Irish Catholics in a Protestant Town

If you know anything about religion in America, you know that it was colonized to provide a space for religious freedom. While an essential ideal, many religious minorities have been discriminated against when coming to America. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, this minority took the form of Irish Catholics.

Coming down to Georgia, we have not always been a friendly place for Catholics. Colonists worried if Catholic immigrants were allowed to settle, they would associate with nearby French Catholics and “might eventually join with their co-religionists to endanger the Charter colony” of Georgia.[1] Still, this didn’t stop the first Catholic church in the region from being constructed in 1792. While it was a rough road for Catholic Georgians, they built a community that still stands to this day.

This abbreviated family tree documents only those within the blog’s discussion.
For example, Peter J. Cline is the father of 16 children, between two wives. Margaret Ida, is his second wife.

Flannery’s family story starts in Ireland in 1851, when John Flannery left to settle in America. He settled in Savannah in 1854, where he was extremely involved in his community.[2] After serving in the Civil War, he returned to the city and helped found the Citizens Bank, as well as build the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. It was in his marriage to Mary Ellen Norton, a niece of the Harty-Treanor family, that his story intersects with that of the Catholics community in Milledgeville. They also became parents to a little girl, Katie, who would play a major role in Flannery’s life.

In 1871, Peter James Cline opened a store in Milledgeville, Georgia. The store became so successful that he was able to open a farm for his Jersey cows, and was so well liked in the community that he was elected mayor in 1888.[3] He married into the local Catholic Treanor family, resulting in the birth of Regina Cline in 1896.

Also coming from Ireland in the 1850s, Patrick O’Connor arrived in Savannah and opened a successful livery stable.[4] One of his eleven children, Edward O’Connor, also became a “prominent businessman” in Savannah, and had children of his own.[5] It was at the wedding of one of his daughters, Nan, to a Mr. Herbert Cline of Milledgeville, that Edward Jr. met young Regina Cline. The rest is history, with Mary Flannery O’Connor (named after her cousin Katie’s mother) being born in 1925.

With a family so deeply rooted both in Georgia and Catholicism, it’s easy to understand Flannery’s fascination with both location and religion. She wrote letters about the religious communities in and around Milledgeville, getting along with Episcopalians and Presbyterians alike.[6] Her stories deal with much-explored Catholic symbolism, steeped in middle Georgian culture. When she finally left the “good Protestant town”[7] she’d known her whole life, she kept that same “allegiance to the Catholic faith [her ancestors] brought with them at the outset.”[8] Flannery was a true Georgian writer, as Sally Fitzgerald so neatly summarizes in her essay Root and Branch, “[Flannery] complained in one of her letters that the trouble with most writers these days was that they weren’t from anywhere. By contrast, Flannery, who in her lifetime was sometimes referred to locally as ‘Miss Regina’s daughter who writes,’ and who is now an author of international repute, was not only from Georgia, she was a part of it.”[9]

An original metal sign of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Milledgeville, Georgia (Andalusia Collection 2018.1.825) The church, built in 1874, is on land purchased by Flannery’s great-grandmother Joanna Harty Treanor, the wife of Hugh Donnelly Treanor, Milledgeville’s first Catholic resident. The first wedding at the church was that of her grandfather, Peter J. Cline, to his first wife.

[1] Sally Fitzgerald, “Root and Branch: O’Connor of Georgia,” Georgia Historical Quarterly, 64 (4), (1980), 379.

[2] Ibid, 384.

[3] Ibid, 383.

[4] Ibid, 385.

[5] Ibid, 385.

[6] Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999), 259.

[7] Ibid, 527.

[8] Fitzgerald, 378.

[9] Ibid, 387.

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