SPRING HILL — All Irish eyes may shine on St. Patrick's Day but a new group in Hernando County aims to keep people of Irish descent shining throughout the year.
Paperwork is under way to establish a local chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in America. Matthew McNamee, a native of County Leitrim, Ireland, is spearheading the effort.
"Yes, I'm from the old country," says the 67-year-old McNamee, who still speaks with an Irish brogue. He arrived from his native country in 1970, has lived in New York and made his way to Hernando County just last year. He brings with him the credo of the Hibernians, "to honor our Irish heritage, pass on the ancestral traditions to future generations and defend our Catholic faith."
The Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish Catholic fraternal organization founded in the homeland 300 years ago, set down American roots in 1836 in the coal fields of Pennsylvania and working class neighborhoods in New York City. Both places were heavily populated with Irish immigrants.
According to its website, the American Hibernian Order is the "oldest lay Catholic ethnic organization operating in the United States," claiming 80,000 members in 46 U.S. states, Canada and Ireland.
"We want to expand," said McNamee, of Spring Hill, "and we feel we have a lot of Irish and Irish-Americans around here." Twenty-three men were installed as the first members of the Hernando division earlier this month with Joe Laguardia, past state president of the Hibernians, officiating.
Laguardia represents the New Port Richey division, is advising the Hernando group in its establishment, and has invited the Hernando members to a special St. Patrick's Mass at 10:30 a.m. today at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church, 5340 High Street, New Port Richey.
At a ceremony following the Mass, the Hibernians will present a check to their major charitable beneficiary, the St. Vincent DePaul Society.
Along with encouraging Irish heritage and culture, McNamee said the Hibernians' major effort is to support Catholic charities and organizations whose fundamentals mesh with those of the Catholic faith. For instance, McNamee foresees the Hernando division's activities and events raising money for groups that aid pregnant teens, the homeless, separated families and Catholic seminarians.
"We have to get going first," McNamee pointed out. He is soliciting more members, the only qualification that they be Irish or of Irish descent, either themselves or through marriage. Some charter members include transfers from divisions in Pennsylvania, New York and the Northeast. McNamee himself is transferring from the New Port Richey division.
Hernando officers already elected, all of Spring Hill, include president Dr. Mike Higgins, vice president McNamee, recording secretary and marshal Michael Owens, financial secretary James Cahill, treasurer Robert Christi, standing committee chairman Col. Michael Maurer, sentinel Martin McNiff, chaplain Bruce King.
Division meetings will be held at St. Theresa Catholic Church, 1107 Commercial Way, Spring Hill. The next is set for 6 p.m. March 24.
In the Hibernian tradition, men and women establish separate divisions. Nancy Fay of Spring Hill is seeking members for a women's division in Hernando County. Fifteen members, 10 of them new to the Hibernian order, are required for official organization. Several transfers are expected from the New Port Richey division, said Fay, a Long Island native, a Floridian for 21 years and past Florida state women's division president.
Fay, 76, noted that women who embrace Irish heritage through marriage also are welcome as members.
"We have all the same goals (as the men)," Fay said. "We aid seminarians with scholarships to get new priests in the church. We have different fundraisers for unwed mothers and anti-abortion." The women also will meet at St. Theresa's.
By the way, Hibernia is an old name for Ireland, derived from Latin and believed to be the name Julius Caesar gave the country.
Additional information is available from Fay at (352) 688-7122 and McNamee at (352) 340-5280.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected].