Jun 6, 2021 • 32M

Sherpa Café: Episode #10

Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Open in playerListen on);

Appears in this episode

Exploring Atlanta's past, present and future. This podcast is for premium subscribers.
Episode details

Good morning and welcome to the Sherpa Café. It’s Sunday, June 6, 2021 and this is Episode #10. This mini-podcast and newsletter goes out to my premium subscribers and members of the Sherpa Club. This week, we are going to explore one of the most historic and beautiful buildings in all of Atlanta — the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception...

Support ATLsherpa

Strike a pose! “Vogue” first appeared on Madonna’s “I’m Breathless” album, released in May 1990. It also appears on “Immaculate Concepcion,” her first greatest hits album, which was released just six months later.

Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Shrines are found in many, though not all, forms of Christianity. Roman Catholicism, the largest denomination of Christianity, has many shrines, as do Orthodox Christianity, Anglicanism and some forms of Lutheranism. In the Roman Catholic 1983 Code of Canon Law, canons 1230 and 1231 read: "The term shrine means a church or other sacred place which, with the approval of the local Ordinary, is by reason of special devotion frequented by the faithful as pilgrims. For a shrine to be described as national, the approval of the Episcopal Conference is necessary. For it to be described as international, the approval of the Holy See is required."

The Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the first Catholic Church and Mother Parish of Atlanta, is one of the oldest standing buildings in the city. This church is a highly imaginative early Victorian, Gothic Revival building. It was designed in 1869 by 33-year-old, William H. Parkins, who had come to Atlanta the year before and continued to practice in the city until 1882. Drawing upon English and European church architecture, Parkins built what was at the time the most magnificent edifice in the city. It was the harbinger of the new, post-Civil War Atlanta, and although today surrounded by the skyscrapers of the 20th century, the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is one of the few vestiges of the old city and of the work of William Parkins.

Historical marker and view of north wall facing west. Photos by ATLsherpa [click to enlarge]

The first Catholic Church in the city was a square-framed church built in 1848 and dedicated to the Virgin Mary and named the Immaculate Conception in her honor. In 1861, Father Thomas O'Reilly was appointed Pastor of the church, and it was due to his influence with General Slocumb of Sherman's occupying Union army that some of the original buildings of Atlanta were saved from burning in 1864. During the siege of Atlanta, however, the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was severely damaged by shellfire. The parishioners decided to build a new church dedicated to the Virgin Mary on the site of its predecessor. The estimated cost of construction was between $75,000 and $80,000. The cornerstone was laid on September 1, 1869 by Bishop Verot of Savannah, but it was not until 1873 that the huge church was finally completed and dedication ceremonies held.

Interpretive marker on north side of church. Photo by ATLsherpa [click to enlarge]
Named in honor of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, Immaculate Conception Church began as a parish when Catholics held mass in private homes and a school in 1846. They erected a frame church on this spot in 1848 and called their first full-time priest in 1851.
Father Thomas O’Reilly, a native of County Cavan, Ireland, came to Atlanta in 1861 by way of Albany, Georgia. During the entire period of the war he labored tirelessly to assist the wounded, suffering, and displaced people in Atlanta. Fr. O’Reilly received an appointment as a Confederate chaplain in early 1864, after which Bishop Augustin Verot sent him to aid the Federal prisoners at Camp Sumter (Andersonville). Later that year he returned to his urban parish. When the fighting near the city, Fr. O’Reilly went to the downtown train depot to give aid to the wounded being transferred from the battlefields to the hospitals. During the ensuing battles for Atlanta he took care of the dying and dead from both armies.
In November of 1864, Union Major General William T. Sherman ordered his men to destroy the military-allied facilities in the fallen city of Atlanta. Fr. O’Reilly asked Union Major General Henry Slocum, who commanded the 20th Corps stationed near Immaculate Conception Church, to protect it from destruction. General Slocum knew O’Reilly well, as the priest had welcomed Federal soldiers into his parish and had given succor to the wounded. With Catholics in the Federal ranks who might find burning the church a sacrilege, Slocum agreed to provide protection that saved not only Immaculate Conception, but also Central Presbyterian, Second Baptist, Trinity Methodist and St. Philips Episcopal, as well as Atlanta’s City Hall and surrounding neighborhood.
The wartime use of Immaculate Conception Church as a hospital had left the sanctuary in a terrible state of disrepair. A growing Catholic population required a new building. Fr. O’Reilly commissioned noted architect W. H. Parkins to design a larger brick sanctuary on the same site, although the priest did not live to see the new edifice. The war had undermined his health. The diocese sent Fr. O’Reilly to recuperate at Chalybeate Springs, Virginia, but he died there September 6, 1872, at the age of 41. The Atlanta parish buried its beloved priest in a specially designed crypt under the alter of the new church. Having laid the cornerstone in 1869, the congregation dedicated the new building in 1873. Then in 1945, the Atlanta Historical Society, the five churches, and the City of Atlanta, placed a marble monument on the grounds of City Hall in commemoration of Father Thomas O’Reilly’s role in saving an important part of the city during the war. After renovation in 1954, Immaculate Conception Church was rededicated as a Shrine.

This beautiful example of Gothic Revival church architecture is an eclectic manifestation of an American version of religious architecture in which the style is a product of both foreign and local influences. The overall form of the church with its flat brick walls and square towers with corner pinnacles suggests a "Commissioners' Gothic" style which originated in England in the early 1800s. However, Parkins combined this with a French Gothic flavor found in the three rose windows and the towered façade. The nave was adapted from Italian Gothic design, as was the round organ loft balcony.

Various angles including reflection of front in modern office building to the west. Photos by ATLsherpa [click to enlarge]

The church super-structure, built of red brick, has a modified cruciform plan defined on the exterior by a pitched roof over the long nave, intersected by shorter transept roofs adjacent to the apse and its side chapels. The most striking feature of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception's exterior is the pair of square towers flanking the central gable over a tripartite entrance. Alterations were done to the interior in 1923, 1954, and 1969. The exterior has remained largely intact except in 1923 when it lost a parapet balustrade with large trefoil crosses that connected the four pinnacles of its northern tower. In 1954, the Church of the Immaculate Conception was rededicated as a shrine.

Source: U.S. National Park Service

Father O’Reilly saves Atlanta [12:58]

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.

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. 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.

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. Source: Catholic Digest | Photos by ATLsherpa [click to enlarge]

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 siege 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.

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, smoldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city.

A few weeks after the siege 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.”

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 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.

Source: Catholic Digest (2019)

Explore More

On Deck…

I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Sherpa Café. Next week, we will explore another Atlanta landmark. As always, you can use the comments area below to share your thoughts. You can also use the share button below to let your friends know about ATLSherpa. Thanks for supporting me on this project; I hope you have a great week.

This is Steve Saenz, your ATLsherpa.

Leave a comment

Share ATLsherpa