The varied and challenging career(s) of Father Michael J. Byrne

Originally Appeared in : 9816-8/2/18

Born in Norwich, Connecticut on November 22, 1856, Michael J. Byrne probably had no idea of the career(s) he would follow throughout his life. Early on, he wanted to be a priest, but that dream ended when his preceptor at St. Paul’s Preparatory School in Pittsburgh told him he should seek another vocation in life.


The profession young Mike Byrne chose, oddly enough, was being advance manager of “The Brothers Byrne” (AKA “The Odd Balls”) which later became a theatrical success.


By 1880, Byrne had married and was moving on with his career. Inevitably and irrevocably, his life would undergo further change. When his wife died, Michael Byrne’s thoughts once again turned toward the priesthood and he was ordained in 1913. Now, his career took yet another turn and, in 1917, Father Byrne’s challenging, new, delayed ministry commenced with his appointment as Catholic chaplain at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta. Several years later, at the urging of Richard Reid, editor of the Bulletin of the Diocese of Savannah (later the Southern Cross), Father Byrne wrote an interesting account of his experiences as prison chaplain that appeared in the diocesan paper.


In this vivid account, Byrne observed that when he first became chaplain he had said Mass on Sunday on “a small, portable altar that was rolled out on the stage of the prison auditorium and quickly rolled back after Mass so other religious services could take place." Father Byrne recalled that there was nothing in the auditorium to lead to thoughts of God but the priest at the altar in surroundings that were totally unfamiliar to Catholics. The disenchanted chaplain later lamented that the turnout for Sunday Mass averaged only about 70 men and weekly distribution of Communion usually consisted of five or so communicants.
Knowing something must be done to improve the situation, Father Byrne appealed to Warden Fred A. Zerbst and achieved good results. A decent-sized room above the auditorium was soon remodeled into a small chapel. Blessed on April 14, 1918 by Bishop Benjamin J. Keiley of the Diocese of Savannah, this room became the Chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Described by Byrne as being “little more than a large, white-painted room replete with a minimal sanctuary”, this new place of Catholic worship soon resulted in a surge in Mass attendance. Additional improvements to the little chapel would follow.


An Italian prisoner who happened to be an artist soon began decorating Our Lady of Perpetual Help Chapel. Windows magically became “stained glass.” Walls were covered with canvas. The small altar was enlarged. An oil painting of Our Lady of Perpetual Help adorned the wall. The Savannah Eagles Club donated two statues: one, of the Sacred Heart; the other, of St. Joseph. Other valued gifts were a set of Stations of the Cross and two kneeling angels to enhance the altar. The government supplied an imitation pipe organ for the newly-built choir loft. Father Byrne soon had to call in other priests to help with Sunday services.


On leave briefly from his duties as prison chaplain during the summer of 1921, Father Michael Byrne managed to visit Norwich, his home town, to lay the cornerstone of a new Catholic church and to celebrate Mass. No longer a young man, the busy priest must have realized that time was catching up with him. Several months after this visit home, a notice in the Boston Globe of January 10, 1922 referred to his death in Boston the previous day. His late-in-life career as prison chaplain ended, Father Michael J. Byrne was buried, according to extant sources, in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Norwich.


Columnist Rita H. Delorme is a volunteer in the Diocesan Archives.

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