Fr. Thomas O’Reilly
Father Thomas O’Reilly, a native of County Cavan, Ireland, was appointed as Pastor at The Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Atlanta in 1861. During the Civil War, Atlanta was a strategic transportation and supply depot for the Confederacy. In 1864, the Union Army, led by General Sherman, had Atlanta under siege for several months with intense artillery bombardment of the city. Eventually the city was occupied by the Union Army.
During the siege of Atlanta, Father O’Reilly ministered to soldiers of the Union and Confederate armies. He became a hero to both sides while hearing confessions, answering letters, saying mass and performing last rites.
In the autumn of 1864, General Sherman ordered the entire city to be burned, including all churches and residences. Father O’Reilly was outraged by this order and obtained a meeting with a member of Sherman’s staff. He argued that the order to burn homes and churches was beyond the normal confines of warfare. Father O’Reilly pleaded for a compromise that would spare Atlanta’s five churches. This request was rejected by Sherman.
Father O’Reilly sent word to Sherman that the burning of churches was a sin against God, not an act of war. Father O’Reilly also warned Sherman that “If you burn the Catholic church, all Catholics in the Union army will mutiny” and if not, the Catholics among them would be excommunicated. Father O’Reilly reminded Sherman that his force had a high proportion of Irish Catholics and he was deep in enemy territory.
In addition to the Catholic church, Father O’Reilly also asked that the other churches be spared, as well as City Hall and the Court House. General Sherman considered having Father O’Reilly executed, but feared the threatened mutiny among his Irish Catholic troops. Sherman changed his orders, thus sparing the five churches, City Hall and the Court House. The five churches were Immaculate Conception, Central Presbyterian, St. Phillip’s Episcopal, Second Baptist (now Second Ponce de Leon Baptist) and Trinity Methodist.
As a result of Father O’Reilly’s heroic action, and the bravery of the “Hibernian Rifles”, an Irish unit, the City of Atlanta deeded the Hibernian Benevolent Society a burial plot in Oakland Cemetery in 1873. The five churches and the City also erected a monument to Father O’Reilly which is on the grounds of City Hall. The courage and tenacity of Father O’Reilly is a lasting example of the ecumenical spirit in Atlanta.