By Olivia Overman
Founded in 1836 concurrently in both New York City and Pennsylvania, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) is America’s oldest Irish Catholic Fraternal organization. With roots dating back to the mid-1500s in Ireland, the AOH in America was established with the mission to protect Irish Catholics. With Irish immigrants, clergy and church property under attack from the “Know Nothings” (an American political party that operated on a national basis) during this period, AOH organizations increased in number. Today, the American organization has developed into a charitable and social group that helps people from all walks of life. Prince William County has three Hibernian Divisions: the Lt. Col. John A. Dowd USMC Division in Woodbridge, the Father Edwin Kelley Division in Manassas and the most recently formed, the Father Mychal Judge O.F.M. Division in Triangle. Spread throughout the county, the divisions help keep the Irish culture of art, dance, music and sports alive.
“One of the great things we do in the Dowd Division is to give scholarships for members’ children and grandchildren,” said Art Corbett, current president of the Division. A member, Jack Kane, endowed the Kane Scholarship Fund in 1996 in honor of his father. “We manage this trust fund and use the money to support Catholic education,” he said. While there are criteria for the high schools attended, there are no such criteria for colleges attended for scholarships. According to the division’s treasurer and past president, John Berry, the scholarship fund totals about $10,000 a year, and while most of it is given to children and grandchildren of members, there is also an amount that is given to deserving rising high school students from the parochial schools of St. Aquinas, Holy Family and St. Francis.
The Father Edwin Kelley Division in Manassas are the founding members of Inisfail Inc., the holding company that puts on the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Manassas. “We sell a lot of ads for the parade program and raise funds this way,” said Vince Fitzpatrick, president of the Prince William County AOH. “This is our main event of the year along with a beer tasting event, which supports military charities, including Able Forces and T.A.P.S., Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors,” he said. “We make most of our charitable donations to elementary schools in the City of Manassas. This past year  we donated $6,000 to local charitable organizations, including the schools.”
Involved with All Saints Catholic Church in Manassas, the Kelley Division, most recently, provided 100 percent of the funding for the stained glass window in the church. “For a group of 52 members to donate $15,000 is no small feat,” said Fitzpatrick.
Fr. Mychal Judge OFM division, started in 2012, was named after Fr. Mychal Judge, OFM, a priest who was a Chaplain for the New York Fire Department and was killed as part of the rescue efforts in the World Trade Center attacks. “This year we have the honor of hosting a concert including Irish legend Phil Coulter, and what the New York Times calls ‘Americas Favorite Irish signer,’ Andy Cooney, and the Irish Pops Ensemble at Forest Park High School on March 18,” said Dan Sullivan, president of the Fr. Judge Division. “Much of the proceeds from these concerts are used to fund our charitable giving. We give to local Catholic schools, Catholic Charities, Hibernian Charities, Youth Ministries, local parishes, and a local food bank and outreach facility,” Sullivan said.
The Ladies Ancient Order of the Hibernians (LAOH), the Dowd Division, works diligently with churches and other organizations to provide charitable assistance. “In particular, we work with Birthright, which provides financial assistance for pregnant women and children and the Tepeyac Family Center, which provides health services for pregnant women,” said Kathy Sullivan, vice president and past president of the LAOH. Each year a baby shower brunch is held, and baby clothes and gift cards are collected and donated to the organizations.
However, it is the largest fundraiser, the St. Brigid’s Gala, which brings in the biggest funding for charities. “We have a silent auction, a raffle, Irish dancers and an Irish pub,” said Sullivan. The group also works with St. Margaret of Cortona, Family Transitional Housing in providing apartments to homeless families as well as adopting three or four families for Christmas.
Preserving Irish Culture
Marching in the annual St. Patrick’s Day parades in Manassas and Alexandria is a must for the Prince William AOH. “This year the [Manassas] parade will be on Saturday, March 12,” said Fitzpatrick. The parade is sponsored by a number of local companies, including The Old Town Sports Pub, which is a big supporter of the event. “Several pipe bands stop by the Old Town Sports pub after the parade where sometimes they have a tent set up. There’s a lot of Irish music around Historic Manassas on St. Patrick’s Day,” he said.
Members of the Dowd Division cannot be missed during the parade as they proudly carry a giant tri-color flag, approximately 15 by 25 feet, along the parade route. “The division had this custom made. It’s not designed for a flag pole, but it has handles to allow people to carry it,” said Berry. The division has recently also commenced road bowling. For the uninitiated road bowling is an Irish sport where individuals or teams try to take the fewest throws to propel a metal ball along country roads. The Dowd Division, along with members from the Father Edwin Kelley Division and the Father Mychal Judge Division, competed in the event the week before Thanksgiving at the Prince William Forest Park. “There are very few places we can do this,” said Berry. Describing his quest for park approval for the event, Berry said, “There was a lot of explanation required for the senior park ranger there. We would like to do [another]one in the spring or summer as well as restoring the all-county picnic.”
The Centenary Commemoration
This year Ireland will commemorate the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising and the beginning of the country’s independence from England. The national Hibernian organization has planned to observe the event in New York City on April 23 with a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and a reading of the Proclamation of Independence on its steps. Locally, the LAOH of the Dowd Division are selling commemorative 1916 pins while the Manassas parade will feature a commemoration as part of the program. With over 200 events organized throughout the U.S, Irish Americans can surely celebrate with the country of their ancestors.
A graduate of American University’s School of Communication, Olivia Overman ([email protected]) is a freelance writer for online and print publications