Deacon Thomas Carone said he walks past the massive stained-glass window in the Historic Church of St. Patrick "a hundred times a day," but never noticed its glass panel inscribed with the letters "AOH."
Those letters stand for Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish Catholic lay organization that is many centuries old in Europe and was established in the United States in 1836.
Between the 1870s and the 1920s, scores of hard-working Irish immigrants scraped up funds to pay for ornate stained-glass windows to be installed in Catholic churches across the country.
Many of the windows are still in place but their history has been forgotten or overlooked. Scores more are falling apart or have been lost because of lack of upkeep or when churches burned down or were razed.
Today, the Ancient Order of Hibernians is asking its 48,000 U.S. members to be on the lookout for stained-glass windows that their organization funded as long as 135 years ago.
Every time an AOH window is discovered, "it's like finding a long-lost cousin," said Michael Finn, a Hibernian historian from Columbus.
One of the finest examples of a Hibernian stained-glass window is the one in St. Patrick's Church, Mr. Finn said. The parish, commonly called St. Pat's Historic, was founded in 1862 to serve Toledo's Irish population and quickly outgrew its original building.
Construction on the current Avondale Avenue church - visible from I-75 and the Anthony Wayne Trail and notable for its missing steeple, which was destroyed by lightning in 1980 - began in 1892. The Gothic architectural design, made of Amhurst blue sandstone, was completed in time for Christmas, 1900.
The stained-glass transept window to the left of the altar measures 14 feet wide and 40 feet high. Its centerpiece features a large pastoral scene of St. Patrick preaching, representing the birth of Christianity in Ireland. The window also depicts the 12 apostles and four Irish saints, St. Bridget, St. Columkill, St. Columba, and St. Colman.
"It's a beauty," Mr. Finn said. "Not only is it beautiful artwork, but it's in good shape physically. And I know it was made in Toledo. It's rare because it was donated by both the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians."
Mr. Finn said the St. Pat's window is one of 21 in the state that the AOH has discovered and the only one in northwest Ohio - at least the only one the group is aware of.
"None of them were cheap," he said. "And the people of our order in the 1890s tended to be working-class people - coal miners, farmers, railroaders. For them to come up with enough money to buy a 14-by-40-foot window, it's a significant contribution, and we're trying to recognize that."
The Hibernians' search for the windows began about three years ago when a church in Ironton, in southern Ohio, discovered that a round Hibernian window over its entrance needed to be restored.
"That kind of got the ball rolling," Mr. Finn said. "Then our national organization ran with it."
He said the national headquarters started with a list of 20 stained-glass Hibernian windows across the country and as of this week the number has grown to 239 in 30 states.
In the eastern states such as New York and Massachusetts, Hibernians donated the funds in the post-Civil War era partially to boost the image of Irish immigrants that had been damaged by news reports of violence committed by a secret society of Irish miners in Pennsylvania known as the Molly Maguires.
But toward the end of the 19th century, when many of the Irish Catholic churches were being built in Ohio and the Midwest, that was no longer a factor, Mr. Finn said. The Hibernians were simply striving to support their parish.
Scouring the state for AOH-funded stained-glass windows has become a passion for Mr. Finn and other like-minded Hibernians.
"It's been a real exciting program for us as we try to reclaim missing parts of our history," he said.
The windows vary widely in size and shape, but all are marked in some way, either with initials or the full name of the Hibernians in the stained-glass or on a plaque nearby.
Mr. Finn said he hopes Ohioans will take a new look at the windows in Catholic churches throughout the state to see if any were donated by the AOH.
"It's not a competition between states," he said, "but Ohio is in third place with 21, Massachusetts has 53, and Pennsylvania has 26. I'd sure like to see Ohio at the top of the list."
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