2008 Essay Winner
2008 Winning Essay
The Meaningfulness of St. Patrick’s Day in
“The City Too Busy to Hate”
by Katrina Parsons
Atlanta Girls’ School
The first St. Patrick’s Day parade in Atlanta was held in 1858. It was coordinated by the newly formed Hibernian Benevolent Society of Atlanta. One can only imagine whether the founding members wondered what might become of the parade and the city 150 years later. Would founder, Bernard Lamb, be proud that by 2008, the parade had expanded its emphasis to recognize the hardships of all immigrant groups to America? Could early member, Father Thomas O’ Reilly, have envisioned that Atlanta would someday become known as “The City Too Busy to Hate”?
Probably, young Father O’ Reilly knew of St. Patrick. As an Irish priest, Father O’ Reilly likely studied St. Patrick’s much admired traits of patience, love, tolerance, and forgiveness. Interestingly, St. Patrick was a significant figure in Ireland, even though he was not Irish. In the fifth century C.E., he was kidnapped from Britain and taken to Ireland as a slave for six years. He eventually escaped and returned to Britain to be with his family. While there, he had a vision and wrote that he heard a calling to help the Irish people. He then returned to Ireland. As bishop of Ireland, he busily set about converting Ireland to Christianity. Instead of harboring hatred, he established monasteries and schools, which became famous throughout Europe. “The Island of Saints and Scholars;” that’s how Ireland was known. He brought Latin and learning to the island so that the Irish were less isolated. He forgave the Irish for his years of mistreatment In fact, he pleaded for the lives and improved conditions of enslaved Irish people in his Letter to Coroticus.
Father O’Reilly could not have known that he, too, would be challenged to practice those same traits of love, patience, forgiveness and tolerance here in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1864 the Irish priest found himself in the middle of the American Civil War. He had been assigned by a bishop to minister to Federal troops in the prison camp in Andersonville, and had been appointed a chaplain by the Confederacy. In Atlanta, he trekked up to 20 miles per day to help over 20,000 sick and wounded soldiers of both the Confederacy and the Union, both Catholics and non-Catholics. After the fall of Atlanta in the autumn of 1864, Father O’ Reilly pleaded for the saving of Atlanta churches. Remaining with the priest after the evacuation of the city, were still a small group of frightened citizens, including 10-year-old Carrie Berry whose diary is at the Atlanta History Center. She quotes in her diary “We were fritened almost to death last night” and “they said that they would set the last house on fire if they had to leave this place.” Father O’Reilly courageously stayed on at the parsonage of the Catholic Church in Atlanta (the church is now known as the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception) where he had been pastor since 1861. The young priest interceded with General William Tecumseh Sherman after the general’s famous order to begin the final destruction of the standing buildings in Atlanta, prior to the Union Army’s March to the Sea. The outraged cleric said that many of General Sherman’s soldiers were Catholics and he threatened to have them excommunicated if the churches were burned. His actions saved the churches of five different faiths: St. Philips Episcopal Church, Central Presbyterian Church, Trinity United Methodist Church, Second Baptist Church, and last but not least, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. Atlanta’s City Hall, the Fulton County Courthouse and the buildings between Mitchell and Peters Streets were also spared thanks to his efforts. The war weakened Father O’ Reilly’s health though, and he died on September 6, 1872. (His crypt lies in the basement of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception Church, where it had been buried, undiscovered, until 1982.)
Almost a hundred years after Father O’Reilly’s courageous stand, a new civil war came to the United States- this time a war for equal rights, regardless of race or background. Concurrently the city of Atlanta adopted the slogan “The City Too Busy to Hate”. In Atlanta, the city leaders may have taken inspiration from Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. In his “I Have A Dream” speech given August 28,1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC Dr. King prayed that “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” He wanted an end to segregation; he thought that people should be valued by their human qualities and not by their racial attributes. In this same speech, this son of Atlanta envisioned: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood”. This quote demonstrates Dr. King’s belief- that everyone of any race, religion, age, or gender should be able to sit together (on the bus, in a restaurant, at a parade, etc.) without fear of discrimination or prejudice. Tragically, Dr. King was killed in Memphis, Tennessee in April, 1968. His crypt now lies downtown, only a mile away from Father O’Reilly’s.
In 2005, the Parade Committee, (Atlanta St Patrick’s Parade Inc., including the Hibernian Benevolent Society) returned the Atlanta St. Patrick’s Day parade to downtown. The Parade Committee extended the celebration to include not just Irish American immigrants, but all immigrant groups. It is thus a celebration of America’s best. With this 150th anniversary of the Hibernian Benevolent Society of Atlanta, as well as the 127th Atlanta St. Patrick’s Day parade, it is fitting that the 2008 ceremonies will include a commemoration of the heroism of Father O’Reilly. With this 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s death, it is also meaningful that the 127th parade in honor of a former slave, St. Patrick, will be celebrated in the hometown of a descendant of slaves, Martin Luther King Jr. That hometown is Atlanta, “The City Too Busy to Hate”.
Katrina Parsons Atlanta Girls’ School