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Race against time: Hibernians search for donated windows

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BRIGHTON — Ornate stained glass windows have been a focal point in the design of many churches in this country. Now however, hundreds of these windows are in jeopardy.

At the turn of the century, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), an Irish Catholic lay organization, donated approximately 500 windows to churches across the United States and Canada. Unfortunately, the typical lifespan of stained glass is only about 100 years depending on how well it is cared for.

Now, as the windows begin to reach the end of their life, the organization is trying to track down and document as many of the windows as possible before they are lost to decay.

“This project is important to us because these windows are not only our legacy but also that of the young nation of America that offered opportunity to so many immigrants from our beloved ancestral homeland,” said Jack Meehan, national vice president of AOH.

The majority of AOH windows have been found in the Northeast but they range across the country as far as California and Oregon.

Massachusetts has the highest number of AOH windows located thus far, accounting for 23 percent of all those in North America. However, the AOH knows that there are still more out there and want to find them before its too late.

“The extent of the church closings and consolidations in the Archdiocese of Boston have prompted us to make every effort to insure that existing windows are not lost,” said Meehan. “We have decided to search out these windows lest they and the intent in which they were donated might be lost to future generations as a tangible testimony to the generosity of the Irish and their love for their faith.”

AOH national archivist Michael Cummings is heading the mission to try to preserve and archive this important aspect of the organization’s history. Cummings has traveled the country in search of windows bearing the letters AOH — a mark placed on windows donated by the organizations.

According to Cummings, about 90 percent of the windows credit the donation to the Ancient Order of Hibernians somewhere on the panel of glass. Those that don’t have the AOH name on the glass have a plaque nearby to acknowledge the gift.

About half of the windows depict an Irish Saint, such as St. Patrick, St. Bridget or St. Lawrence and a large number have been found in churches named St. Mary or Assumption, making the windows a bit easier to track down.

“We can not take a trip anywhere that we don’t take the long road around to ‘check out’ some churches,” said Cummings.

Currently, there are 227 windows accounted for, but the search is still on. Progress is slow as the search is being conducted by a team of fewer than 20 volunteers for the entire country who are simply interested in helping the cause.

“By searching for and documenting these windows, the AOH refreshes its soul and finds a new meaning for its work,” said Cummings.

The Hibernians are not only trying to find and document the windows, they are also making efforts to preserve them too.

At their last National Convention in Philadelphia, the members adopted a resolution that called upon them to seek out the possibility of restoring these fragile, endangered windows. The Ohio Hibernians in particular raised $5,000 to restore a window that had fallen into an advanced state of disrepair, and the Pittsburgh Hibernians are installing a window as part of their centennial celebration.

The AOH has contributed greatly to the beauty of American churches and hopes to preserve these works of art in every way that they can.

Since its founding in 1836 by Irish immigrants, the AOH has been a part of charitable works around the country. In the U.S., the AOH lends much of its efforts towards hunger and towards education. They are the oldest Catholic lay organization in America, but can be traced back to the 1640’s in Ireland as an organization that defended Gaelic values and protected the Church and clergy.

In the U.S., the AOH was originally formed in New York and has the motto “Friendship, unity and Christian charity.”

If you know of an AOH stained glass window you can contact the Hibernians through their Web site www.aoh.com.

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