Hibernians’ charity brings Christmas joy

The tradition began when a member of a local fraternal organization and father of a son with special needs was looking for a way to serve others with similar challenges.

Fifty-three years later, the Father Flanagan Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians is still bringing Christmas joy to the hearts of students at Madonna School in Omaha. 

The Dec. 14 event at the school included a Mass, celebrated by Archbishop George J. Lucas, and a party featuring a fried chicken meal, Christmas songs with the Roncalli Catholic High School choir, gifts and a visit from Santa Claus.

On top of that, the Hibernians gave the school a check for $2,500 to aid their mission, said Tim Lonergan, Hibernian member and organizer of the event. 

Madonna School serves children and young adults with intellectual and developmental challenges with K-12 education, a life-skills transition program for 18- to 21-year-olds, employment services for adults seeking jobs, and community-based services for those not ready for employment.

The school currently has 36 students enrolled in kindergarten through high school, and 43 young adults in the transitional program.

“Christ tells us to go out and help others – this event is a good way to show our love for Madonna School,” Lonergan said. “The brothers get so much joy out of serving the students at the school year after year.

“It’s nothing fancy, but the kids really enjoy it,” Lonergan said. “They anticipate it all year, so when we get there, they are just thrilled.”

“It strengthens our own faith and helps the students and staff see faith in action through the Hibernians’ charitable work,” he said. 

That example is important for the students, said Peg Carney, school principal. “This teaches them what it looks like to be generous.”

Patterned after a similar 300-year-old organization in Ireland, the Hibernians in this country were founded in New York City in 1836. Originally the group assisted Irish immigrants arriving in the United States and defended Irish Catholic priests from discrimination and persecution. 

The local division serves the Omaha area through projects to preserve Irish culture and benevolent activities such as the annual Christmas gathering at Madonna School.

The event blends the sacred and the secular, beginning with Mass, where students participate through the Scripture readings, prayers of the faithful and presentation of gifts, Carney said.

At this year’s Mass, Archbishop Lucas talked during his homily about the symbols of his pastoral office such as his crosier, or staff. He told students it represents his role as shepherd of the flock in the archdiocese, and points to Jesus the Good Shepherd who “cares about all of us and wants to keep us close and safe.”

“While waiting for Christmas, I’ll be praying for you that Jesus will come to you and that you will have the peace and joy God wants you to have” the archbishop told students. 

Seventh-grader Blaise McDonald said Mass with the archbishop “was awesome,” and that he was impressed with the archbishop’s homily.

“And, I feel that every Christmas, Jesus is happy that we’re celebrating his birthday,” he said.

When lunch was finished, Santa Claus made his timely appearance to the delight of the students. After circulating through the crowd and greeting them, he took his place alongside his elf companion as students lined up to meet him one-on-one and receive a small gift.

“The kids knew that Santa would be here, so the anticipation has been growing throughout the week – they just couldn’t wait,” Carney said.

Madonna students also have been preparing for Christmas in other ways, she said, such as a music performance by the students Dec. 13, a “secret Santa” gift exchange between the high schoolers, and morning prayers that include Advent messages about caring for others.

“People have been so generous to us, so we want to empower the kids to think of others too,” Carney said.

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