It would be no stretch to imagine that Fr. Michael McGivney could become a canonized saint within the next couple of decades. After all, the Knights of Columbus proudly celebrate their founder much as Opus Dei in recent years has celebrated the canonization of its founder, St. Josemaría Escrivá.
Aiding the effort to make the priest better known to Catholics and non-Catholics alike is the bestselling Parish Priest by Catholic historians Douglas Brinkley and Julie M. Fenster. Brinkley and Fenster combine diligent research with good storytelling abilities, establishing a winning historical narrative of the life and work of a priest whose influence has endured and increased enormously long after his relatively few days on earth (1852–1890).
While McGivney is best known for founding the Knights of Columbus, the authors provide insight into his background, from childhood on. The eldest of Irish immigrants Patrick and Mary McGivney’s 12 children (only seven of whom survived infancy), McGivney grew up in Waterbury, Connecticut, in what is now the Archdiocese of Hartford. By age 12, he had expressed his earnest desire to serve as a priest, but his pious father, perhaps thinking his eldest son too young to make such a decision, refused to provide the required paternal endorsement.
McGivney would eventually enter the seminary, only to leave when his father died in June 1873. The Hartford Diocese later provided the needed financial support, and McGivney was eventually ordained a few days before Christmas in 1877 by the famous Archbishop (later Cardinal) James Gibbons.
Anti-Catholicism has taken one form or another throughout U.S. history, and in Fr. McGivney’s day it was of the rather overt and explicit variety. Yet, as unpleasant as such religious prejudice was—the authors provide a prime example that involved one of McGivney’s parishes and The New York Times in the summer of 1879—there were more pressing concerns for the priest, who had to care for the material and spiritual needs of his flock.
One of the most poignant passages in the book tells how Fr. McGivney came to the spiritual aid of James "Chip" Smith, an unemployed 21- year-old man and wayward Catholic who lived in Ansonia, a town five miles west of New Haven. A drunken Smith had killed the chief of police in a regrettable struggle around Christmas 1880 and had been sentenced to hang in the summer of 1882.
Fr. McGivney reached out to Smith, visiting him in jail so that Smith was ready to meet the Lord and provide comfort to his sobbing mother on his execution day: "Mother, don’t cry for me!" said Smith as he threw his arms around his mother. "I will soon be better off. Just think if I had been shot that night and died without a moment’s time for preparation, how much worse off I should be than I am now. I have asked God to forgive me my sins and believe that I shall die a happy death."
The general welfare of Catholic families also concerned Fr. McGivney a great deal. He had seen how families had been reduced to severe poverty upon the death of a husband and father; indeed, he had a taste of those financial difficulties when his own father died. At the same time, Fr. McGivney wanted to provide a fraternal society for men that would be solidly Catholic and provide a paid benefit in the event of sickness or death. In the latter 1800s, commercial life insurance policies were not as financially accessible to the common man as they are today. Furthermore, a genuinely Catholic fraternal society would deter Catholics from joining forbidden secret societies like the Masons, which also provided fellowship and financial support in time of need.
Fr. McGivney overcame various obstacles in starting the Knights, including opposition from fellow Catholic clergy, and by May 1883 a second council had been formed, this one in Meriden, Connecticut. Only two years later, in August 1885, the Knights had grown so rapidly that Fr. McGivney joined several thousand Knights in the streets of New Haven for the order’s first parade.
Today, the Knights of Columbus number more than 12,000 councils with an international membership of 1.7 million. Parish Priest provides the story behind their success—the life of a saintly priest whose impact on the Church will continue to grow for years to come.
- Thomas J. Nash (from Lay Witness magazine. www.cuf.org)
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