City Honors Civil War Priest Who Saved Downtown Churches
Published: March 22, 2007
ATLANTA—Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin posthumously recognized Father Thomas O’Reilly with the Phoenix Award, which was placed by his marker at Atlanta City Hall on March 9.
A small crowd gathered for the annual wreath-laying ceremony for Father O’Reilly at the marker dedicated to him. This year Father O’Reilly also received the Phoenix Award for his contributions to the city of Atlanta.
Dorothy Mears, historian for the Hibernian Benevolent Society of Atlanta, presented the award and gave a brief biography of the late Irish priest, whose heroic efforts are credited with saving an important part of the city.
A native of Cavan, Ireland, Father O’Reilly was appointed pastor of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1861.
“His job was extremely demanding because his territory covered all of North Georgia and because the Civil War had begun,” Mears said. “The first three years of the war, Father O’Reilly was busy not only with his normal missionary duties, but he also served the wounded and dying Confederate soldiers that were being brought to Atlanta.”
In 1864 during the Battle of Atlanta, Father O’Reilly began to serve both Union and Confederate soldiers and became respected by both sides. He often traveled up to 20 miles per day to provide religious services for the over 20,000 casualties.
“This was a desperate time for everyone,” Mears said. “It really was a fight for existence.”
It was in the fall of 1864 that Father O’Reilly first heard of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s plan to destroy the entire city of Atlanta by fire. Father O’Reilly was outraged and Patrick Lynch drove the priest to speak to Gen. Henry Slocum, a subordinate of Gen. Sherman.
“In this meeting, Father O’Reilly argued that the order to burn homes and churches was beyond the normal confines of warfare,” Mears said. “Father O’Reilly pleaded for a compromise that would spare Atlanta’s five churches.”
At first Gen. Sherman rejected the priest’s proposal. But Father O’Reilly would not relent and reminded the general that many of his own troops were Catholics and would create a mutiny if Catholic churches were burned.
As a result of Father O’Reilly’s heroics, five churches in Atlanta—St. Philip Episcopal Church, Central Presbyterian Church, Trinity Methodist Church and Second Baptist Church, as well as the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, were spared. In addition, Atlanta City Hall, the Fulton County Courthouse and a residential area between Mitchell and Peters streets were saved.
“In all, 450 buildings were left out of the 4,000 buildings that made up Atlanta at the beginning of the war—the rest of the city was destroyed by fire,” Mears said.
A bouquet of flowers was laid at the Father O’Reilly marker, along with a flag of the United States on one side, and a flag of his native Ireland on the other.
Msgr. Edward Dillon, a native of Ireland and pastor of Holy Spirit Church, said that Father O’Reilly had a true spirit of ecumenism.
“It’s a good reminder for those of us who live in this diverse metropolitan area today,” he said.
Msgr. Henry Gracz, current pastor of the Shrine, said that Father O’Reilly’s message is an inspirational one.
“He made a bold statement about active Christian faith and service,” he said.
Betty Ann Lynch, whose husband is a descendant of Peter Lynch, the man who drove Father O’Reilly to speak to Gen. Slocum, said that she has learned as much about her family’s history as possible.
“This is a tradition of the sacrifice people made that really formed this city, and to think that these pioneers of Atlanta really worked together for the greater good,” she said. “To descend from these people is really a responsibility for us all to make this city an even greater place.”