Ancient Order of Hibernians Irish Catholic society, the last of a dying breed in Fishtown

19 Oct

About two-dozen mostly older men wearing the colors of the Irish flag gather outside of 2424 York Studios, the newly redeveloped mixed-use building on York Street between Gaul and Cedar Streets in Fishtown, waiting for their bi-weekly, Thursday night meeting to start.

The men, members of Division 51 of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, don’t usually meet here. They usually convene around the corner at Holy Name of Jesus parish, the group’s unofficial headquarters and the first and oldest Irish Catholic church in Fishtown, dating back to 1905. Tonight, building code concerns forced them to relocate at the last minute.

Division 51 is used to rolling with the punches these days, and perhaps the ironic juxtaposition between the meeting spots themselves – the old church versus the new studios – offers a symbolic reason for why.

In recent years, the redevelopment of vacant buildings, investments in the arts and new sustainability initiatives, among many other projects, have all shaken up the status quo, changing not just the physical landscape, but the relationships within it.

The neighborhood’s revitalization, largely led by the New Kensington Community Development Corporation, has attracted an increasing number of young professionals and creatives and with gentrification on its heels, the original working class residents are slowly being displaced.

This displacement doesn’t bode well for the future of Division 51, the Fishtown branch of the international AOH secret society; however, despite the threat of extinction, its members continue to cherish their heritage and the impact it has had on shaping Fishtown’s identity.

“This group of people is Fishtown,” said Tom Keenan, photo media specialist and one of the original members of Division 51. “The original Fishtown.”

Members of Division 51 agree that the neighborhood is changing and, despite the fact that housing prices and real estate taxes are through the roof, they view this change as a good thing.

“Fishtown is changing for the better,” Keenan said. “Everyone wants to say they are from Fishtown now,”

Another member, in joking about the neighborhood’s hotly contested northern boundary (the agree on York Street over Norris), said he didn’t care if the border stretched all the way to Ontario Street in Port Richmond. He was just proud that more people identified with Fishtown.

This notion of identifying with the neighborhood is what led to the birth of the division.

“When we started this, we wanted something positive. We wanted something more than just an Irish drinking club,” said member James McCarrie, a retired deputy sheriff who grew up on the 2300 block of Almond Street. “We wanted to bring our pride for our families, our heritage and our neighborhood together.”

Although members, varying in age from college student to retiree, grew up on different blocks or hung at different parks or – in the very unlikely case – attended a different school (most went to Holy Name), almost all of them grew up in Fishtown.
“That’s what makes our division so special,” said George Shaw, vice president. “Every other division’s members are transients. Our division is a neighborhood-based thing.”

The division’s true origin is said to date all the way back to Protestant Reformation in late 16th century Ireland. Laws imposed during this time denounced the practice of Catholicism and restricted the social, political and economic livelihood of Irish Catholics. One of the secret societies that emerged in response to this subjugation was the Defenders, which organized under the motto of “Friendship, Unity, and True Christian Charity.”

When the Great Potato Famine forced many Irish Catholics to migrate to the then Protestant United States in the mid-19th century, they were once again met with anti-Catholic hostility. The American branch of the AOH was thus born, officially formalizing in New York City in 1836. Their charter institutionalized the same beliefs upheld by the Defenders.

The AOH was instrumental in helping early immigrants and their families, many of whom settled in Fishtown, secure jobs and other social services generally administered by a central polity. Early on, it was fundamental in shaping the community’s values.

“There aren’t many more neighborhoods like this left in the city,” Keenan said. “[And Division 51] is the heart and soul of the neighborhood.”

Current President Bill Francisco and several other members of the Port Richmond division set out to create the Fishtown branch in 2001. They needed just 15 people at the inaugural meeting to formally organize; 89 showed up. The turnout was a testament to the strength of the community.

“It’s not just where we are from, it’s part of who we are,” McCarrie said. “Once you are in, you are in forever.”

Division 51, which currently has about 130 members, remains very active in the Fishtown and Greater Philadelphia communities. They provide services to U.S. military veterans and their families, take part in Fishtown’s anti-drug movement and organize a bi-annual food drive to fight hunger.

More intimately, they lend support when there is illness or tragedy in the neighborhood. After the big St. Patrick’s Day parade, for example, Division 51 continues the festivities in Fishtown, marching past the homes of those too old or too sick to participate in the celebration of their Irish Catholic heritage.

“No one likes to party more than us,” McCarrie said. “But [partying] is not the be all, end all. No, one of the most important things is showing support for the neighborhood.”

Division 51 also shows its support in local political and zoning discussions, rallying members to get out the vote on behalf of the neighborhood.

“We go by who asks,” Francisco said. They are giving the neighborhood a voice, he said.

The Fishtown they once knew has changed considerably in recent years. The number of Irish Catholics that remain has dwindled.

“As the neighborhood disappears, the real meaning of ‘neighborhood’ disappears too,” Francisco said.
For however long Division 51 remains active, they continue to fight for what Fishtown stands for – and in doing so, they will keep reliving their childhood memories.


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