Capitol & churches: moving King George’s capitol

Capitols & churches--Georgia CapiolBy Gary Flanagan

Leaving Columbia, South Carolina we head West on Interstate 20 into the state named for King George II. Clearly our early founders had a difficult time running from and staying true to the crown of England. Before we arrive in the current state capital of Georgia, Atlanta, let us investigate the capital journey from coast to railroad crossing.

Savannah was the first capital of Georgia, established as the colony capital in 1751. Shortly after statehood it began to share capital status with Augusta in 1785 to include other parts of the growing state. By 1795 the state decided it needed another king figure and moved the capitol to Louisville (named for King Louis XVI of France) in Jefferson County. This relationship lasted almost 10 years before a fourth capital location moved a little west and north to Milledgeville in 1804 where an actual Capitol building appeared until the civil war.

Further to the north in 1837, a transportation hub was beginning to form at the intersection of two railroad lines. The chief engineer of the Georgia Railroad envisioned a connection of commerce between two oceans and called the new town Atlantica-Pacifica. Shortened to Atlanta, it grew until General Sherman came to town in 1864 and burned the city to the ground. The only structures that escaped the fires were churches and hospitals.

How did the churches avoid the ashes? A growing cotton industry and other commerce drew a sizable immigration of Catholics to the area. In 1861 the Atlanta Catholic Church appointed Fr. Thomas O’Reilly as pastor. He and Fr. Jeremiah O’Neil became known for their ministry to soldiers on both sides of the war between the states. Fr. O’Reilly became aware of Sherman’s order to burn the city of Atlanta to the ground in 1864. He used his influence to convince General Slocum and other army staffers that there would be mass desertions if they persisted in burning the churches of the city. Many of the soldiers in Sherman’s army were also Catholic and had been served by the Catholic ministry.

He also convinced Sherman’s staff to spare the courthouse, city hall, Central Presbyterian, 2nd Baptist, Trinity Methodist, and St. Phillip Episcopal. After the war, this area would become the building block for Atlanta’s reconstruction. The capital was moved from Milledgeville to Atlanta in 1868. In 1869, the cornerstone for The Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was laid to replace the damaged, but still standing, Atlanta Catholic Church. City hall was deeded to the state to build a new Capitol structure that was completed in 1889. Atlanta, Georgia has been rapidly growing from that point onward.

I visited this historic block in 2013 and found a vibrant street festival between the Capitol and Central Presbyterian. Around the next corner a line was forming at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for Saturday morning meals for the homeless.

Fathers O’Reily and O’Neil must surely be smiling. Even King George can afford a grin, because the State of Georgia found a permanent home for a state Capitol.

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