The Ancient Order of Hibernians is dedicated to its Catholic faith, Irish heritage and charitable presence in the Chemung County area — so much so, in fact, that the group caught Rochester Bishop Matthew H. Clark’s attention.
As good luck would have it, Bishop Clark happened to be in Elmira last year on the same day of the Hibernians’ highly attended annual Corporate Communion Mass, and got to see the Hibernians at their very best.
“He was so impressed with the event that he wanted to be a part of it,” said Dick “Merc” Morris, past president of Msgr. John J. Lee Division No. 1 of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. From there, arrangements were made for Bishop Clark to preside, for the first time ever, at the 2007 Corporate Communion Mass that was set for March 11.
Whether it’s attending Mass, staging social functions or supporting important causes, the Hibernians are a longtime asset to the Chemung region. Dick Dalton, publicity chairman, noted that since 1991, the president of the United States has issued a proclamation designating March as Irish-American Heritage Month, and so AOH has been specially visible as of late — beginning with a kickoff event on the evening of March 1. It drew an estimated 400 people to Steele Memorial Library in Elmira for proclamations by various officials, along with music from Irish performers including the Hibernian Choir.
“There were bagpipes at the library, and you’re supposed to be quiet,” quipped John O’Herron, current Elmira AOH president.
The Corporate Communion Mass, set for 10 days later, is the year’s only mandatory event for members. It was to take place at Ss. Peter and Paul Church, which is the Hibernians’ home church due to its standing as Elmira’s first parish for Irish immigrants. In addition, a St Patrick’s Day Mass was to be held the morning of March 17 at St Patrick’s Church in Elmira. The holiday celebration was to continue at the Hibernian Center, featuring corned beef menu items served by the Ladies AOH.
“It’s a lot and it keeps me busy, that’s for sure,” O’Herron said.
And he loves every second of this March Madness.
“Absolutely. This is our glory,” he said.
Morris remarked that through these events, “everybody becomes very aware of what the Irish are about and the things that we do. It’s much more than festive drinking and what have you.”
Indeed, the Hibernians are busy all year round. AOH donates tens of thousands of dollars annually to such entities as the Josh Palmer Cancer Fund; local Catholic and public schools; and a wide array of youth sports teams. Funds are raised through such Hibernian-sponsored events as a golf tournament and beef raffle. Justin McInerny, another past president, added that the Hibernians are involved in “anything to do with Catholic fundraising,” such as the Samaritan Center and Food Bank of the Southern Tier.
“We’re proud to be Catholics and be out there in the community,” McInerny said.
According to O’Herron, there are nearly 400 men — McInerny said about 150 are active — who are AOH members as well as nearly 250 women in the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians and 20 boys in the Junior Division. Morris said the AOH is involved in many behind-the-scenes endeavors, but as of late has sought to be more visible in an effort to draw new members. He acknowledged that although membership in the Elmira AOH is solid, it is dwindling across the state.
“One of the things we haven’t done in the past is get our names out there and publicize ourselves. I think it’s time to get out there and let people know,” said Morris, who currently serves as the AOH’s state Seventh District director.
And yet, the Hibernians won’t take just anybody for the sake of swelling their numbers. Whereas membership doesn’t require full-blooded Irish heritage — “as long as you have some Irish,” O’Herron said — there is no such leeway on adherence to the Catholic faith. McInerny and Morris noted that Hibernian applicants must be registered with a parish and approved by the parish priest.
“We want good quality. We’re very strict about being a practicing Catholic. If you don’t meet the criteria, you can forget filling out the application. We’re very serious about that,” said Morris, a parishioner of St. Mary’s Southside in Elmira.
O’Herron said new members often emerge simply by their exposure to the Hibernian Center, located at 701 Kinyon St. on the city’s south side.
“People came for a fish fry or rent our hall for a shower, and they like what they see. Then they’re asking for an application,” said O’Herron, who belongs to St. Mary’s Southside.
AOH was founded in New York City in 1836. It is a derivative of an organization by the same name that was founded in 17th-century Ireland during British rule as a response to the persecution of Irish Catholics by Protestants. Similarly, many Hibernian groups in the United States were begun to safeguard against anti-Catholicism during a time when the Irish immigrant population was growing rapidly due to the devastating potato famine in Ireland. Today, the AOH continues to advocate for the political, social and religious good of American Irish Catholics while also seeking to educate others about Irish heritage.
Groups of Hibernians have existed in Elmira since the 1800s, and Msgr. John J. Lee Division No. 1 was founded in 1953. The AOH motto of “Friendship, Unity, and Christian Charity” seems to be quite fitting for this coalition.
McInerny, a parishioner of Our Lady of Lourdes, said he enjoys “just being able to give back to different areas, different communities,” also noting that he prizes the AOH’s camaraderie.
“We have a very tight group of members,” he said. “It’s easy when you’ve got a place to go, and need people to talk to about issues.”
“It’s like an extended family,” O’Herron agreed.