By Doc Lawrence
Atlanta’s Church of the Immaculate Conception is just a block away from Georgia’s Capitol. I began visiting there many year’s ago, a St. Patrick’s Day ritual to pay homage to Father Thomas O’Reilly, the Irish preist who saved Atlanta’s Churches from General Sherman’s torches in 1864. O'Reilly, a genuine servant of God, acted to preserve houses of worship and relieve the suffering of innocent civilians during our national tragedy.
Over the years, I wrote published accounts of the ministry of Father O'Reilly, hoping that this man of peace would not be forgotten.
According to records at The Atlanta History Center, Father O'Reilly was born in Ireland and was appointed in 1861 as pastor of Atlanta’s first Catholic church, Immaculate Conception. During the Civil War, the city became an important rail and military hub for the Confederacy as well as a significant medical center with 10 large hospitals established to treat wounded soldiers. Although Father O’Reilly was appointed an official Confederate chaplain, much of his time was consumed with pastoral care of both Confederate and Union soldiers. As much as possible, he ministered to men on both sides hearing confessions, celebrating Mass, answering letters, and performing last rites.
Atlanta was widely regarded as the “gate” city to the South and was targeted for conquest in what become known in news reports as "The Atlanta Campaign." Under Union Maj. Gen. William Sherman, a long siege of Atlanta took place and on Sept. 2, 1864, the city was surrendered. Sherman ordered all citizens to leave the city as his intention was to burn Atlanta to the ground. (A thorough discussion of these momentous events is found in "The Atlanta Campaign," by John Cannan, Combined Books, Inc. 1991.)
Upon learning of Sherman’s intentions, Father O’Reilly protested on the grounds that burning homes and churches as well as killing civilians was unjust. Sherman not only ignored Father O’Reilly, but, according to historical records, intended to arrest him. In researching my story I learned from local historians that there was even some speculation that Sherman considered executing Father O’Reilly.
In spite of those dangers, Father O’Reilly, according to published church history, continued to negotiate with Sherman insisting that the Church of the Immaculate Conception be spared, reminding the general that burning churches was a sin against God and that he would excommunicate any Catholics who participated in the destruction of his Catholic church. Sherman, knowing that there were many Irish Catholics among his troops, feared a mutiny and decided to spare Father O’Reilly’s church.
Then, the priest sent word to Sherman, whose headquarters was on the site of today's Carter Presidential Center, reminding the general that burning any church was a sin. Emboldened, Father O’Reilly asked that city hall and the courthouse all be spared torching because they were close to his church. He also asked Sherman to protect Protestant churches in the city. Amazingly, Sherman issued his order to spare the city hall, the courthouse, and five churches: Immaculate Conception, Central Presbyterian, St. Phillip’s Episcopal, Second Baptist, and Trinity Methodist.
To ensure his orders were followed, Sherman placed Union guards around all the churches, city hall, and the courthouse. He also created a buffer of nearby homes not to be torched in order to control the flames. In the “Memoirs of W.T. Sherman,” the ferocious warrior described the scene as he and his soldiers moved on from Atlanta:
“We rode out of Atlanta by the Decatur road, filled by the marching troops and wagons of the Fourteenth Corps; and reaching the hill, just outside of the old rebel works, we naturally paused to look back upon the scenes of our past battles. Behind us lay Atlanta, smoldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city.”
Many authoritative accounts of these tumultuous events can be found in libraries. One of the best sources is Richard McMurry's "Atlanta 1864," (University of Nebraska Press, 2001). The accounts confirm that as the Union army left Atlanta moving toward Savannah, one-third of Atlanta survived, and some 500 brave civilians along with Father O’Reilly remained to restore hope and rebuild their city.
The stress of serving in wartime destroyed Father O’Reilly’s health. He died at the age of 41 in 1872. According to published accounts and church records, his was the largest funeral in Atlanta’s history up to that time. Members of the five churches spared as a result of Father O’Reilly’s intervention joined with city hall officials to build and erect a monument to Father O’Reilly on the grounds of city hall, a powerful ecumenical tribute to a peacemaker.
In 1945, the Atlanta Historical Society erected a monument to Father O’Reilly in gratitude for his courageous intervention on behalf of the citizens and churches of Atlanta. Atlanta’s Hibernian Society places a wreath beside the monument on St. Patrick’s Day. The Church of the Immaculate Conception continues to honor Father O’Reilly and displays a variety of the church’s historic artifacts connected to the Civil War.
Father O’Reilly’s crypt rests beneath the sanctuary and may be viewed by appointment.