Hibernians search for history in stained glass

They were Irish immigrants who chipped in spare change earned from digging coal and building railroads to buy hundreds of stained glass windows for Catholic churches.From about 1870 until the Great Depression, divisions of the Ancient Order of Hibernians donated gleaming depictions of St.

Patrick and New Testament scenes to churches from Connecticut to California.

Latter-day Hibernians are now trying to catalog these long-forgotten gifts. They have become window hunters, padding through old churches hoping for the thrill of rediscovering radiant bits of history before it disappears.

"I tell folks it's kind of like finding a lost relative," said Michael Finn, a Hibernian state historian from Columbus, Ohio. "You get the same kind of feeling of `Gosh there hasn't been a Hibernian in this church in a hundred years!"'

American Hibernians were formed in 1836 by Irish-Catholic immigrants in New York City. Michael Cummings, national archivist for the lay organization, said window donations picked up after the Civil War, a time when newspaper headlines trumpeted the violent exploits of a secret society of Irish miners in Pennsylvania called the Molly Maguires.

The notoriety reflected badly on the Hibernians, since not everyone made a distinction between their organization and "the Mollies." Local Hibernian divisions at that time redoubled efforts to enlist chaplains. Cummings believes this led to the spate of window giving that lasted about half a century.

The gifts might be forgotten still but for restoration efforts a few years ago for a Hibernian window at an old Ironton, Ohio, church. The Hibernians' national leadership became curious about other windows that might be out there. Cummings began coordinating a national search three years ago.

Detective work is done by about two dozen volunteers who identify churches where there were old Hibernian divisions. Windows in those churches are scanned for clues like "A.O.H." inscriptions or nearby plaques.

A lot of leads come from tips. The group constantly publicizes the search among members and Catholic publications.

Cummings said the project became more urgent two years ago when Hibernians realized parish consolidations and closings - particularly in old Irish enclaves in cities - threatened some of these windows.

"We wanted to step up what meager effort we were employing because we were afraid we would lose them," he said.

The Hibernians have already documented eight lost windows, some to natural disasters like cyclones and fire. National Hibernian President Edward McGinley calls it a race against time to find the rest.

Some discoveries are easy. Cummings found one in his home city of Albany. Harder to find are the windows where Hibernian divisions folded up long ago. Finn says he will drive out to churches himself in areas without current divisions to go to mass and then scout out the windows.

"Sometimes you find them," he said, "and often times you don't."

If he does find a Hibernian window, Finn will snap a picture and e-mail it with an attached history to Cummings. So far, they have documented 229 existing windows in 28 states, Canada and Ireland - more than half of them found clustered in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The search goes on, hobbled in part by a lack of Hibernians in some areas. Finn notes that window hunting has yet to commence in West Virginia, a state that used to have nine divisions and now has zero. The Hibernians had more than 100,000 members nationwide at the start of the 20th century and now have about 48,000, Cummings said.

Cummings believes the ultimate number of Hibernian windows might be around double what they've found so far.

"If we can find this many in three years," he said. "I hope there are considerably more out there."

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