FEATURE: Who Was Fr. Michael McGivney and What Could Make Him a Saint?
October 29, 2020. Founder of Knights of Columbus Inspired a Parish, then the World.
The beatification of Knights of Columbus Founder Father Michael McGivney will be held on October 31, 2020, in Hartford, CT.
There is no “one size fits all” for saints.
They come in every size and shape, of every time in history, male and female, young and old, rich and poor. Some were quiet voices praying in the wilderness; some led great armies or founded global religious congregations.
At the simplest level, a saint is someone who has led an exceptionally holy and Godly life, although that exemplary life may have come after an imperfect start. Sainthood comes after death and requires proof that at least two miracles have followed the prayers to the deceased holy one.
A perusal of the book of saints will offer potential disappointment to anyone who hopes to become a saint: many suffered greatly to the faith, often to the point of death in most cruel ways.
Michael McGivney was born in Waterbury on August 12, 1852. He could easily have become just another child of Irish immigrants who came to America to escape hunger and poverty in their native land. Many like him became factory and mill workers, living a harsh life to make ends meet, sometimes facing discrimination due to their Catholic faith.
Michael’s parents, Patrick and Mary (Lynch) McGivney, had arrived in the great 19th Century wave of Irish immigration.
Patrick McGivney became a molder in the heat and noxious fumes of a Waterbury brass mill. Mary McGivney gave birth to 13 children, six of whom died in infancy or childhood.
Michael was the oldest and thus experienced the death of family members and the family’s battle with poverty. He attended a small neighborhood school and was praised as a good student but left at age 13 to work in a brass mill.
He made spoons. Fortunately, for Michael and the rest of the world, he left three years later and started on the path to the priesthood. He traveled with his Waterbury pastor to Quebec, Canada, registered at the French-run College of St. Hyacinthe, and dove into his studies.
Two academic years followed at Our Lady of Angels Seminary, attached to Niagara University in Niagara Falls, New York. He then moved next to Montreal to attend seminary classes at the Jesuit-run St. Mary’s College.
He was there when his father died in June of 1873. He returned home to help his family, then entered St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, MD. After four years of study, on December 22, 1877, he was ordained in Baltimore’s historic Cathedral of the Assumption by Archbishop (later Cardinal) James Gibbons. A few days later, with his widowed mother present, he said his first Mass at Immaculate Conception Church in Waterbury.
Fr. Michael McGivney began his priestly ministry on Christmas Day in 1877 as curate at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven. It was the city’s first parish and he quickly learned that the wealthy residents of the community weren’t happy about having a Catholic Church in their neighborhood.
There was tension between the “classes” and it likely didn’t add to Fr. McGivney’s peace of mind that one of his first responsibilities was to minister to inmates at the county jail – including a young man scheduled for execution. The priest was beset with sorrow over the execution but was comforted by the man who was to be hanged: “Father, your saintly ministrations have enabled me to meet death without a tremor. Do not fear for me, I must not break down now.”
Fr. McGivney was an activist in the best sense. He created catechism classes and a program to combat alcoholism in the Irish neighborhood. However, he believed some organization should be created to help with the financial and spiritual needs of families, especially when the breadwinner had died or was unable to work.
He looked around for a model to follow among the nation’s fledgling benevolent organizations and talked with numerous church leaders. From those explorations came what today is the Knights of Columbus.
In the first public reference to the Order on February 8, 1882, the New Haven Morning Journal and Courier said the Knights of Columbus’ initial meeting had been held the night before. On March 29, the Connecticut legislature granted a charter to the Knights of Columbus, formally establishing it as a legal corporation.
The Order’s principles in 1882 were “Unity” and “Charity.” The concepts of “Fraternity” and “Patriotism” were added later.
Fr. McGivney installed the first officers of San Salvador Council No. 1 in New Haven, in May of 1882. By May 1883, Council No. 2 had been instituted in Meriden, Connecticut and Bishop McMahon, so impressed with the organization, became himself a member of Council No. 11 in 1884 and served it as council chaplain. By the end of 1885, there were 31 councils in Connecticut.
Today, the Knights of Columbus is the world’s largest Catholic fraternal service organization. Founded in the United States in 1882, it is named in honor of Christopher Columbus. There are more than 1.7 million members in 14,000 councils, with nearly 200 councils on college campuses. Councils have been chartered in the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, the Philippines, Guam, Saipan, and most recently in Poland.
Fr. McGivney moved on to become pastor of St. Thomas’ Church in Thomaston, Connecticut, a factory town, where he continued to minister to families struggling with poverty and harsh working conditions. Like many on the path to sainthood before and after, he didn’t avoid the stress of life.
Never robust of health, he developed pneumonia in early 1890. None of the treatments doctors tried were effective. On August 14 of that year, he died at the age of 38 after serving just 13 years as a priest. But it can’t be denied that those were 13 remarkable years that left a lasting impression.
Fr. Joseph G. Daley, a contemporary of Fr. McGivney, described the candidate saint in a Knights of Columbus publication in 1900:
His special vocation was to develop Catholic manhood, to bind into one conspicuous solidarity all the elements that make for strength of character and so, indeed, to bring out that solidity of character — in other words, that Catholicity — prominently in its strength before the world. Thanks to his labors, the Society of the Knights of Columbus was organized in 1882. Its purpose was to create among Catholic laymen a confraternity which, while not being a religious society in the strict sense of the word, exacted from its members certain religious qualifications, that is to say, the open profession of the Catholic faith and filial submission to the Church in all matters of doctrine, discipline and morals.