Gaudete: celebrating welcoming parishes, schools, communities, and people

The Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Atlanta, Ga.

Joseph Sequeira / July 22, 2022

The Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Atlanta, Ga., has long been an oasis for believers and seekers who are yearning to experience God and community. We are the oldest Catholic Church in Atlanta, with a long and storied history of intersectionality. We are proud to call ourselves a diverse community of believers who welcome all people.

In 1848, the Shrine was founded as a small, wood-framed church serving the Irish construction workers who were building the railway to Terminus, an old nickname for Atlanta. When the Civil War began only thirteen years later, the Shrine became a field hospital for both Union and Confederate soldiers.  

The pastor at the time, Father Thomas O’Reilly, was a spirited Irish immigrant who ministered to soldiers on both sides of the conflict and frequently negotiated with General William Sherman of the Union Army. When word came down that General Sherman intended to burn Atlanta to the ground, Father O’Reilly went to see one of Sherman’s generals and warned him that Catholics serving in the Union Army would leave their ranks.

Sherman backed down and spared the Shrine, and with it, a large swath of downtown Atlanta was saved. When Father O’Reilly died several years later in 1872, his funeral was, at that time, the largest in Atlanta’s history.  

Over 100 years later, the Shrine once again became a sanctuary for people living through a different type of war. In 1987, at the height of the H.I.V./AIDS crisis, we inaugurated “Tuesday Night Dinner at the Shrine,” a fellowship dinner for people living with AIDS. This compassionate outreach was staffed by Shrine volunteers and participating Catholic parishes. It provided not only a meal, but also companionship and a friendly shoulder. It was a bittersweet time of loving and losing. 

Although Tuesday Night Dinners primarily served gay men, eventually the word spread about a place where all people were welcomed. Soon enough, LGBTQ people of every stripe who had long felt alienated from the church began serving at the dinners as well as attending Mass. These courageous, faithful believers became a core part of the Shrine’s fabric.

Today, the Shrine still strives to be a “field hospital” for anyone who has been wounded or felt unwelcome for who they are. We regularly celebrate our LGBTQ community with potluck dinners at various parishioners’ homes. 

The Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is a diverse parish welcoming members from all over the metro Atlanta area.
(Photo courtesy of Joseph Sequeira)

We also host a ministry called Fortunate & Faithful Families, an Atlanta-based group of Catholic parents with LGBTQ children. (The group was founded by Mike and Kathy Farrell, who spoke at this year’s Outreach conference.) Every year, a group from the Shrine marches in Atlanta’s Pride parade and welcomes new people who are yearning for a place to belong. 

Aside from its reputation as a place of inclusivity, the Shrine is also known for its outreach to the hungry and needy. For the last 40 years, we have operated a Saturday soup kitchen for hungry people living on the streets of Atlanta.  

All year, we also operate the Shrine Community Market, a weekday sandwich and coffee ministry and night shelter for homeless men. None of these outreach ministries could exist without our LGBTQ parishioners. 

When I first walked into the Shrine in 1993 and saw openly queer people serving as lectors, ushers, Eucharistic ministers and more, I had a true “Emmaus moment.” My eyes were opened and I saw how church should be, and that being an LGBTQ child of God was like having brown eyes or curly hair. I simply was. I pray that, one day, that will not be a provocative thing to say. 

Joseph Sequeira

Joseph Sequeira is a parish administrator at The Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Atlanta, Ga.

All articles by Joseph Sequeira

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