Michael Cummings, the AOH national archivist, has slowly but surely been compiling a comprehensive account of the stained-glass windows in Catholic churches all over the country. They date from the late 19th and the early 20th centuries and were gifts from various AOH divisions.
So far, windows have been found in California, Canada, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Ireland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.
Twelve windows have been found in New York, including one in St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Binghamton and in the Immaculate Conception Church in Albany. Another has been discovered on Staten Island.
The search began with the previous AOH archivist, who doubled as the AOH web master. On receiving information from a member in Ohio, he compiled a list of windows and a few photos.
When Cummings took over as archivist, he was intrigued by the legacy and started to explore the phenomenon a bit further.
“We have directories from 1884 and 1906 which indicate where the AOH was at those times,” he said. “With the help of around 12 working on this, we are gradually trying to find all the windows that exist.”
The search for a slice of AOH history has become almost a hobby with many non-AOH members taking part. Cummings gets calls, e-mails and faxes from all over the country with possible leads and information.
So far, he has compiled a list of 130 windows and has 84 photos. Ideally, he would like to write an essay about the origin of the windows and the uneven dispersion of them throughout the country.
For example, Cummings knows that while one window has been found in North Carolina, 30 have been discovered in Massachusetts. In fact, there are two churches in that state that have a total of three each.
It may prove impossible to ascertain definitively how many windows ever existed. Because of the rapid expansion of towns and villages at the turn of the century, many of the churches containing AOH windows may have been destroyed or rebuilt.
According to Cummings, the earlier windows have the more simpler designs. They are also quite faded. They are easily identifiable as gifts from the AOH by either an etching on the glass itself or a plaque.
Cummings has a few ideas as to how the tradition started.
“Two-fifths of the windows have been found in rural areas,” he said. “The AOH may have been one of the few organizations there able to help the church get built.”
He sees the windows as a legacy of love.
“Many of the finds have been near canals, railroads, mines or mills,” he said. “These people were not earning a lot and yet they donated their money toward a window in the church. It was a real sacrifice.”
Cummings is familiar with the lives these people might have lived. His father’s family, originally from Castlecomer, Co. Kilkenny, settled in Pennsylvania and worked in the coal mines.
An example of this closer to home is the window discovered recently in Lambertville, N.J. The village is on the canal and, according to Cummings, people would have lived there as laborers.
The assistance Cummings receives varies greatly.
“One woman from the Illinois Ladies AOH identified all 11 windows in Illinois,” he said. “She is a dynamo.” He also receives many calls and leads from nuns and priests from around the country.”
The national president of the AOH, Ned McGinley, also got in on the act.
“The AOH died out in northeastern Pennsylvania in the late 1950s and early ’60s, but came back in the ’70s and now has seven divisions,” McGinley said. “I was raised in the church there and, just recently, someone pointed out an AOH window that I had never noticed before.”
As for the future, Cummings hopes to find all existing windows and would love people to see the results of their search.
“I am talking to the national president about maybe doing something like the ‘Doors of Dublin’ poster,” he said, referring to the popular poster featuring a number of old Georgian doors.
While the windows are of beautiful quality, the photos the AOH has collected so far have themselves been of uneven quality, having been taken by interested parties. Cummings hopes to have professional photos taken eventually.
He sees the legacy as one of a kind.
“We are pretty unique,” he said. “There are many churches with windows from Hibernian organizations but nothing as widespread or consistent as the generosity of the AOH members.”