The two-story white-frame antebellum house known for more than a century as the "Father Ryan Home" is no more. Once located at 1428 Beach Boulevard in West Biloxi, the historic structure, famous for its towering palm tree growing through the wide front steps was swept into the gulf by the fury of Hurricane Katrina.
The home was constructed in 1841 as a retirement home for Judge W.C. Wade of Natchez. It became the summer residence of well-known New Orleans cotton buyer, John Watt. It is believed that at the time Father Ryan leased the house it was owned by New Orleans architect Thomas W. Carter. When Father Abram J. Ryan, the "Poet-Priest of the South," moved into the home in October of 1881, his name had already become a household word from Maine to California.
Ryan was born near Hagerstown, Maryland, on February 5, 1838. He admired Robert E. Lee so much that he became so desired to be a Virginian often told his parishioners and others that he was born in Virginia. Although wishful thinking on his part, his family had moved to Norfolk when he was about two months old before settling St. Louis, Missouri, in 1846 as proprietors of a general store.
Described as a quiet, delicate, thoughtful sort of boy in Furl that Banner, his biography by David O'Connell, he excelled at the city's Catholic school. It was there that his teachers noticing his "natural inclinations to piety" encouraged him to become a priest. After graduating from prep school at St. Mary of the Barrens at Perryville, Missouri, he accepted the call to the priesthood and enrolled in Our Lady of the Angels Seminary near Niagara Falls, New York. David O'Connell, notes in his book that the Southern conservative "felt very much out of place." On September 12, 1860, the young twenty-two year-old rebel was ordained two years ahead of the canonically-mandated age of twenty-four.
A gifted speaker, Ryan was assigned to a conservative church in Peoria, Illinois, where he ministered throughout most of the War Between the States.
On September 1, 1862, Father Ryan's brother David joined the Kentucky Cavalry under the command of C.S.A. General John Hunt Morgan. He was killed seven months later in a skirmish near Monticello, Kentucky. For the next two years, Father Ryan took numerous leaves of absence to minister as a chaplain in various C.S.A. army units in the field. Although no official records exist to support his serving the Confederacy as a duly commissioned chaplain, it is known that he performed the duties of a chaplain in various east Tennessee towns and cities including Nashville and Knoxville, and also localities in Kentucky and Georgia. He just showed up and ministered before or after a battle.
For Ryan, the war ended abruptly. He had a difficult time with the fact that his beloved South had lost. He believed that "the North is the head, but the South is the heart" and began to pen verses in an effort to lift spirits and heal wounds. One of his first poems, "The Conquered Banner," which may also be his most moving, was written only a few days following General Lee's surrender. The last stanza reads:
Furl that Banner, softly, slowly! Treat it gently--it is holy-- For it droops above the dead. Touch it not--unfold it never, Let it droop there, furled forever, For its people's hopes are dead!
Following the war, Ryan busied himself with poetry and preaching. With little regard for his health, he worked long days preaching, raising money for specific Catholic charities, and writing. Everywhere he went--Boston, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and numerous cities in between--the pews were filled with faithful Catholic parishioners.
Ryan was named priest of St. Mary's church in Mobile in 1877, where the pace of being a full-time minister was considered slower, but it was too late; the damage to his health had been done. His doctors ordered complete rest. In the late summer of 1881, the frail Father Byan moved into the home facing the gulf in west Biloxi. During the first few weeks he penned three poems about his new surroundings: "Sea Dreamings," "Sea Reverie," and "Sea Rest." His concern for his health is revealed in the first verse of "Sea Rest:"
"Far from 'where the roses rest," Round the altar and the aisle, Which I loved, of all, the best-- I have come to rest awhile By the ever-restless sea-- Will its waves give rest to me?"
His stay in Biloxi was rewarding, enabling him to achieve his lifelong dream of meeting and befriending Jefferson Davis. The closeness of Davis's home, Beauvoir, located only four miles west, gave Father Ryan the opportunity to build the relationship he had longed for.
In December of 1882, he engaged in an evangelical preaching tour of the Northeast, visiting Boston, Montreal, Kingston, and Ontario. He read his poem, "The Sword of Robert Lee" on June 28, 1883, at the unveiling of Edward V. Valentine's statue of Lee at Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. He then returned to coast for one month and left in 1883, never to return. He left to fulfill his vow of preaching the Gospel as an itinerant minister. Father Abram Ryan died of organic heart disease in a Franciscan monastery in Louisville, Kentucky, on April 22, 1886. A few months prior to his death he wrote his own epitaph:
"To the higher shrine of Love divine My lowly feet have trod, I want no fame, no other name Than this--a priest of God!"
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|Title Annotation:||heritage matters: looking back|
|Author:||Cooper, Forrest Lamar|
|Date:||May 1, 2009|
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