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FEATURE: Who Was Fr. Michael McGivney and What Could Make Him a Saint?

Founder of Knights of Columbus Inspired a Parish, then the World

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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.

Fr. Michael McGivney seated in studio rectory setting, dressed in a long cassock, seated in high-backed upholstered chair, opened book in lap. feet by hassock, newspaper on floor. Photo attributed to John J. Tierney. 1870-1880

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 J.McGivney postcard portrait. Detail without inscription. 1880-1889 approx
Scanned from copy print

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.

Father McGivney Institutions and Memorials Around the World

 Devotion to Father Michael McGivney spans the globe, wherever Knights of Columbus are active. From a school in the U.S. capital to a cupola in the capital of the Philippines, the life and legacy of the Order’s founder serve as a model for Catholics today. Here are some of the more notable sites that honor Father McGivney.

The Catholic University of America — Washington, D.C.

With a major grant from the Knights of Columbus, The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., renovated a prominent academic building and converted it into McGivney Hall, which was dedicated on Sept. 8, 2008. Formerly Keane Hall, the five-story limestone structure of modern-classical design was built in 1958 and now serves as the home for the North American campus of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, a graduate school of theology supported by the Knights of Columbus. Catholic University Council 9542 also meets in the building.

McGivney House — Erbil, Iraq

As part of its ongoing efforts to aid Christians in the Middle East, the Knights of Columbus sponsored an apartment building for families who were driven from their homes by ISIS. Opened in early 2019 in Erbil, Iraq, McGivney House features 140 units, with special apartments for the elderly who need extra assistance. The building includes a chapel and is located within walking distance of a Catholic church. Supreme Knight Carl Anderson visited the facility in March 2019, when Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Erbil blessed an image of Father McGivney that was placed in the building’s chapel. Funds for the project came from the Knights’ Christian Refugee Relief Fund, which has underwritten projects to aid persecuted Christians throughout the Middle East.

Father Michael J. McGivney Boulevard — Waterbury, Connecticut

Father McGivney’s hometown of Waterbury, Conn., honored its native son in 1957, when it erected a memorial statue at a major intersection near city and state offices. The monumental bronze statue stands high upon a granite pedestal, depicting Father McGivney holding a copy of the Gospels in his left arm as he lifts his right hand toward heaven. The four polished sides of the pedestal represent the four principles of the Knights of Columbus: charity, unity, fraternity, and patriotism. The statue was dedicated for the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Knights of Columbus.

One of the streets abutting the traffic island was renamed Father Michael J. McGivney Boulevard in 2004. In a ceremony with city officials, Supreme Knight Anderson, and a gathering of more than 200 area Knights, Father McGivney Boulevard street signs were unveiled to replace Waterbury’s Grand Street.

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception — Washington, D.C.

A stained-glass window of Father McGivney, funded by the Knights of Columbus, was dedicated November 15, 1998, in the sacristy of the Crypt Church at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Bishop Thomas V. Daily of Brooklyn, supreme chaplain at the time, blessed the image, which priests can see daily when preparing for Mass. The Knights have made a number of other gifts to the shrine, including the Knights’ Tower, which can be seen from all points of the nation’s capital, and the Knights of Columbus Incarnation Dome, a mosaic adorning the interior of one of the shrine’s five domes.

Father Michael J. McGivney Academy — Markham, Ontario, Canada

Built at the cost of $20 million by the York Catholic School District in the early 1990s, Father Michael J. McGivney Academy is a state-of-the-art high school in Markham, Ontario, Canada. Stained-glass windows, contributed by Markham Knights of Columbus, depict Father McGivney comforting widows, orphans, and the sick.

Father McGivney Catholic High School — Maryville, Illinois

The first U.S. high school to be named for Father McGivney was opened in the fall of 2012 with 19 freshmen in the unused wing of another Catholic school in Maryville, Illinois. A freshman class was added each year until all grades, 9-12, were at full enrollment. In August 2015, Father McGivney Catholic High School opened in its own newly constructed building in Glen Carbon, Illinois, with 125 students. Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield blessed and dedicated the building. The school motto is “Servire Culturae Vitae” (To Serve the Culture of Life).

St. John Fisher Seminary — Stamford, Connecticut

A stained-glass window depicting Father McGivney was dedicated on Sept. 12, 2009, at St. John Fisher Seminary in Stamford, Connecticut. Supreme Chaplain William E. Lori, the then-bishop of Bridgeport, celebrated a dedication Mass at the seminary chapel.

Pontifical North American College — Rome, Italy

An addition to the 160-year-old Pontifical North American College in Rome features a stained-glass window of Father McGivney — one of two U.S. priests portrayed in the new facility’s chapel. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, dedicated the building on Jan. 6, 2015, the feast of the Epiphany.

The building includes the new St. John Paul II Chapel, which features stained-glass windows of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, St. John Paul II, St. Teresa of Calcutta, Archbishop Fulton Sheen and Father McGivney. The Knights of Columbus has provided support for the Pontifical North American College for decades.

St. Mary’s University College — Calgary, Canada

With support from Calgary councils and the Supreme Council, the Knights of Columbus donated $235,000 to renovate an old Protestant church into the new Father Michael J. McGivney Hall at St. Mary’s University College. The only school of its kind in Canada, St. Mary’s prepares teachers to work specifically in Catholic schools. A plaque commemorating the Order’s contribution was blessed in July 2011 by then-Bishop Frederick Henry of Calgary.

St. Mary’s Seminary — Baltimore, Maryland

A bronze bust of Father McGivney occupies a prominent position at the front of the assembly room of St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, where the future priest studied from 1873-77. The figure was funded through the generosity of the seminarians who wished to honor the memory of one of the school’s most noteworthy alumni.

Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines — Manila, Philippines

Knights of Columbus Fraternal Association of the Philippines Incorporated Manila, Philippines

Three sites in the Philippines — where the Order was established in 1905 — were dedicated to Father McGivney during the May 2012 visit of Supreme Knight Carl Anderson. Statues of Father McGivney were blessed and placed in these locations: a multimedia studio at the headquarters of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP); a cupola outside the headquarters of the Knights of Columbus Fraternal Association of the Philippines Incorporated (KCFAPI), the Knights’ insurance program in the Philippines; and an oratory inside the headquarters.

St. Mary’s Church — Crosserlough, Ireland

In honor of the Irish heritage of the McGivney family, a bronze plaque was placed in St. Mary’s Church in Crosserlough, County Cavan, where Father McGivney’s father, Patrick, was born. Supreme Knight Anderson presented the plaque, along with an image of Father McGivney and the flags of the United States and Ireland, to Father Michael Quinn, pastor of the church. The plaque’s inscription notes that Patrick was born in Crosserlough, and his wife, Mary (Lynch) McGivney, came from the neighboring parish of Castlerahan. The two were married after settling in America, and their first child, Michael, was born in 1852 in Waterbury, Connecticut. Present-day members of the Irish branches of the McGivney and Lynch families attended the plaque ceremony on April 9, 2018.

St. Thomas Church — Thomaston, Connecticut

In the Connecticut parish where Father McGivney served as pastor before he passed away on Aug. 14, 1890, a statue of the Knights of Columbus founder was installed by the local council and blessed by the current pastor. With the encouragement of Father Robert J. Grant, Knights of Columbus Atlantic Council 18 of Thomaston purchased the 4-foot statue of Father McGivney and installed it just inside the front entrance of St. Thomas Church. During Sunday Mass, Nov. 11, 2012, Father Grant blessed the statue and asked parishioners to turn to Father McGivney as a heavenly intercessor in times of trouble and illness. The street outside the church is named Father McGivney Way.

Immaculate Conception Church — Terryville, Connecticut

When Father McGivney was pastor of St. Thomas parish, he also cared for Immaculate Conception mission, a few miles away in Terryville, Connecticut. Commuting by horse and buggy on Sundays to celebrate Mass in each church was taxing, but he performed his duties well. In his honor, an image of Father McGivney lifting a monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament was painted with other images in the church’s sanctuary.

St. Patrick’s Basilica — Ottawa, Canada

At St. Patrick’s Basilica in Ottawa, a 4-foot statue of Father McGivney stands in a place of honor in the center of the basilica’s grotto. The window on the back wall of the prayer space bears the emblems of the Order, Fourth Degree and Squires, and the Knights of Columbus Insurance shield. The site was constructed with seed money from a Canadian K of C general agent and is maintained by the Venerable Michael J. McGivney Honoris Committee.

St. Francis Xavier Church — Metairie, Louisiana

A stained-glass window depicting Father McGivney was blessed and dedicated October 18, 2015, in St. Francis Xavier Church in Metairie, La. Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans performed the rites. Sponsored by Knights of Columbus Msgr. Henry Bezou Council 8546, which is based at the parish, the stained-glass window depicts the Knights of Columbus founder in a cassock, holding a Bible in his left hand and the Knights of Columbus emblem in his right. The inscription reads: Rev. Michael McGivney, Founder of Knights of Columbus.

Holy Family Church — Ogden, Utah

Showing that they serve as the “strong right arm” of their pastor, members of Knights of Columbus Bishop Joseph Federal Council 14399 in South Ogden, Utah, placed an image of Father McGivney in Holy Family Church. The council consulted a liturgical designer to create and install the window, which was blessed by Salt Lake City Bishop John C. Wester on Aug. 18, 2012.

St. Mary of the Cataract Church — Niagara Falls, New York

The most noticeable feature of a $200,000 renovation at St. Mary of the Cataract Church in Niagara Falls, N.Y., is a series of eight roundels, or round portraits, that adorn the church’s interior. The mosaics feature North American saints such as Elizabeth Ann Seton, Frances Xavier Cabrini, and Katharine Drexel, as well as Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha. One image is of Father McGivney, who studied in the 1870s at the College and Seminary of Our Lady of Angels, now known as Niagara University.

Sacred Heart Church — Norwich, Connecticut

Father McGivney is memorialized at Sacred Heart Church in Norwich, Connecticut, where 18-inch stained- glass insets in new mahogany doors grace the church’s entrance. The windows are part of a $450,000 renovation of the church, funded by parishioners and Knights of Columbus White Cross Council 13 in Norwich. Father McGivney’s face is featured on a blue-green diamond background at the center of one of the new doors, with the Knights of Columbus emblem located at the center of the adjacent door. The renovated church was rededicated in January 2004 by Bishop Michael R. Cote of Norwich.

St. Charles Borromeo Parish — Bridgeport, Connecticut

St. Charles Borromeo Parish’s community center in Bridgeport, Conn., was founded in 1992 and offers after-school education and recreation programs for young people in need. The parish has a close association with the McGivney name. Two younger brothers of Father Michael McGivney served as pastor: Father Patrick McGivney (1913-28) and Father John McGivney (1928-39). The two also followed their older brother in serving at different times as supreme chaplain of the Knights of Columbus.

Photos, graphic, and content for article courtesy of Knights of Columbus

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Jim Fair

Jim Fair is a husband, father, grandfather, writer, and communications consultant. He also likes playing the piano and fishing. He writes from the Chicago area.

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