Before the green grits, before the parade's pipe bands and floats, before the beer on River Street, Thursday morning's St. Patrick's Day Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist will be the traditional, reverent beginning to what's often considered as a day for partying.
"The mass is the appropriate way for us to kick off our celebration," says Michael Foran, General Chairman of the St. Patrick's Day Parade Committee. "Our whole point is it's the Feast of St. Patrick," celebrating the fifth-century Roman Catholic bishop who spent decades converting the pagan nation of Ireland to Christianity.
Experience, planning and day-of-event timing are critical to pulling together a seamless worship service for over 1,000 people that has become a media event in recent years. Monsignor William O. O'Neill, rector of the Cathedral for the past 15 years, handles all the details, with assistance from Brother Robert Sokolowski. O'Neill coordinates the service and is liaison with the Parade Committee and with WTOC-TV, who sets up a full production room in the Cathedral and broadcasts the mass live.
"The TV crowd...comes in the day before and sets up a platform for the cameras, and a room downstairs for their studio," says O'Neill. "There are miles of cable. There are cameras all over the place."
Planning each year's mass begins the previous fall, when O'Neill and Bishop Kevin Boland invite a guest to give the homily, or sermon, at the March worship service.
"We start on that probably about October or November. If you ask one person and they can't come, then we ask another. I don't release the name until the last minute, about a month in advance." This year, the homilist is Most Rev. Edwin Frederick O'Brien, the 15th Archbishop of Baltimore in Maryland.
A few days before St Patrick's Day, O'Neill receives the names of honorary mass participants that are chosen by the Grand Marshal. The day before, O'Neill receives from the Parade Committee the final list of public officials and other dignitaries that will attend the mass and forwards that to the bishop, for inclusion in his opening remarks. The night before, chairs and reserved seating areas are set up, plus the TV equipment.
On St. Patrick's Day morning, O'Neill arrives at the Cathedral at 4 a.m. and keeps things moving through the day. Any delay during the mass affects the start of the parade and the television broadcast of the day's events. "People don't realize what goes on to get the show on the air. This place is humming by 5:30 in the morning."
Cathedral ushers open the doors at 7 a.m. At 8 the mass begins with a procession that includes all the Irish organizations in Savannah and the Parade Committee Flag Unit-about 30 children carrying the flags of the counties in Ireland. "It takes maybe ten minutes to get everyone in," says O'Neill. "We usually play the Irish national anthem before the start."
The Irish societies line up according to the age of the organization. "The Hibernians are the oldest, the next one is the Parade Committee, and it goes on down the line," says Foran. Despite all the players, there are no rehearsals. "The Irish societies know where they are, they know the protocol and the correct line up."
O'Neill assists Bishop Boland in celebrating the mass, along with dozens of other priests from across the Diocese of Savannah. ROTC cadets from Benedictine Military School are altar servers. Members of the Grand Marshal's family bring forward the gifts. The Grand Marshal also chooses one of the scripture readers.
"After mass is over, this is where the tricky part comes in." says O'Neill. "That's because we lock the church. Everyone is lined up to use the restroom" or are milling around and visiting while ushers try to get everyone out of the building. St Patrick's Day is the only day that the Cathedral is locked, for security reasons.
"We've had incidents in the past where people have actually urinated in the church," says O'Neill.
Once mass is ended, O'Neill's day is nowhere near complete.
"The dignitaries and Grand Marshal are brought in for a quick breakfast with the Bishop. We used to have a sit down breakfast but [the schedule] is too tight."
"I usually go out and watch the parade on the [cathedral] steps. Then we usually have a luncheon for the visiting priests at 1:00 so I need to have an accounting of the names who will attend.
"After lunch I might take a nap. And then I might go to the Hibernian banquet that evening."
Despite his role as organizer, O'Neill's motive is to focus on the spiritual basis for the day.
"Our idea is to emphasize that St. Patrick was a missionary. It's a moment to appreciate what has been done in the past. Life for Catholics based in Georgia was not always easy. There was a time in Georgia when Catholicism was outlawed. And, for people who may not have been practicing the faith, it's an opportunity to connect."