Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Place for Scarlett O'Hara's Confessions

The first Catholic Church of Atlanta--what a better topic for a lovely Sunday afternoon? Now, we're well aware that this is one building Scarlett didn't get to see that much, despite what our title might suggest, but this church's history, through all its metamorphoses, ties in so nicely with Atlanta's own history that we figured it deserves a post.

When Atlanta was in its infancy, and still called Marthasville, all of its religious groups were united in the same building.  The settlement's population, though very small, comprised  Methodists, Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians and Presbyterians, but, since there wasn't enough money to erect five separate churches, pragmatism triumphed over religious differences. They combined their resources and built a simple two-chimney clapboard structure on a triangular lot bounded by Peachtree, Pryor and Houston Streets. 

This  happy ecumenism born out of practicality would be short lived though. One by one, the congregations moved into their own buildings; the Catholic congregation in 1848. Its new church, on the corner of Loyd and Hunter streets, was still a plain wood frame structure, quite representative for the steady developing city's architecture at the time. The church didn't have a name yet and was simply known as "the Catholic Church," pertaining from 1850 to the diocese of Savannah.

The most heroic moment in the existence of this congregation came during Sherman's occupation of Atlanta, when Father Thomas O'Reilly saved the town's churches from being burned to the ground. His strategy? He simply announced that if his church was fired, then all the Roman Catholics in Sherman's army would leave their ranks. Between his popularity as a chaplain even among Federal troops and the fact that the regiment was composed largely of Catholics, the church and all its surroundings were spared.  That is not to say the church escaped the war intact, for its facade had already been affected by a shell during the siege.

As Atlanta rose from its ashes in the years after the war, it seemed that the passion for building, and building big, extended to churches as well. In 1869, the cornerstone was laid for a new building to replace the old simple edifice of the Catholic Church. It was an event altogether, having in attendance the famous Father Ryan, the Poet-Priest of the Confederacy, who even held a speech, much to Atlanta's pride. The commissioned architect was William H. Parkins, who would establish his reputation in Georgia through building this church. 

In 1873, the imposing cathedral-like building was ready for use, though work continued on portions of it till 1880. Unfortunately, by the time the church was inaugurated in 1873 and received its name, the Church of Immaculate Conception,  its hero and savior, Father O'Reilly, had already passed away.

That the edifice was grand you can see for yourselves in the picture above.  Made of painted red brick, it was of Gothic design, with its tall square tower and its three-arched main entrance.  We guess that if Scarlett ever wanted to turn religious after Rhett left her in 1873, she now had a stately enough church to go to. Unless of course you, like my co-blogger, are firm believers in the reconciliation scenario. In that case, I guess this was a good venue for them to renew their vows. Or something like that.


  1. Maybe Scarlett bought her way into the good graces of the Old Guard, much as Rhett did, by contributing to the church building fund. Looks like the architectural style is right up Scarlett's alley!

    Good Catholic girl that I am, I thought the reconciliation scenario was the confession referred to in the title (the sacrament of confession is now called reconciliation)!

    Is this church still standing?

  2. Oh man- I'm not as good of a Catholic girl as you, iris, as the alternate usage of 'reconciliation scenario' completely slipped my mind. But both work here- Scarlett can get reconciled with God, then Rhett. :)

    The church is still standing, but nowadays it's known as the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It was declared a shrine in 1954... by none other than Archbishop Gerald P. O'Hara, oddly enough.

  3. @ Iris. Yes, I thought of that too, that the Butler family could contribute. Though I saw it more as Rhett during his campaign for respectability, giving money to his wife's church, and making her look bad for not even attending.

    The first link in the post, the one with the image is a link to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception's website. Their history page has a ton of details and very nice images, if you're interested.

  4. Well, the timeline certainly fits! Scarlett seeks reconciliation with God, society, and Rhett. There is a lot of symbolism in that.

    OR, think of this...Sister Mary Scarlett! LOL!
    Imagine how many people would leave the church because of that!


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