The Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
A Church Without Boundaries
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The Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception strives to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a welcoming community of diverse Christians, seeking spiritual growth and providing compassionate outreach.

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The first beginnings of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the oldest church in north Georgia and Atlanta’s first Catholic Church, are told in stories of early missionaries to the area. No existing records prior to 1846 verify when or where the first Mass was celebrated in Atlanta . Conflicting stories from that period suggest various private homes or a school building as the site of that first Atlanta liturgy.
In all probability missionary priests were ministering to Atlanta by the early 1840’s. These early missionary priests followed the railroad, celebrating Mass in various railroad camps and towns throughout north Georgia . In his book History of the Diocesan Shrine of the Immaculate Conception Van Buren Colley includes the following as missionary priests who served Atlanta Catholics on a monthy basis, the Fathers: Jeremiah F. O’Neill, Jr.; John Brady and Gregory Duggan of Augusta; John Francis Shannahan of Macon; Jeremiah F. O’ Neill, Sr. of Savannah (an uncle of Fr. J.F. O’ Neill, Jr.); and Fr. Birmingham of Edgefield, SC. (Colley, pg. 9) Fr. Shannahan is credited by some sources with founding the Mission of Atlanta, but there no written record confirms this.
Atlanta Catholics completed their first church building in 1848. Not yet named, it was known simply as “the Catholic Church”. This building stood on the same site as the present Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. This first church was a simple wood frame structure similar to the construction of surrounding buildings.
Behind the altar of their new church, the parishioners hung a reproduction oil painting of Murillo’s “Immaculate Conception”. Anecdotal evidence states that this painting was chosen because of the special devotion to the Blessed Mother held by these early Atlanta Catholics. The building was dedicated in 1849 by the Right Reverend Ignatius A.Reynolds, bishop of the Diocese of Charleston .
It is not known which priest directed the building of this first Catholic Church in Atlanta (and the first in north Georgia ). Fr. John Barry was the missionary priest assigned to the city during the years of church construction, but it is likely that Fr. John Francis Shannahan may also have been involved.
In 1850 the state of Georgia was made a diocese in its own right. Spiritual direction of Atlanta ’s Catholics passed from the Diocese of Charleston to the Diocese of Savannah. Bishop Francis X. Gartland was the first bishop of the Savannah Diocese.
In 1851 Fr. Jeremiah F. O’Neill, Jr. became the first priest to be officially assigned to Atlanta . A wealthy railroad official, Terrance Doonan, petitioned the Right Reverend F.X. Gartland to assign a resident priest to the city of Atlanta . Mr. Doonan offered to pay all expenses associated with the posting as well as all living expenses of the priest. Accepting Mr. Doonan’s offer, Bishop Gartland appointed Fr.
The original church was constructed of wood on the corner of Lloyd Street and Hunter Street now known as Central Avenue and Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive in 1848 by an Irish missionary, Father John Barry. It was dedicated and named Church of the Immaculate Conception in early 1849 by Bishop Ignatius A. Reynolds of Charleston.
New church completed in 1872.
Interior of the church in 1880
O’Neill as pastor. The Atlanta Catholic Church thus became a parish rather than a mission.
According to Van Buren Colley, others who subsequently served as pastors of the Atlanta Catholic Church from 1851 until the church’s dedication as Immaculate Conception Church in 1873 include: Fathers J.F. O’Neill, Sr.; James Hasson; P.J. O’ Keefe; Thomas O’Reilly; M. Cullinan (as administrator); H.P. Clavreul; John McCarthy; Terrance Scollan; William Quinlan; and John B. Duggan.(Colley, pg. 19)
From 1850 through the next decade both Atlanta and the Atlanta Catholic Church continued to grow rapidly. Cotton production and new commerce brought an increase in immigration to the area, a large portion of which was of the Catholic faith. The Atlanta Catholic Church, recently a mission church herself, by 1860 now supported several mission churches of her own.
Father O'Reilly
Father Thomas O'Reilly
In 1861 Fr. Thomas O’Reilly, who was to become one of Atlanta ’s most well known priests, was appointed pastor of the Atlanta Catholic Church and its missions. His pastorate was to be shaped by the War Between the States. Throughout the war, Fr. O’Reilly gave aid both in the field and in makeshift hospitals to soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Because he ministered to Union soldiers as well as those of the Confederacy (of which he was an official Confederate Chaplain), he became known personally by many individual Union soldiers. Catholics in the Federal army also attended his Masses during the siege and occupation of Atlanta .
Fr. O’Reilly and Fr. Jeremiah F. O’Neill, Jr., became known for their selfless hospital ministry during the war years. They not only personally gave material and spiritual aid to the soldiers, but also encouraged parishioners to minister to patients in the many hospitals around Atlanta.
In 1864 hearing of an order to Sherman to destroy and burn the city of Atlanta, Fr. O’Reilly warned General Slocum of Sherman’s army staff that if they persisted in the plan to burn down the Catholic Church, Sherman
would face massive desertions of the Catholics in the Federal ranks.(A majority of Sherman’s forces on this campaign were said to be Catholic, and many had personal knowledge or experience of Fr. O’Reilly.) During Sherman’s burning of Atlanta, some of these Federal soldiers did help to protect the church by preventing the setting of fires too near the church building.
Fr. O’Reilly’s intercessions with Sherman ’s staff also apparently saved the Court House, City Hall, and several other churches including St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Trinity Methodist, Second Baptist, and Central Presbyterian. All were saved from destruction, although most were occupied for various uses by the Union soldiers.
The Atlanta Catholic Church was not burned, but it was damaged by shells that exploded in the vicinity. The Northern army occupied the church building and for a time used it as a supplemental hospital.
When the citizens of Atlanta who had fled during the siege returned at the war’s end, they found their city almost totally destroyed by fire. The “spared” churches, including the Catholic church building, became places of refuge to temporarily house the homeless returnees.
At the end of the war, rather than starting to repair their damaged church home, Atlanta Catholics decided to build a new church building. They moved the old wood frame building to the east onto an adjacent lot, and began construction of the new church on the same site as the original church.
The cornerstone was placed on September of 1869 by the Right Reverend Bishop Verot of Savannah . The inscription read: “Erected and blessed Sep. 1, 1869 . Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church. Matt. XVII 8”. W. H. Parkins was chosen to be architect for the project.
Fr. John B. Duggan became pastor in 1871 when Fr. O’Reilly’s health began to fail. Rev. Thomas O’Reilly died September 6, 1872 , age forty-one, and was buried in a vault under the new church.
On October 18, 1945 , eighty-one years after his brave and defiant intercession, the Atlanta Historical Society honored Fr. O’Reilly by erecting a monument to him in gratitude for his part in saving the churches and City Hall of Atlanta in 1864.
The new Gothic-style church was ready to use in 1873 and was to finally receive a name other than Atlanta Catholic Church. On Wednesday, December 10, 1873 , the Church of the Immaculate Conception was dedicated on the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. Bishop Gross of Savannah presided at a Pontifical Mass following the blessing of the church. Although in use, it was not finished, and work continued on the Church and rectory buildings until 1880.
On January 10, 1880 Bishop Gross dedicated the newly erected high marble altar. Other recently completed additions to the building included a newly painted interior, life-sized frescos of the Apostles on the plaster ceiling, Stations of the Cross in oil paintings, and stained glass windows.
Fr. James O’Brien was the pastor of Immaculate Conception at the 1880 dedication. Fr. O’Brien is credited with the establishment of Atlanta ’s first permanent hospital. He purchased the property for the Sisters of Mercy’s Atlanta Catholic Hospital , later known as St. Joseph ’s Infirmary and was instrumental in founding the hospital.
While Fr. O’Brien was pastor, the first daughter church of Immaculate Conception , Ss. Peter and Paul, was established in 1880. It was replaced by the Parish of the Sacred Heart in 1896, under the leadership of the Fathers of the Society of Mary (Marists). Other parishes were formed as the Catholic population grew and shifted to other areas around the city. Immaculate Conception is the mother church of all other Atlanta parishes.
In 1881 Fr. Thomas Francis Cleary ( 1881-1883) became pastor of Immaculate Conception Church . He was considered, at age twenty-eight, very young to receive such an important assignment. In History of the Diocesan Shrine of the Immaculate Conception Van Buren Colley states that “Fr. Cleary made himself a member of every Catholic family in the
Church Fire
The Shrine was engulfed in a fire in 1982 that almost destroyed the Church.
Main Altar after the fire.
Interior of the church after the fire.
city, and no matter of importance was decided without consulting the young priest.” (pg. 60) Fr. Cleary soon gained a reputation as friend and consoler to those in need and invaluable in settling family and neighborhood disputes.
He was to pastor Immaculate Conception for only two years, forced to leave the parish when he contracted tuberculosis. At age thirty Fr. Cleary died and was buried in the church vault beside the remains of the late Fr. Thomas O’Reilly. A plaque placed at the church entrance in honor of Fr. Cleary read: “None knew him but to love him, none named him but to praise.” (Colley, pg. 58)
Following Fr. Cleary, Fr. Kirsch served as pastor briefly until being recalled to his parent diocese of Treves.
Fr. Benjamin J.Keiley pastored Immaculate Conception from 1886-1896. He established the League of the Sacred Heart at the parish. He installed and blessed the almost four thousand pound bell in the main tower of the church. It was called the Angel Bell and for many years rang the Angelus at 6:00 AM, 12:00 PM, and 6:00 PM.
Under the pastorate of Fr. Robert F. Kennedy (1907-1923) needed renovations were begun, including a change from gas lighting to electricity. Fr. Kennedy was pastor during World War I, and served as sole priest for the large parish after releasing his assistant pastor to serve as a military chaplain.
Renovation and a general rehabilitation of the Immaculate Conception church building was completed under Fr. Emmet M. Walsh just prior to the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the parish on December 12, 1923. One addition to the facility that Van Buren Colley notes was of interest, as quoted by a Mr. Owen James Southwell, an architect: “A ladies retiring room, with conveniences, has been provided under the south tower. Access to this is from the Sunday School room.” (pg, 111)
Crypt discovered under the main altar of the church
during restoration after the fire.
During the course of the cleanup and restoration after the fire, the long forgotten tombs of Fathers O’Reilly and Cleary were uncovered.
The crypt as seen today.
Mr. Colley describes Immaculate Conception parish on its fiftieth anniversary: “The parish had come through two great wars and weathered several depressions and had emerged stronger than ever. The spirit of the Immaculate has always been that of love and respect for all—a spirit that has perdued through the years and still prevails among her children.” (pg. 112)
Fr. Moylan ( 1928-1936) became pastor of Immaculate Conception at a time of great financial hardship—the Great Depression years. His financial burden was heavier due to the large debt incurred by the renovations prior to the Golden Jubilee. Fr.Moylan was all ready well know to the parish, having served as assistant rector there from 1919 until 1926.
Fr. Moylan shared in the financial hardships of his parishioners, taking on the positions of sexton and janitor as well as his duties as pastor. Though its own resources were less than ideal, Immaculate Conception was encouraged by Fr. Moylan to reach out to the impoverished and unemployed.
The years of financial depression became a time of spiritual renewal for the parish. Fr. Moylan established a church choir that gained the reputation of one of the finest in the diocese. He also initiated special services and devotions and encouraged parish societies for spiritual growth and outreach, such as the Conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. He asked the parishioners to look beyond their personal troubles and difficulties, a mission that was to continue under the leadership of the next pastor, Fr. Joseph R. Smith.
Fr. Smith (1936-1951) began his pastorate in 1936 during the end of the Great Depression. As economic conditions began to improve, he began to plan for one of his greatest ambitions, a new modern parochial school (which was later completed under the pastorate of Msgr. Grady).
Fr. Smith established and supported Our Lady of Perpetual Help Free Cancer Home, located in the parish. The home was staffed by sisters of St. Dominic of St. Rose of Lima. It was similar in some respects to present day hospice, in that it was : “dedicated to help those suffering from incurable cancer and unable to pay for the treatment” (Colley: pg. 118). Fr. Smith visited the home on a regular basis providing practical and spiritual support for the patients.
During World War II Fr. Smith introduced public reciting of the Rosary as part of the celebration of Mass, asking for the intercession of the Blessed Mother for the safe return of Immaculate Conception’s parishoner-soldiers. Fr. Smith credited Mary’s intercession with the fact that no member of Immaculate Conception perished as a causality of the war.
Under Msgr. James J. Grady’s pastorate, begun in 1951, the school, Immaculate Conception Academy was finished and furnished; the rectory was renovated and furnished; and a massive and successful community-wide fund raising campaign led to the complete renovation of Immaculate Conception Church.
Archbishop Gerald P. O’Hara had instructed Msgr. Grady at the time of his appointment as pastor to restore and protect this church. Msgr. Grady and Fr. R. Donald Kiernan, his assistant pastor, took as the goal of this renovation to restore the original beauty of the church, while updating it where necessary to provide modern conveniences. Fr. R. Donald Kiernan, is credited with being instrumental in the success of this project.
Some original artwork, such as the fourteen Stations of the Cross oil paintings were restored rather than replaced. The stained glass windows were replaced, each donated by an individual or family. The front stained glass window was a copy in glass of Murillo’s painting “the Immaculate Conception”. A reproduction of this same work of art, but a copy in oils, had hung behind the altar in the original church building of 1848.
On June 2, 1954 at the rededication of Immaculate Conception Church, the Most
Monsignor James J. Grady
Reverend Francis E. Hyland, Auxiliary Bishop of Savannah-Atlanta Diocese, referred to the church, for the first time, as a Shrine to the Blessed Mother. After many decades of special devotion to Mary, Immaculate Conception Church had been designated a shrine (a church hallowed by history)—by decree of Archbishop Gerald P. O’Hara. Archbishop O’Hara affirmed that the beloved historic church would now be known as the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and the Shrine of the entire Atlanta diocese.

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