city.”
“Atlanta clearly does not forget its friends,” he said.
He said it is a matter of pride for those of Irish descent that Atlanta city leaders recognized the efforts of Father O’Reilly, the son of Ireland, and of other Irish regiments in wartime by dedicating land in historic Oakland Cemetery to bury people of Irish heritage among the “city’s great mayors and heroes.”