Priest, Poet, Patriot: Father Abram J. Ryan

The first American-born child of Irish parents who immigrated to this country sometime before 1835, Abraham Joseph Ryan came into the world on February 5, 1838 in Hagerstown, Maryland. Matthew Ryan and Mary Coughlin Ryan, his parents, came to the United States from Clogheen, County Tipperary, Ireland with their two daughters and one son seeking a better life in a new land. They settled first in Norfolk, Virginia, then moved to Hagerstown, Maryland where Matthew obtained employment as a plantation overseer. The owner was very kind to the family; thus, they honored him by naming their fourth child after him. In 1840, the family relocated to Missouri, where Matthew opened a general store in St. Louis in 1846.

Early on, young Abraham showed a strong propensity toward piety and holiness. His mother and his teachers, Christian Brothers of Saint Joseph’s Academy in St. Louis, encouraged him to consider the priestly life. To test this vocation, the young Ryan, only thirteen years of age, entered the College of Saint Mary’s of the Barrens in Perryville, Missouri. Saint Mary’s was run by the Congregation of the Missions (also called the Vincentians) as a minor seminary for young men who were candidates for the priesthood. The good priests provided the boys with a true Catholic classical education and free room and board. It was at this time that he began writing poetry, primarily for the entertainment of his schoolmates and for his own enjoyment.

The Vincentians saw the promise of this pious and bright young man, and, soon after he graduated and received minor orders, they sent him to study theology at the Seminary of Our Lady of the Angels at Niagara, New York. Here he would also work as prefect of discipline at the high school attached to the seminary. The year was 1858. Soon his beloved younger brother, David, joined him at the New York seminary.

Rumblings of discontent were beginning to be heard between the two disparate sections of the country. It seemed that war may soon be on the horizon. The Ryans had always considered themselves Southerners, with their American beginnings in Maryland and Virginia; the Ryan boys were becoming a bit uneasy in the Northern setting. Another serious issue with the brothers in their location in New York state was the anti-Catholicism of the abolitionists, many of whom were Congregationalist and Unitarian ministers as well as “Know-Nothings” whose very reason for existence was their hatred of the Catholic Faith and immigrants coming into the country. The Know-Nothings particularly hated the Irish Catholics who were settling in the eastern seaboard. Abraham felt uncomfortable around so many who were sympathetic to the Northern cause and was transferred back to Missouri to Saint Mary of the Barrens.

The Ryan Family

Mention has been made of Father Ryan’s younger brother, David, the sibling to whom he was closest. Like his older brother, David also studied with the Vincentians with the intention to pursue ordination. However, his fate proved very different, as we shall see. The oldest sister, Elleanor, became a Sister of Saint Joseph of Carondolet, a teaching order of nuns based St. Louis. Sadly, she died of an unknown illness at the age of twenty-six. The second child, another sister named Eliza, was the longest-lived of the family, dying in 1907, also in St. Louis. She became a music teacher and never married. Practically nothing is known of the oldest brother, Edward. It is believed that he died suddenly in his thirties in Ireland. There were two younger brothers whose names and fates seem to be unknown, except that they died young. The first three were born in Ireland and the last four in America.

Call to the Holy Priesthood

Abraham’s greatest pleasures at seminary were studying and reading. He would awaken at four in the morning to complete his studies for the day ahead and then spend much of the day reading. The call to the priesthood came suddenly, on November 21 when he was sixteen “…like a flash from Heaven to my heart during Benediction, and after that I had my name put into a hollow silver heart that hung around the neck of the sweet Virgin’s statue, in testimony of my resolve which rose up into a vow. I never had a regret for that resolve.” It was at Niagara at the Seminary of Our Lady of the Angels that his eloquence and beautiful command of language won for him a lifelong reputation as a preacher. Why, even before priestly ordination, when he was still a deacon, throngs would attend his sermons; he became widely appreciated as a beautiful and poetic preacher of Catholic truths. He loved Our Lady and preached often of her. His ordination took place at his family’s home parish of Saint Vincent’s in St. Louis. His delicate health and the dissensions among the students and faculty of the seminaries took their toll on him. Eventually, Father Ryan was sent to do parish work in LaSalle, Illinois.


Unfortunately, the war rumblings turned uglier. Seven states of the South seceded from the Union on September 20, 1860. Not long after, on February 4, 1861, the government of the Confederate States of America was formed and four more states followed the original seven by July. Jefferson Davis, a senator from the state of Mississippi resigned his seat and was elected by acclimation of the seceded states President of the Confederacy with Alexander Stevens of Georgia serving as Vice President.

In the meantime, David Ryan still pursued his seminary education. Soon, his superiors decided that he was not meant for the priesthood, a fateful decision for the young, sensitive and talented young man. For a time, David taught at Saint Mary’s College in Marion County, Kentucky. Unhappy there, he enlisted in the Confederate Army in Springfield, Kentucky on September 10, 1862. He was a member of the Eighth Cavalry, C.S.C. in the Brigade of General John Hunt Morgan.

With the war picture accelerating, it was very difficult for the young priest to keep his opinions in check at LaSalle. His intense dislike of the newly-elected president, who was referred to as “Father Abraham” caused him to change his first name to Abram. His superior forbade him to participate in any discussion regarding the sectional differences because he vehemently supported the cause of his native South, and the superior did not want controversy in the ranks of his parish. Soon, Father Ryan was sent to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, just on the border between the contending factions. Feelings were high and the young priest suffered much under the pressure to keep his opinions to himself. Eventually, he came to the conclusion that he must be released from his vows as a Vincentian. After he prayed over the matter at a private retreat, his wish was granted, much to the disappointment of the Provincial. On September 1, 1862, Father Ryan left the Vincentians to work independently as a secular priest. As such, he became a “Gypsy” (his own term) traveling over much territory, serving as visiting priest in parishes in the North and the South, as an unofficial chaplain of the Confederate Army and ministering to dying soldiers of both sides. From this time, he became very melancholic — “There is a gloom, a deep, dark gloom of melancholy; and it will hang over me, and darken my future pathway forever.” Perhaps this was due to his delicate health and his poetic nature. During this time, many of his most beautiful poems were composed.

The Bishop of Chicago welcomed him as a secular priest where he served in Peoria. Here he gave many beautiful sermons and some lectures. One of his most memorable of these last ended with the lines, “Nothing can undo America but America herself.” Prophetic words from a tragic time of our country’s past, words which could certainly apply to her again today.

One of the tasks he was asked to perform for the diocese was to travel from Peoria to St. Louis to accompany a group of Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondolet back to the Chicago Diocese. This was not an easy journey in those days, as it involved river travel as well as journeying on rough roads. Father was so impressed with the seven sisters sent to open a school for girls that he penned these sweet lines to them:

“Ye are seven
Brides of Heaven
Jesus claims you as His own
Love Him ever
Leave Him never
Till He leads you to His throne.”

This little school with its humble beginnings grew by leaps and bounds to become a large co-educational institution of learning, excelling in music, literature and fine arts. One of its most distinguished students in later years was Fulton J. Sheen, who became the Archbishop of New York City, radio and television personality and beloved author.

A Sad Letter

In July of 1863, Father Ryan received a letter dated April 13. It was not addressed to him personally, but forwarded to him by someone who knew of his whereabouts. It informed him of his brother David’s death a day or two previous to the date on the letter. He died on the battlefield somewhere near Monticello, Kentucky, near a bend in the Cumberland River, but it was not stated if he died from wounds received in battle or from illness. “David’s death is a great blow to me,” he cried. Before this tragic occurrence, the war itself meant little to the good priest. Now, it became the center of his life. Father’s grief at the loss of his beloved younger brother became a pivotal point in his life, already marked by a melancholy nature. Now he was the zealous “poet priest of the Confederacy.” He was determined to search for and find David’s body to bring it home to St. Louis. He pursued a long and fruitless search; David’s body was never recovered. However, he poured out his grief in two memorial poems: “In Memory of My Brother David” and “In Memoriam, David J. Ryan, C.S.A.” The first stanza of the first-named poem is very touching: I quote it here:

Young as the youngest who donned the Gray
True as the truest that wore it –
Brave as the bravest he marched away,
(Hot tears on the cheeks of his mother lay)
Triumphant waved our flag one day,
He fell in the front before it.

The sorrowful poem goes on for five stanzas. The second poem seems to have been written much later. Here is its first stanza:

Thou art sleeping, brother, sleeping
In thy lonely battle grave;
Shadows o’er the past are creeping,
Death, the reaper, still is reaping,
Years have swept and years are sweeping
Many a memory from my keeping,
But I’m waiting still, and weeping
For my beautiful and brave.

The poem goes on for ten stanzas. Indeed, he seemed never to have recovered from David’s loss.

Father Ryan, Here and There across the South

During the war years, Father Ryan traveled much around the South, looking for David’s burial place, serving the sick and dying, whether on the battlefield, in prison, or during an epidemic — yellow fever or smallpox, rampant in those days. His whereabouts at a particular time are almost impossible to track. In 1862, during the winter, he was in New Orleans ministering to victims of a smallpox epidemic, the only clergyman willing to go into the prison where it raged. Much of his time was spent in east Tennessee (for this was where David died), an area torn asunder by sectional strife because a significant number of its residents remained loyal to the Union. He served a small Irish congregation in Knoxville where his reputation as a great and emotional speaker attracted non-Catholics as well as the general Catholic population.

In Augusta, Georgia, where he served at Saint Patrick’s Church, he edited a newspaper called The Banner of the South, under Bishop Verot of Savannah. The paper became wildly popular all across the South. Unfortunately, the good Bishop and Father Ryan came to a parting of the ways during the Vatican Council. The Bishop, who attended the Council in Rome, was vehemently opposed to the declaration of papal infallibility. Father Ryan just as vehemently held the opposite position, supporting the declaration. Neither could be convinced of the other’s position. Father Ryan continued his support of the issue in the pages of The Banner, the official newspaper of the Diocese. As a result, the Bishop fired him from his position. The rift affected their friendship and Father Ryan transferred to the diocese of Mobile, Alabama, which he came to love as his adopted home.

Father Ryan Statue in Father Ryan Park in Mobile, Alabama. (Photo by Mike Jones)

Mobile after the War

Before settling in Mobile, Father took a journey to Europe where he spent time in Rome and other cities in Italy. He believed that “anyone who wanted to be convinced of the divinity of the Roman Catholic Church has only to spend a few weeks in Rome.” These were the days of the captivity of the Holy Father, Pius IX in Vatican City — voluntary, for he felt that if he left the confines of the Catholic enclave the revolutionaries who so wanted to destroy the Church would kill or capture him.

Mobile was no longer the gracious and beautiful city that it had been before the war. The South had been destroyed, its spacious homes and beautiful lawns purposely laid waste by the enemy and the “Carpet Baggers” who followed them. Although peace had been declared at Appomattox, there was no peace, only chaos, turmoil, and disease. Business was at a standstill, currency was worthless and the government was in the hands of the Federal military who were bent on punishment rather than rebuilding. Father Ryan was a hero to the people of Mobile and they were excited that he was to be one of them. He was famous not just for his beautiful poetry but also for his talents as an orator. He drew crowds to his lectures and sermons from other Catholic parishes and from Protestant churches as well. Some pastors were known to shut down their own churches and take their entire congregations to the Cathedral or to Saint Mary’s — wherever Father Ryan happened to be preaching.

So dedicated was he to his Children of Mary Sodality at Saint Mary’s that he requested to be buried in their little cemetery at his death.

Retirement to “Sea Rest”

Never in robust health, at age forty-two, Father requested to be relieved of his duties at Saint Mary’s so that he could retire to a quiet place to finish a book he was writing. Mobile’s Bishop Quinlan granted him that favor, and he settled in a lovely home right on the beach in Biloxi, Mississippi, one hundred yards from the Gulf of Mexico. He spent many hours writing poetry, especially the night-time hours. During the day, he wrote letters to friends and benefactors. He took it upon himself to adopt “a little French boy, Philip” whom he raised as his own, teaching him games, prayers and his school lessons. There were a servant couple and their three children in a back building, and “back of all a very forest.” He named his retirement home “Sea Rest,” the “sea” being the beautiful Gulf of Mexico. It was here that he befriended Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederacy, whose own home “Beauvoir” was nearby, also facing the Gulf in Biloxi.

He was not entirely retired, though, for he was called upon a number of times to engage in fundraising tours for various Catholic religious charities, such as the one he made for the Discalced Carmelites of New Orleans, which lasted three years and took him all along the Eastern Seaboard from Maryland to Montreal.

All this activity — the travels, the writing, the lectures — paled in comparison to his real love, that of being a priest. He said it so beautifully himself:

In the temple of fame I will write my name
I said with a poet’s pen
And I will weave me a crown of such renown
‘Mid earth’s immortal men.,
Such was my thought, the aim I sought
That dream has since gone by.
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.

Collecting the Poems

Amazingly, he never thought to collect his poems or make copies of them after they were written for one occasion or another. He would dash off a poem and hand it to a friend for an occasion or just out of affection, never thinking about it again. It took a Mobile printer who wanted to keep his staff at work to think of gathering his poems into a collection. Colonel John Rapier who was owner and publisher of the Mobile newspaper, and a lawyer-friend of Father Ryan’s, Hannis Taylor, approached the priest for permission to publish his poetry. When they asked him for manuscripts, they were shocked that he had none. Not easily discouraged, they placed ads in many Southern newspapers advertising a search for originals of the priest’s poems. The response was overwhelming, a tribute to the high esteem in which the people of the South held him. A total of one hundred and four poems were collected, Father Ryan was convinced to allow a picture of himself to be taken, and the first edition of his collected poems was published by the Mobile newspaper. Colonel Rapier printed five thousand volumes which sold like the proverbial hotcakes. The poems proved so popular that a large Catholic publishing house in Baltimore offered to buy the copyright and a second edition was printed a year after the first. Recently, Loreto Publications here in New Hampshire has issued a reprint of the twelfth edition of the book. (You can purchase it from Loreto or the bookstore at Saint Benedict Center.)

Father Ryan’s most beloved poems of the time were “The Conquered Banner” and “The Sword of Robert Lee”. Needless to say, The Conquered Banner, set to the measure of an old Gregorian hymn, became wildly popular among Southerners. Most of his poetry, however, was religious, dedicated to Our Lady and Our Lord. His spiritually autobiographical work, “Song of the Mystic,” is too beautiful not to quote in its entirety.

I walk down the Valley of Silence –
Down the dim, voiceless valley – alone!
And I hear not the fall of a footstep
Around me, save God’s and my own;
And the hush of my heart is as holy
As hovers where angels have flown!

Long ago was I weary of voices
Whose music my heart could not win;
Long ago I was weary of noises
That fretted my soul with their din;
Long ago was I weary of places
Where I met but the human – and sin.

I walked in the world with the worldly;
I craved what the world never gave;
And I said: “In the world each Ideal,
That shines – like a star on life’s wave,
Is wrecked on the shores of the Real,
And sleeps like a dream in a grave.”

And still did I pine for the Perfect,
And still found the False with the True;
I sought ‘mid the Human for Heaven,
But caught a mere glimpse if its Blue;
And I wept when the clouds of the Mortal
Veiled even that glimpse from my view.

And I toiled on, heart-tired of the Human,
And I moaned ‘mid the mazes of men,
Till I knelt, long ago, at an altar
And I heard a voice call me. Since then
I walk down the Valley of Silence
That lies far beyond mortal ken.

Do you ask what I found in the Valley?
‘Tis my trysting Place with the Divine.
And I fell at the feet of the Holy,
And above me a Voice said: “Be mine.”
And there arose from the depths of my spirit
An echo – “My heart shall be thine.”

Do you ask how I live in the Valley?
I weep – and I dream – and I pray.
But my tears are as sweet as the dew-drops
That fall on the roses in May;
And my prayer, like a perfume from censers,
Ascendeth to God night and day.

In the hush of the Valley of Silence
I dream all the songs that I sing;
And the music floats down the dim Valley,
Till each finds a word for a wing,
That to hearts, like the Dove of the Deluge,
A message of Peace they may bring.

But far on the deep there are billows
That shall never break on the beach;
And I have heard songs in the Silence
That never shall float into speech;
And I have had dreams in the Valley
Too lofty for language to reach.

And I have seen Thoughts in the Valley –
Ah! Me, how my spirit was stirred!
And they wear holy veils on their faces,
Their footsteps can scarcely be heard:
They pass through the Valley like Virgins,
Too pure for the touch of a word!

Do you ask me the place of the Valley.
Ye hearts that are harrowed by Care?
It lieth afar between mountains,
And God and His angels are there:
And one is the dark mount of Sorrow,
And one the bright mountain of Prayer.

A True Patriot

Many would have considered Father Ryan an “unreconstructed rebel.” There is no doubt that he loved the South, its people and its cause. However, the mere fact that his greatest poem, “The Conquered Banner,” made the claim that the Stars and Bars would be forever furled says that he accepted defeat and was a loyal American. In fact, he became a force for Southerners to accept the outcome of the conflict. In his own words, “The Conquered Banner became the requiem for the Lost Cause.”

Although technically retired, Father Ryan never rejected a request to preach a mission or go on a fund-raising speaking tour, as he did for the Carmelites of New Orleans. The cold and the deep snows he experienced during this tour were telling on his already-delicate health. His whereabouts from 1883 to 1885 are uncertain, but wherever he was, we have it in his own words that he sometimes preached three sermons a day and spent long hours into the night in the Confessional. In 1886, he traveled to the Franciscan Monastery in Louisville, Kentucky, to make a retreat of his own. After he arrived, he became very ill, enough so that the good Friars became very concerned and wanted to call a doctor. He brushed them off saying that he “had had this illness before.” When, after a week, he had not improved a local physician was called and the Friars kept close watch over him.

On the morning of Holy Thursday, Father Ryan “suddenly opened his eyes. He stared anxiously above him, as if someone were speaking to him, or faintly whispering his name. He raised his feeble arms above his breast, and while extended, clasped his greatly trembling hands in each other as if to pray. Then he lay motionless; his deep lustrous eyes firmly fixed on some unseen object high above him; his weak arms extended in supplication; his pale quivering fingers interlaced in a supreme gesture of longing…”

His prophetic words of some years earlier were fulfilled:

Someday in spring
When earth is fair and glad,
And sweet birds sing,
And fewest hearts are sad-
Shall I die then?
Ah me, no matter when;
I know it will be sweet
To leave the homes of men
And rest beneath the sod,
To kneel and kiss Thy feet
In Thy home, O my God!

Father died on Holy Thursday, April 22, 1886, only forty-eight years old. His request to be buried at the Children of Mary lot in Mobile’s Catholic cemetery was granted and there he abides today, a life well-lived and remembered through his beautiful poetry.

On a Personal Note

Father Ryan’s retirement residence, “Sea Rest,” was built around 1841. So close to the Gulf of Mexico, it had withstood many an incoming hurricane along those coastal waters. It was purchased by a family who refurbished it and turned it into a Bed and Breakfast, a lovely place to spend a day or two at the top of the Gulf. My husband and I were fortunate to receive a gift of a night at this beautiful historic home in the early 2000’s. We actually occupied Father Ryan’s own bedroom. Since his day, Biloxi has become a bustling city with a federal highway running between the house and the beautiful wide sand beach.

Then, in 2005, along came Hurricane Katrina. Although New Orleans received more attention in the news media because of the terrible flooding there, the Mississippi Coast took the greatest winds and the huge tidal surge. Ships were found a mile inland. You can only imagine what happened to Father’s beautiful home. It and its period furnishings were turned into so much debris, as was the historic home Beauvoir of Jefferson Davis nearby. The only thing remaining of Sea Rest was the tall palm tree which grew through the front steps leading up to the main gallery.

While a public campaign was conducted to rebuild Beauvoir, Sea Rest was not rebuilt. No matter. Father Ryan’s memory will forever live on in his beautiful and uplifting poetry. May he rest in peace.