Many impressions touched my heart when I visited the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Atlanta, Georgia, but one thing in particular peaked my interest – the story of Fr. Thomas O’ Reilly.
Fr. O’ Reilly was the pastor of the Church of the Immaculate Conception during the Civil War. The church itself dates back to 1848 and was built by Irish immigrants who came to Atlanta to work on the railroads after the 1845 potato blight wiped out one third of Ireland’s potato crop – a mainstay at Irish family dinner tables. The church was very much a mission, serving the Irish population around it.
That changed on April 12, 1861 when the Civil War began. The church continued to serve, but as a shelter and field hospital for wounded soldiers from both the North and South. It seems our Lady had opened her arms to her children in need during the travesties of the war.
On November 15, 1864, Union Major General William Tecumseh Sherman began his March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah. His campaign included a “scorched earth” policy and destroyed military targets as well as homes, villages, farms, industries, supply lines, and infrastructure. The fires left only charred, barren land in their wake. Sherman’s goal was to break the back of the Confederacy and eventually lead to its surrender. It’s considered one of the major achievements of the war.
His campaign was not completely successful, however.
When Fr. O’ Reilly – also a Confederate chaplain – heard of Sherman’s plans, he immediately approached one of Sherman’s generals, Gen. Henry W. Slocum. He insisted that Gen. Slocum bear his message to Maj. Gen. Sherman personally. The Church of the Immaculate Conception was serving both Confederate and Union soldiers, he pointed out, and because of its dual duty – house of God and field hospital – it was outside of the confines of war to burn it down. Furthermore, he told the General, If Sherman burned down his church, the Catholics in his army would mutiny. And, if they did not mutiny, he would excommunicate them on the spot. Additionally, Fr. O’ Reilly demanded the protection of the Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Methodist, and Baptist churches surrounding his own.
Sherman agreed and let the churches stand and all five of them are yet in existence.
Fr. O ‘Reilly died in 1872 at the age of just 41 and was buried under the main altar. That seemed to be the end of his story until, in 1982, the church had to be rennovated after a disastrous fire demolished its roof. In the process, two caskets were uncovered in an area that previously was considered a storeroom. One casket held the remains of Fr. O’ Reilly and the other Fr. Thomas Francis Cleary. Fr. Cleary had been the pastor of the Church of the Immaculate Conception from 1881 to 1884. How the caskets came to be there is a mystery to this day. After a coroner’s investigation – they were, after all, unmarked graves – the crypt was restored and open for guided tours. There is some ancedotal evidence that Fr. O ‘Reilly’s body is incorrupt.
Fr. O ‘Reilly and his story fascinate me and I must admit that, praying at his grave moved my heart. There was a presence of grace there, the presence of the brave Irish priest who saved his church – and others – from Sherman’s March to the Sea.