The priest who saved Atlanta: Fr. Tom O’Reilly

"Battle of Atlanta" by Kurz and Allison. 1888. Photo: Public Domain

In 1982, the Church of the Immaculate Conception caught fire causing the roof to come crashing down. The heavy beams broke through the concrete floor of the church revealing a long forgotten crypt. Parishioners and church leadership were delighted to discover that the crypt contained the coffin of their civil war pastor, Fr. Tom O’Reilly, the priest who saved Atlanta in 1864.

Fr. O’Reilly was born in Ireland in 1831 and graduated from All Hallows Seminary in Dublin. In 1857 he was sent to the American South as a missionary priest, specifically the area of Atlanta where Catholics were meeting in homes to celebrate Masses. Four years later in 1861 Fr. O’Reilly was appointed pastor of Atlanta’s first Catholic church. It was a wood framed church carefully built by parishioners and dedicated in 1849.

In 1861 Fr. O’Reilly was appointed pastor of Atlanta’s first Catholic church.

At the time of Fr. O’Reilly’s appointment, the United States had split into northern and southern loyalties. According to an 1860 census, the population of Atlanta was nearly 10,000. Though a small city, it was nevertheless, an important rail and military center for the Confederate army. As the Civil War progressed, the population of Atlanta would soar to nearly 25,000.

Atlanta also became a significant medical center with 10 large hospitals established to treat wounded soldiers. Fr. O’Reilly was appointed an official Confederate chaplain in March of 1864. In his letter of recommendation, sent by Atlanta military authorities to the Confederate Secretary of War, James A. Seddon, Fr. O’Reilly was described as “a highly educated gentleman, and a Christian in every sense of the word, and we feel and know he would discharge the duties of the position he desires with the greatest alacrity and promptness.”

Fr. O’Reilly was described as ‘a highly educated gentleman, and a Christian in every sense of the word.’

Maj. Gen. William Sherman. Photo: Public Domain

Much of Fr. O’Reilly’s 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.

By 1864 it was clear that the South was losing the war. Because Atlanta was regarded as the “gate” city to the South by the northern states, it was militarily vital that Atlanta should fall to Union forces. Under the leadership of Union Maj. Gen. William Sherman, a seige of Atlanta took place. On Sept. 2, 1864, the city fell to the advancing Union army. Sherman ordered all citizens to leave the city as his intention was to burn Atlanta to the ground as retaliation for the South’s rebellion against the Union.

Upon learning of Sherman’s intentions, Fr. O’Reilly protested the action saying that burning homes and churches as well as killing civilians was unreasonable, unfair, and unjust. Sherman not only ignored Fr. O’Reilly but some reported that Sherman intended to arrest him. There were even some reports that Sherman considered having Fr. O’Reilly executed but feared a public outcry over the execution of a priest.

In spite of those dangers, Fr. O’Reilly continued to negotiate with Sherman insisting that the Church of the Immaculate Conception be spared. When Sherman ignored Fr. O’Reilly’s requests, the priest sent word to Sherman 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 conceded to spare Fr. O’Reilly’s church.

The priest sent word to Sherman reminding the general that burning churches was a sin against God.

Emboldened by this victory, Fr. 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 homes not to be torched in order to control the flames. As a result, an additional 400 Atlanta homes were spared. In the Memoirs of W.T. Sherman, Sherman 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, smouldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city.

Ruins of Atlanta Union Depot after burning by Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s troops, 1864. Photo: Public Domain

A few weeks after the seige of Atlanta, Confederate Gen. W.P. Howard, in his official report to the governor of Georgia, elaborated on the condition of Atlanta after it fell to Sherman:

The City Hall is damaged but not burned. The Second Baptist, Central Presbyterian, Trinity and Catholic churches and all the residences adjacent between Mitchell and Peters (Trinity Avenue) streets, running south of east, and Loyd and Washington streets running south of west, are safe, all attributable to Father O’Reilly, who refused to give up his parsonage to Yankee officers, who were looking out for fine houses for quarters, and there being a large number of Catholics in the Yankee army, who volunteered to protect their church and parsonage, and would not allow any houses adjacent to be fired that would endanger them. As proof of their attachment to their Church and love for Father O’Reilly, a soldier who attempted to fire Col. Calhoun’s house, the burning of which would have endangered the whole block was shot and killed, and his grave is no marked. So to Father O’Reilly the country is indebted for the protection of the City Hall, Churches, Etc.

As the Union army left Atlanta moving toward the Atlantic, one-third of Atlanta survived, 400 houses were spared destruction by fire, and some 500 brave civilians along with Fr. O’Reilly remained to restore hope and rebuild their city. As a new city emerged, parishioners of the Immaculate Conception, needing a larger facility, built a new church a block away, one which stands to this day.

Sadly, Fr. O’Reilly did not live to see its completion. The stress of serving in wartime destroyed his health. He died in a Virginia sanitarium at the age of 41 in 1872. His remains were brought back to his parish for the largest funeral in Atlanta’s history up to that time. Members of the five churches spared as a result of Fr. O’Reilly’s intervention joined with city hall officials to build and erect a monument to Fr. O’Reilly on the grounds of city hall. It was a powerful ecumenical tribute to Fr. O’Reilly.

On Dec. 10, 1873, the new Church of the Immaculate Conception was formally dedicated and one local newspaper described it as one of the most “handsome” in the South and “an ornament to our city.”

Photo: Creative Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license,

In an odd twist of history, Sherman returned on an inspection tour of Atlanta’s Fort McPherson in 1879. Reports indicated his surprise and pleasure at the development of Atlanta. Though Sherman did not adhere to any organized religion, his wife Ellen Ewing was a devout Catholic and their son, Thomas, became a Catholic priest. The general himself was buried at Calvary Catholic Cemetery in St. Louis.

Fr. O’Reilly’s ministry and legacy continued to be honored more than eight decades later. On Oct. 18, 1945, the Atlanta Historical Society erected a monument to Fr. O’Reilly in gratitude for his courageous intervention on behalf of the citizens and churches of Atlanta. Today, the Church of the Immaculate Conception (The Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception) proudly promotes Fr. O’Reilly and displays a variety of the church’s historic artifacts connected to the Civil War.

The Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Atlanta. Photo: krblokhin/iStock

Fr. O’Reilly’s life and actions are an inspiring example of a parish priest who lived out the great teaching of the prophet Micah:

You have been told, O mortal, what is good,

and what the LORD requires of you:

Only to do justice and to love goodness,

and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

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