How and why Father Bernard J. Doyle, exactly one year a priest, traveled a fatal Georgia road in 1879

Originally Appeared in : 9818-8/30/18

Information regarding Father Bernard Doyle, a 19th century priest of the Diocese of Savannah, has always been both intriguing and scarce. Sometimes, however, the story of the brief, heroic life of someone like him will wonderfully come to life. Amazingly, unexpected sources, such as those provided by Monsignor Richard Lopez, of Christ the King Church of the Atlanta Archdiocese, and Father Barney Doyle of Kilmore Diocese in Ireland, give us just what we need. Retired and now living in Cavan Town, Ireland, Father Barney, a grandnephew of Father Bernard Doyle, has provided vital information about his memorable relative who ministered so tirelessly to Catholics in northern and central Georgia.


The account of “our” Father Doyle’s heroics begins on a rain-drenched day in December 1879, when he and a companion, Maurice Moynihan, were on their way from Athens to visit a man in Lexington, Oglethorpe County, who was blind and critically ill. Aware of the gravity of the condition of this man, whose name was O’Neill, young Father Doyle insisted on hurrying from Athens, 18 miles away, to provide O’Neill with the blessing and sacramental rites he desired.


Educated at The Latin School in Moyne Co., Longford in his native Ireland, as well as in Savannah, Bernard Doyle was ordained in Savannah on December 14, 1878. By the following year, the young priest was in charge of five missions in upstate and middle Georgia and had to travel extensively. Even severe weather didn’t deter him. Hadn’t it already been raining for three days when Father Doyle and Maurice Moynihan set off in their buggy on December 14, 1879, to visit the blind Mr. O’Neill? Now, following their visit to him, they were being urged by friends to stay with them overnight until the weather improved. However, Father Doyle, anxious about returning to Athens where he had many responsibilities to take care of, insisted on going home. He and Moynihan soon departed, despite the continuing storm, for Lexington.


Although the heavy rain had flooded the nearby fords and the darkness was deepening, the priest and his companion left for home in their buggy. Unable to see, they soon became lost. When the weather improved the next day, the bodies of both men were found and brought to Athens, and they were afterwards interred in the Locust Grove Cemetery.  So it was that, well over a hundred years later, Monsignor Richard Lopez came across Father Doyle’s grave in the cemetery in front of the church in Sharon and began to seek information about the unfortunate young priest.


Writing to Ireland yielded many of the facts Monsignor Lopez, who also is involved in maintaining Purification Church and its history, was seeking. His correspondent, Father Tom McKiernan of Kilmore Diocese, Ireland, forwarded the Monsignor a copy of an article in the book, “The Latin School,” of Moyne, Longford, that Georgia missionary Father Bernard Doyle had attended. Additionally, Father McKiernan included the interesting news that Father Barney Doyle, a retired priest of Kilmore Diocese in Ireland, is the grandnephew of Father Bernard J. Doyle, intrepid missionary of the original Savannah Diocese, who drowned on December 14, 1879, the first anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood in Savannah, Georgia on December 14, 1878.


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

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