Wednesday 13 December 2017

Foulksmills to unveil plaque to hero priest

David Looby

Fr Peter Whelan
Fr Peter Whelan

A PLAQUE dedicated to an American Civil War hero from Foulksmills will be unveiled at his ancestral home on Sunday, August 18.

A PLAQUE dedicated to an American Civil War hero from Foulksmills will be unveiled at his ancestral home on Sunday, August 18.

Fr Peter Whelan, from Loughnageer, Foulksmills, ministered to sick and dying Confederate and Union soldiers during the bitter American conflict in appalling conditions, having volunteered for duty.

As part of The Gathering, all of Fr Whelan's relatives and friends from Savannah have been invited to the unveiling of a memorial plaque in his memory in Clongeen, in his family's old home, now occupied by former councillor Jimmy Curtis.

In Savannah, Georgia, his memory is revered and there is short historical documentary about his life entitled Fighting The Good Fight: The Father Peter Whelan Story, but no one knew where he came from in Wexford until recently.

A local group from Clongeen travelled to Savannah in 2010 and 2012 and carried out research to locate the birth place of this great Co. Wexford man but to no avail

But this summer a family in Clongeen discovered that an old photograph in their family home was the same as one on the other side of Atlantic, and the jigsaw fell into place.

A booklet has been compiled outlining the work Fr Whelan did and featuring an outline of his relations in Co. Wexford and a detailed family tree.

One of the organisers of the Gathering event said: 'The diaries of men who survived the horrors at Andersonville and the American Civil War, whether they were Catholic or Protestant, are filled with the greatest of admiration for Fr Whelan and everything he did for them. Many of the non-Catholics remarked that the ministers of their denominations should be forever shamed, because they did nothing. Indiscriminate of their confession, Fr Whelan was there for these prisoners, to comfort them and to bring them Christ day after day.'

Fr Whelan attended Birchfield College in Kilkenny before beginning his studies for the priesthood in Charleston, South Carolina. When Bishop Francis Gartland, the first Bishop of Savannah and a native of Dublin, died in 1854 during the yellow fever epidemic, Fr Whelan was appointed administrator of the diocese.

During the American Civil War, Fr Whelan volunteered to serve Confederate troops defending Fort Pulaski near Savannah. He remained with them until the fort fell in 1862. Along with the troops Fr Whelan became a prisoner of war and was transported to Governor's Island in New York. On May 10, 1862, Fr Whelan was discharged on parole, but he refused to leave, choosing instead to remain with the men, who now needed him more than ever.

When he returned to Savannah, Fr Whelan resumed his duties as vicar general. Two years later he travelled to Andersonville to minister to the 33,000 sick and dying Union prisoners in that notorious camp. His ministry was carried out under blazing sun. He exposed himself to great danger of infection, kneeling by the side of decaying bodies, in the stench and filth of the gangrene wards. While there he contracted a lung ailment that eventually shortened his life. After the war he returned to Savannah as pastor of the new St Patrick's church.

Known as 'The Angel of Andersonville Prison', his funeral in 1871 was the biggest Savannah had ever witnessed, with thousands of people in attendance.

Following the plaque unveiling at Clongeen Church, an ecumenical service will be held, with refreshments afterwards.

Wexford People

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