A recent trip to Atlanta provided an opportunity to meet Father Thomas O’Reilly – figuratively, of course, – since Father Tom passed away back in 1872. Yet, as recently as March 2007 he was honored with the City of Atlanta’s Phoenix Award in appreciation of his heroism and outstanding contributions to the City and citizens of Atlanta. It simply just begged the question: who was this remarkable man?
Born in Drumgora, Co. Cavan, in 1831, Thomas O’Reilly graduated All Hallows seminary in Dublin and was sent to the American south as a missionary priest in the area of Atlanta where Masses were being held in private homes. In 1848, a wood frame church was built by a fellow Irish missionary, Father John Barry. The people named it the Church of the Immaculate Conception and it was dedicated in 1849, six years before the Church had even defined its official dogma that Mary had been conceived without original sin. During the 1850’s prosperity abounded in Georgia; cotton was king and new factories were built which led to new influx of Catholics. In 1861 Father Thomas O’Reilly was appointed pastor of Atlanta’s first Church and its missions.
Then came the Civil War and Atlanta became a military manufacturing and supply depot for the South. The city also became a main medical center with at least ten hospitals where thousands of wounded were treated. The hospitals occupied much of Father O’Reilly’s time. In 1864, the Union Army under General Sherman laid siege to Atlanta; Father O’Reilly ministered to both Union and Confederate wounded. He became a hero to both sides, hearing confessions, answering letters, saying Mass and performing last rites. On September 2, 1864, the city fell and General Sherman evicted many Atlantans to allow housing for his army. Father O’Reilly lost many of his flock, but found the boys in blue now crowding his church on Sunday.
In the autumn of 1864, General Sherman, planned his ‘total war’ march to the sea at Savannah and ordered the entire city to be burned. An outraged Father O’Reilly sent word to Sherman that burning homes and churches was beyond the normal confines of warfare. Sherman ignored him. Father O’Reilly pleaded for a compromise that would spare his church. Sherman rejected the request. Father O’Reilly sent word that a number of Atlanta’s merchants and tradesmen who had not gone to war stood ready to defend their churches and among them were an Irish group known as The Hibernian Rifles. Further, he warned Sherman that the Union army had a high proportion of Irish Catholics and threatened, If you burn the Catholic church, all Catholics in the Union army will mutiny; and if not, they will be excommunicated. Sherman considered having Father O’Reilly executed, but feared mutiny among his Irish troops and finally relented. Then, an emboldened Father O’Reilly asked that the other churches be spared, as well as City Hall and the Court House since they were so close to his church and the fire might spread. Sherman changed his orders to spare City Hall, the Court House and five churches including Immaculate Conception, Central Presbyterian, St. Phillip’s Episcopal, Second Baptist and Trinity Methodist.
As the Federal Army moved out on its infamous march to the sea, only one-third of Atlanta still stood with about 500 brave people and Father Tom O’Reilly. From this they rebuilt. Feeling that their old church would be out of place in the new city going up around it, the parishioners built a new church on the same spot; it stands to this day. Sadly, Father O’Reilly did not live to see it completed. In 1872, the ravages of war which had ruined his health, caused his death at 41, while in a Virginia sanitarium. His remains were brought back to his beloved parish for the largest funeral ever held up to that time. Father O’Reilly was buried in a vault prepared beneath the altar of the rising new Church. As a result of Father O’Reilly’s heroic stand, and the bravery of the Hibernian Rifles, the City of Atlanta deeded the Hibernians a burial plot in Oakland Cemetery in 1873. The five churches and the City also erected a monument to Father O’Reilly on the grounds of City Hall. On December 10, 1873, the new Church of the Immaculate Conception was formally dedicated and local newspapers described it as one of the most handsome in the South and an ornament to our city.
In 1879, General Sherman returned on an inspection tour of Atlanta’s Fort McPherson. He was surprised at the progress of the city, to which he gave a toast at a local reception. Surely, as he rode through the reborn city, he noticed the new Church and the memory of the gentle but persistent Father O’Reilly came to his mind, for religion had finally won in his own life as well; at the time his son was studying for the priesthood. Though never a religious man, Sherman’s foster mother, Maria Ewing, was of Irish ancestry and a devout Catholic as was his wife, Ellen. Sherman now lies in the Roman Catholic Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis.
On October 18, 1945, eighty-one years after his brave and defiant intercession, the Atlanta Historical Society erected a monument to Father O’Reilly in gratitude for saving the churches and City Hall in 1864. In truth he was like so many other courageous clerics from Father Murphy of Boolavogue to Archbishop ‘Dagger John’ Hughes of New York, but he was not as well known outside Atlanta. Ironically, his burial place was soon forgotten as the story of this heroic priest faded among the new arrivals in the bustle of a growing metropolis.
In 1982, the Church of The Immaculate Conception caught fire and the roof fell in. It broke through the concrete floor of the church to reveal a long-forgotten crypt. In it were the coffins of Father O’Reilly and his successor Father Cleary. The discovery resurrected the story of this hero of Atlanta and the crypt was made accessible to pilgrims. A small adjacent room contains museum-style glass cases with artifacts of the Church’s history and the resurrection of Atlanta from the ashes of the Civil War; thus the Phoenix Award. In one of those cases, beside a portrait of Father O’Reilly, lies his membership ribbon from Atlanta AOH Division 1!