Opening a window on church history
By JEFF STRICKLER • This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

A benevolent society is on the lookout for stained-glass windows it gave to churches a century ago.

Calling all history buffs, amateur detectives and people who just like to snoop: An Irish-American benevolent society is looking for help in tracking down stained-glass windows it donated to churches between 1870 and 1920.
The Ancient Order of Hibernians gave the windows to Roman Catholic churches, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only place to look. As buildings were sold, torn down or remodeled, Hibernian windows are turning up in all kinds of places — warehouses, garages and even Protestant churches.
“It’s part treasure hunt, part detective story,” said Mike Cummings, a resident of Albany, N.Y., for whom tracking down the windows has become a personal quest. He launched the search when he was archivist for the Hibernian society, a 300-year-old organization that traces its roots to Ireland and still is raising money to donate windows to churches. Although he no longer holds that position, he’s spearheading the campaign.
“The search started in 2003,” he said. “At that point we knew of we knew of eight windows, and I said, ‘If we can find eight, I bet we can find 80.’”
They’ve found a lot more than that. At last count, there were at 334, including 13 in Minnesota. One is in the Church of the Ascension in Minneapolis, Others have been found in churches in Duluth and near Mankato. Some have been lost forever to fire or tornadoes.
Cummings is certain that there are many more to be found, especially in Minnesota, where there was a concentration of the three main social groups that made up the organization.
“The Hibernians were associated mainly with mines, mills and railroads,” he said. “Minnesota should be one of the largest [membership centers] in the country.”

History also points to their importance here. When the Molly Maguires, a society of militant Irish American coal miners, was linked to violence during labor strife in the late 19th century, public pressure was put on the church to dis-tance itself from the group. In 1890, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops held a meet-ing to discuss banning all such societies.
“The first bishop to speak in defense of the Hibernians was John Ireland,” Cummings said. As in John Ireland, the man who oversaw the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis from 1888 to 1918, and whose name is on the street outside the St. Paul Cathedral.
Total number unknown
Paperwork was not the Hibernians’ strong suit. “The only written records we have are from 1884 and 1902, and even those are incomplete,” Cum-mings said.
Although no one knows how many windows the Hi-bernians donated, history in-dicates that the number was large. With the state’s population growing, the plain, wooden churches that had been built by the first settlers were being replaced by more elaborate brick structures, and the organization was eager to help.
The search would be much easier if there were a common design style, but there wasn’t. Nor is there any pattern to where the windows were displayed.
“The windows are circular, oval, square, oblong and rectangular and have been found above altars, over doorways, in rectories, in the vestry area, in confessionals, behind staircases and in choir lofts,” says a fact sheet prepared by the Hibernians.
Two of the oldest windows in the area were in the original St. Michael’s Church in West St. Paul, which was built in 1868. The congregation moved to a new building in 1954 and tried to save as many of its stained-glass windows as it could. Two were Hibernians; one could not be saved, but the other has been refurbished and is in the Room of Reconciliation.
The earliest windows tended to have an Irish theme, but by 1900, that no longer was a given. Nor is it a given that every window with an Irish theme is a Hibernian.
“A lot of people think that if it includes [a depiction of] St. Patrick, it’s one of ours, but that’s not the case,” Cummings said. “A lot of our windows did include St. Patrick, but so did a lot of other windows.”
Many of the windows had a small piece of glass in one of the lower corners saying “Gift of AOH.” Others had a “donated by” marble or brass plaque attached to the lower sill, but some had no designation at all.
“If it was a high window at the top of a cathedral or church, if it was so far up that they figured people couldn’t read the donator’s name, they often didn’t include it,” Cummings said.
Calling Sherlock Holmes
This is where the detective work starts, and this is where you come in, if you want to help.
Cummings suggests contacting a church’s oldest members, especially if they have been attending the church all their lives. While they may not have been alive when it was built, they might have heard stories about its construction, and a reference to the Hibernians could ring a bell.
He also asks people to explore their own memories. “We got a call from a man who had grown up in Milwaukee who remembered a window in his church that had ‘Gift of AOH’ in the corner,” Cummings said. “He said that as a boy, he would sit and stare at that window as he was waiting for confession.”
Church archives and local historical societies are another source. Some of the windows are long gone, but pictures of the windows might exist.
“We have photographs of some lovely windows,” he said, including pictures of a West St. Paul church with a window that was lost when the parish built a new building. “The windows are gone, but the images were saved by an archivist.”
Don’t overlook church basements, either. Immaculate Conception of Marysburg, an unincorporated village near Mankato, had removed the bottom part of a window to repair it but kept the piece in its basement. When one Hibernian window was discovered in the sanctuary, they checked the piece in the basement and found an AOH plaque attached to it.
If you think you have found one of the windows, send Cummings an e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .
“My goal now is to find 500 of them,” he said. “They’re turning up in so many places, I think we can do it.”
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392