Where This Meets That
A year ago, I spent my first night volunteering at a men’s shelter at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Atlanta.
It was an interesting experience in many ways, not the least of which was in learning about the shrine’s rich history.
I slept in the cellar just outside an iron gate that protected the church’s crypt, where the remains of many of the parish’s former pastors are kept. Among those buried there is Father Thomas O’Reilly.
Irish-born Father O’Reilly was pastor during General Sherman’s siege of Atlanta. Sherman had forced Atlantans out of the city to ensure freedom of movement for his forces. Correspondingly, Father O’Reilly’s congregation at the Shrine changed from Confederate gray to Union blue, as many of Sherman’s troops moved in to worship. O’Reilly continued to minister through the change, ministering to humanity and not to specific sides.
Not only did O’Reilly blindly and openly serve both sides in the war as a man of God, but he also victoriously argued truth in the face of certain destruction. As Sherman began his infamous march to the sea by burning two-thirds of Atlanta, he left the shrine and surrounding structures, including City Hall and several other churches and residential areas standing at Father O’Reilly’s insistence. O’Reilly stood firm in the face of Sherman, warning the general that he would face mass defections if he ordered the destruction of the shrine.
That Sherman acquiesced validated O’Reilly’s warning. To have merit, O’Reilly’s assertion depended on a resurrected sense of humanity, long buried by the war, at the core of Sherman’s common soldiers; a contingent of humanness that would side with holiness and define that line across which those troops would march for no man. Clearly, Sherman recognized that O’Reilly’s warning bore teeth, as he noted the posturing of his own troops.
On the surface, this is a tale of the courage shown by a priest against a brutal general. But look beyond Father Thomas O’Reilly, into the hardened scowl of the Union soldiers’ faces under Sherman.
How much evil had the war waged at their hands?
How much more would it on their march to Savannah?
But during this short episode in an appalling war, humanity rejected savagery and slew it. Common men who’d turned common soldiers found uncommon courage to defend an invisible faith.
Who were these faceless soldiers? What were their names? I know not one, but I know who they were. They were you and me, every day against a choice to rise or fall and deciding, this day, to rise.