Ryan Park in Mobile, Alabama, is a sad place this Saturday afternoon. I arrive to see if the six-foot bronze statue of the Catholic priest, sometimes called the Poet of the Confederacy, is still standing. It is – amidst broken bottles, scattered trash, unkempt shrubbery, overgrown weeds, empty flower urns, and barren ground where grass should grow. Remnants of flag hardware clang against the 20-foot flag pole, rope and flag stripped or stolen from the standard. A homeless man sleeps on a park bench.
The small, diamond-shaped park stands on busy Spring Hill Avenue, a few blocks from downtown Mobile. Historic St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, across a side street, casts a drab, skeletal shadow on the park. On July 12, 2021, the park and the statue will celebrate their 108th birthday. The church is nearly a decade older but was closed in 2018 by the archbishop and is now being demolished or “redeveloped,” despite its historic building designation. The park was the site of protests in 2017 and 2020 calling for the removal of Ryan’s “Confederate” statue. Alas, Father Ryan will have to stand his own ground when it comes to Cancel Culture. Perhaps the Irish Catholic men of the of Ancient Order of Hibernia or the citizens of Mobile who jointly erected the monument will come to its aid. The Cancel Culture protestors need to do their homework.
In the coastal cities covered in my book, A Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South: From Bay St. Louis to Apalachicola, Father Abram Joseph Ryan (1838-1886) left his mark in Mobile and Biloxi, Mississippi. Both cities have streets and historic markers named for him. But Mobile was his favorite. After the Civil War, Father Ryan spent ten years in Mobile, first as an assistant at Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and then as pastor at St. Mary’s. Besides the park and statue, his presence is honored at Portier House, 307 Conti St., located on Cathedral Square, diagonal from the Cathedral. Sometimes called Bishop Portier’s House, the historic home is a Greek revival Creole cottage dating to1834 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Father Ryan lived here in the second-floor bedroom in the northwest corner from 1870 until 1877. Today the room pays homage to him with a bust, portrait, and several volumes of his poetry on display. Though he didn’t die in Mobile, Father Ryan loved the city so much he requested his body to be returned to St. Mary’s. His is buried in the Old Catholic Cemetery.
Sometimes called the unofficial poet laureate of the Confederacy, Father Ryan volunteered as a Confederate chaplain, buried the dead and tended the injured on the battlefield. He is also known as the Poet-Priest of the South. In his day, along with his priestly duties, he was also a Catholic newspaper editor, newspaper publisher, popular poet, lecturer and best-selling author. Even Margaret Mitchell mentions him in her novel Gone With the Wind. Reading his poems like “C.S.A.” must have given much comfort to wives, mothers, and sisters who lost their loved ones in the war.
“No, no, no, they were brave for us,
And bright were the lives they gave for us;
The land they struggled to save for us
Will not forget
Its warriors yet
Who sleep in so many a grave for us.”
As a young Southerner he was enthralled and caught up in the fervor of war; his views changed as he aged. Several of his poems reflect his experience as a battlefield chaplain and the loss of his younger brother, a Confederate soldier who died as a result of injuries received in battle. Though Father Ryan is famous for poems like “The Conquered Banner” and “The Sword of Robert E. Lee,” he wrote many more about spirituality and faith.
If the Cancel Culture protestors do their homework, they will discover the first racially integrated Catholic high school in Tennessee is named after Father Ryan.
Yes, Father Ryan aligned himself with Confederates and the Southern cause, offering comfort to the men and their families, but he was first a Catholic priest and, according to most, was opposed to slavery. While living in Mobile, Ryan didn’t consider himself a poet, simply a writer of verse. He often read his poetry during his sermons while parishioners copied down the lines. A Mobile newspaper publisher collected Ryan’s poems and published them, making the book an instant best seller in 1879. Most of the $1.3 million he earned from the book and its reprints went to the Catholic Church. It is available online here for no charge. In the Author Notes in the collection, he compares poems to songs, writing “souls were always more to him than songs.” In the end, his popular post-war poem, “The Conquered Banner,” calls for those of the lost cause to take down the Confederate flag, allowing poets and writers keep its memory alive,
For its fame on brightest pages,
Penned by poets and by sages,
Shall go sounding down the ages–
Furl its folds though now we must.. . .
Touch it not–unfold it never,
Let it droop there, furled forever,
For its people’s hopes are dead!
In 2003 scholars at Belmont Abbey College’s library in North Carolina found forty of Father Ryan’s unpublished poems. They say the poems prove he mellowed with age, and even wrote poetry honoring the Federal dead.
Time will tell if the pen is mightier than the sword during Cancel Culture. Within the geographical parameters of my book, I’ve encountered a litany of writers – Varina Davis, Winnie Davis, Jefferson Davis, Sara Dorsey, Sidney Lanier, Father Ryan, Vachel Lindsay — whose words are no longer “acceptable” despite the fact they were immensely popular in their own days. These writers created poetry, fiction and nonfiction that entertained, consoled and informed millions of readers. Cancel Culture is erasing their literary footprints.
I worry many more unique, once-revered Southern voices will be silenced in Cancel Culture, books hidden away in musty closets because those writers spoke of a time and place no longer in favor. Do their words lose value or truth? Are their beautifully crafted sentences and stanzas to be erased because of unpopular content or a distasteful word? Will their books be banned because their descriptions of what was acceptable at the time now shames society? Should statues to writers face the same fate as statues to generals?
Brad Watson, one of the writers I discovered while doing research for my book wrote in The Heaven of Mercury, “only the dead see one another, and themselves, for what they truly were, or are.” And it’s words like those, simple words crafted into a sentence so deep and so thought provoking, that make me realize pens can be mightier than swords. It’s only fitting the left hand of Father Ryan’s statue holds a book of poetry. There’s probably a pen in his pocket.