Hibernian Windows

The great waves of Irish immigration to America were just beginning in 1836 when a group of Irish Catholic men in New York and Pennsylvania formed a benevolent society called the Hibernians to help newly arrived immigrants. The organization had its origins in Ireland and is believed to be derived from men who were known as The Defenders, who resisted the oppression of British landlords and provided protection to priests and those attending mass.

Considered by some as a “secret society”, few Americans knew anything of the Hibernian’s except as one of the largest contingents in the St Patrick’s Day parade in NYC. However, all that changed when then Archbishop Hughes of New York called upon them in 1854 to defend St. Patrick’s (Old) Cathedral when it was threatened by Nativist bigots. The headquarters for the Hibernians was across the street from the church which still stands to this day. The “Know-Nothings”, as they were called, had already succeeded in burning an Ursuline Convent in Massachusetts and St Augustine’s Church in Philadelphia. Bishop “Dagger John” Hughes was not about to let that happen in New York. Less than two decades later in Pennsylvania in the 1870’s labor conflicts arose between Irish miners(many of whom were Hibernians) and rail/coal barons. The anti-Catholic bigotry and anti-Irish sentiment was promoted unscrupulously by magnates of industry and reached its peak between 1877 and 1880 with the infamous “Molly Maguire” episode. Eleven Irishmen—all of whom were Hibernians—were given show trials actually run by coal companies. All were hanged.

The Hibernian organization grew despite this anti-Catholic bigotry and the anti-Irish bias that persisted well into the 20th century. The Irish went wherever there was work. In a young nation, that work was in mills, railroad depots, mining and along canals that spread South and West with the railroads. In 1884 the Order could be found in Snoddys Mill, IN, Franklin Furnace, NJ, Brownhelm Station, PA, Kalo, IA, and Florence, WI; all places that are not easily found on today’s maps. Indeed Hinckletown, Iowa is now referred to as a ghost town. One of the few things that remain of that town is a photo of the AOH gathered outside the wooden framed church. The AOH was in Arizona when it was still a territory and, of course, in the major metropolitan areas that made up the American Shamrock —-San Francisco, Chicago and the Boston/Philadelphia /New York corridor. Century old Hibernian Halls still stand in Bristol, PA, Butte Montana and in Turners Falls, Ma.

The Catholic church soon followed these migrating workers. Throughout the latter part of the 19th century as the church grew it needed to replace older and smaller wooden churches with newer ones. Thus the stage was set for the unique legacy of the AOH in gifting stained glass windows to Catholic churches. These windows can be found in places as distant as Rutland, VT (St Peter’s) and Seattle, Washington (St James Cathedral) and from Santa Cruz in California (Holy Cross) to Charleston, NC (St John the Baptist) and many places in between. The is a singular chapter in the story that began 140 years ago about the devotion of Irish immigrants and the expansion of the Catholic Church in America.

This story and the window legacy began not just in big cities but tracks America’s expansion West along the Lewis and Clark Trail (St Anne’s, Great Falls, MT), along the Cherokee Trail (Sacred Heart, Pueblo, CO) and along the Central Pacific Railroad from Ogden, Utah (St Joseph’s) to Sacramento (Old Cathedral).

The march of the AOH across the continent stretches from the first stop on the National Road (St Patrick’s, Cumberland, MD) to Seattle, WA (St James Cathedral) with lesser known stops along the way that have all but vanished… Snoddy’s Mill, IN, Kalo, IA . Forty Fort, PA, Irwin, GA and Iron Mountain, MO.

Hibernians from Chillicothe, OH to Roanoke, VA, to Portland, Oregon reached into their treasuries and pledged gifts and often built many of the churches. Although there were many gifts including vestments, church bells, statues, paintings, sacred vessels and Stations of the Cross, the most enduring has been the stained glass windows.

The windows depicted in Volumes I, II and III have all been documented since 2002. As of May, 2008 314 windows have been recorded in 34 States, Ireland and Canada. The most frequent and visible link of a window to the Hibernians is the AOH reference on the window or in a church record. The themes of the windows range from an early period of images of St. Patrick, St Brigid and St. Columba and floral designs (St Malachy’s, Clontarf, MN and St Paul’s, W. Warren, MA) with Celtic harp symbols to the 1880’s and later when newer windows with scenes from scripture like Jesus washing the feet of the disciples (Immaculate Conception, Albany NY) or depicting Catholic doctrine like the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary were more frequent.

Massachusetts leads all the States with 57 windows. Almost a third of those were found in churches along the state’s northern corridor (Rte 2) where railroads were connecting to Troy, NY through the Hoosac Tunnel in the Berkshires. One of the churches along Rte 2 , St. Leo’s in Leominster, MA, has three Hibernian windows. The States of Pennsylvania and New York are next in the number of these windows with 40 and 35 respectively. These higher numbers in the Northeast reflect a concentration of Hibernians in mining regions from Maryland (St Patrick’s, Cumberland), Pennsylvania (St Joseph’s, Mt Pleasant; St Kyran’s, Hecksherville; St Ignatius, Kingston), the Ogden and Tebo mines in New Jersey (Immaculate Conception, Franklin) and the hard rock mining of Connecticut (St John, Middletown) and New Hampshire (St Patrick’s, Milford).

Thirty-two of the windows were given by the Ladies AOH, which was established in 1898. In Penfield, ILL not only were there two beautiful windows in St Lawrence O’Toole Church but the old wooden Church was sold to the Hibernians and used as their meeting hall.

The windows designated as a gift of the Hibernians did not always have an Irish theme. Although many like the one in St. Peter’s in Rome, NY depict St Patrick preaching to the pagan King at Tara. Others like the one in St James in Manchester, CT portray St. John baptizing Jesus, or like one in St. John the Evangelist in Clinton, MA. which depicts the Flight to Egypt of St Joseph and Mary with the Infant Jesus.

Windows in churches like St. Anne’s in Great Falls, MT, St Andrew’s, Roanoke, VA and St Lawrence O’Toole, Ironton, Ohio are amongst the largest of all the windows and contain richly colored mosaics of Christian and Celtic symbols.

Two of the more magnificent windows of all those found to date are displayed in a recent book entitled Stained Glass in Catholic Philadelphia published by St. Joseph’s University Press. The Director of the Press, Carmen Croce, discovered a circular one behind the altar in Our Mother of Consolation in Chestnut Hill and one in Our Mother of Good Counsel in Bryn Mawr. His introduction to the book states “These stained glass windows are valuable documents recording the spiritual and familial aspirations of generations of Americans [and]…invoke universal feelings…the poignancy of loss, the hope of remembrance and the need of prayers and supplication.” Indeed this is why the Hibernians remember.

The modest all volunteer effort to document and photograph these magnificent gifts has already been shown to be 50 years too late for many windows. As more churches today are consolidating and closing the threat to existing windows has never been greater. The National Board has supported this project to fully record as much as possible the extent of this gift giving. A reasonable estimate based on the research and discoveries to date is that over 500 windows existed at one time. The National Board with your help will continue this search for the windows and other gifts and to share this inheritance—this special gift— with future generations. Please advise us through our website of any discoveries you might make. You will also find on this CD a Master List of those discoveries made to date.

Each window in its own way reveals the heartfelt response, generosity and faith of our singular organization. The legacy of gift giving to Catholic churches the length and breadth of America, as far as we know, is unmatched by any ethnic group. It is a record of which we are justifiably proud.

Jack Meehan, Past National President
Ancient Order of Hibernians in America
Quincy, Massachusetts

May, 2008