“Hard times create strong men, strong men create easy times, easy times make weak men, weak men make hard times”
It’s the mid-nineteenth century, and immigrants from Europe, driven from their homes by famine or hardship, are pouring into the United States by the literal boatload in hopes of a better life in the New World. Expectations were high; they had to be for so many to leave their own country and everything they knew and loved. The hopeful voyagers would soon be met with a sobering reality. America was not ready for this sudden influx of immigrants. Unemployment and terrible living conditions naturally followed, leading many of the new citizens to crime, drunkenness, and misery. Add to this the fact that America was then largely protestant, resulting in prejudice toward the mostly Catholic immigrants.
However, He who led His people through the wilderness would not forget His children. Throughout history, God has raised up holy men and women to be signs of contradiction to the world and shining examples of virtue to be emulated. One such example, an Irish-American priest who though slight in stature, had plans so grandiose they would leave a mark on the history of how Catholicism in America came to be. This is the story of Father Michael McGivney, parish priest and Founder of the Knights of Columbus.
Michael was born in Waterbury, Connecticut on August 12, 1852, to two first generation Irish immigrants, Patrick McGivney and his wife, Mary, and he was baptized seven days later. Patrick had learned the trade of cast-molding shortly after arriving in the U.S., and was working for a man named Merritt Nichols, who owned a brass factory and affordable houses up for rent, one of which was an idyllic cottage on the bank of the Naugatuck river. It was in this rural environment that Michael spent his childhood years.
Mary McGivney took an intense interest in the education of her children, and she began to teach them as soon as they were able to receive instruction. In 1859, when Michael was six, he took the entrance examination for East Main Street School, scoring well enough to skip the first two grades. Michael also attended Mass at his parish, Immaculate Conception, on a near daily basis. It was in this quiet, prayerful environment that first drove Michael to discern becoming a priest. Unfortunately, his father was adamantly opposed to the idea. Having graduated from school three years early, he took a factory job, and kept his aspirations to the priesthood to himself, for the time being.
Discernment And Studies
At the age of sixteen, Michael had become sure of his calling and his father had been convinced that this was no passing fancy. In September 1868, accompanied by his parish priest, Fr. Hendricken, McGivney left on a train bound for the Seminary of St. Hyacinthe, Canada. For the next two years, Michael would take classes on Latin and Gregorian Chant along with a slew of other studies required before admission into a major seminary. In the summer of 1870, however, McGivney did not return to St. Hyacinthe, instead choosing Our Lady of the Angels Seminary in Niagara Falls, New York, after a year long break from his studies. Michael was hoping to bolster his knowledge of the classics, and perhaps enjoy the scenery of the region.
Having finished his minor studies in preparation for the priesthood, Michael chose Sainte-Marie Seminary in Montreal to be his next step towards the priesthood. Through the Fall of 1872 and the following spring, Michael studied and was expecting finals, perhaps with a feeling of dread. Then, dark news reached Michael. His father, Patrick, had died on June 6th. McGivney packed and went home, never to complete his finals.
The McGivney family banded together in their time of crisis, with the two oldest daughters, Mary and Rosanna, both employed. Additionally, Mary was soon to be wed to a clerk by the name of Michael Lawler, who would help with the family’s finances. That only left Michael McGivney’s tuition for seminary. By the grace of God, the bishop of the diocese of Hartford, Connecticut, granted him a full scholarship. Michael was soon on the way to St.
Mary’s Seminary, Baltimore, to finish his studies. On December 22, 1877, Michael was ordained a priest by Archbishop James Gibbons.
Through the rigorous studies and the sad death of his father, God tested Michael as gold in the furnace. He emerged from these trials as the man he was called to be a priest, a man for others. Fr. McGivney was ready for the cross he was destined to bear.
In 1878, Fr. Michael McGivney was assigned as an assistant pastor to St. Mary’s Parish in New Haven, Connecticut. Located on the prestigious Hillhouse Avenue, St. Mary’s was a beautiful new parish headed by another priest, Father Murphy. Fr. McGivney was soon to be met with two very large problems. The first was St. Mary’s debt, accrued during its recent construction, which totaled 200,000 dollars in 1878 money. The second problem was one affecting the Church on a wider scale; the issue of the secret societies. Holy Mother Church had long condemned its children to belong to any secret fraternal organization, the reason for this being that they offered an escape from the embrace of Catholicism and replace it with a sort of cult like club, where for the most part, religion is banned. In no part of a man’s life should the fact the he is Catholic be absent. Societies like the Freemasons and the Ancient Order of Foresters attracted a great many Catholic young men who desired a feeling of fraternity, resulting in their eventual absence from the pews. Fr. Michael began to entertain plans for an alternative for the young men, a society that while offering an atmosphere of fraternity, would be wholly Catholic in nature.
In 1879, exciting things were happening in New Haven. The telephone was in wide use, with over 60 miles of cable reaching all the neighborhoods in the city. Additionally, the gas lamps used to light the streets were soon replaced with electric ones. Unfortunately, Fr. Murphy didn’t get to see much of it before his death on May 19th. For more than a month, McGivney was acting pastor of St. Mary’s whilst the diocese scrambled to find a priest willing to take on the challenges of the New Haven parish, most notably its debt. Eventually, a priest by the name of Fr. Patrick Lawler, brother of Michael Lawler, stepped up to the plate. Together, he and Fr. McGivney would tirelessly work to reduce the debt of St. Mary’s, a task that would weigh heavily on their minds.
The New Society
The 1800s marked the beginning of a period of growth in the United States, particularly in the northeast, headed by industrial and financial giants who were taking over the economy. The pioneering age, and all its aspects, had been replaced by the dreary industrial scenery of the cities. No longer was a man his own master. He was told where and when to work, for how much, but was left to wonder why. Men had begun to feel an emptiness in their lives, a void in their hearts that begged to be filled. In the face of such economic titans, men were beginning to see something reprehensible to the American mind, their own apparent insignificance.
This is when and why secret societies began to rise in popularity. Men had to fill the hole in their hearts with something that would help to convince them that life was worthwhile. These societies were an attractive solution. They offered a sense of belonging in the form of a fraternity and financial aid to the family of a member if death or injury were to occur. Unfortunately, many Catholic men fell prey to the temptation to join such fraternities and did so in defiance of the Church’s precepts.
This is what lead Fr. McGivney to found his new society, eventually to be named the Knights of Columbus. Their first general meeting was called on Monday, February 6, 1882. Seventy five men attended in the basement of St. Mary’s, there to hear about the purpose of the Knights, which was, as McGivney himself put it, “To prevent people from entering secret societies, by offering the same, if not better, advantages to our members. Secondly, to unite the men of our Faith throughout the diocese of Hartford, that we may thereby gain strength to aid each other in time of sickness; to provide for decent burial, and to render pecuniary assistance to the families of deceased members.” Though the Knights numbered only a handful, through their hard work and McGivney’s leadership it would soon count thousands of members.
Transfer To Thomaston
Father McGivney had to put his involvement with his Knights on the backburner when, in mid 1885, he was transferred to St. Thomas’s Church in Thomaston. The quiet town perhaps proved to be a kind of rest to McGivney after so many years of zealous work. But soon enough he was
involved with many of the societies of the parish, and still maintained a presence, however remote, in the Knights.
However, the years of active apostolate – and the strain that came with it – caught up to the priest as he fell ill with the flu, which then turned to pneumonia. He recovered, but the natural energy he had was absent. Fearing this to be the last chapter of his ministry, he made a trip down to the South in March in hopes the mild climate would help to restore some of his old strength, then he traveled north to New York City to consult with physicians on internal medicine. It all proved to be of no avail. Bedridden, and aware of his approaching end, Father McGivney seemed at peace, inquiring about his parishioners often. On the morning of August 14, 1890, Father Michael McGivney passed on to eternity. A very well attended Solemn High Mass was offered for the repose of his soul shortly thereafter. The world had lost another great social reformer, the Knights of Columbus had lost their founder and chaplain, St. Thomas’s had lost their parish priest, and his family had lost a brother. But that day heaven welcomed a loyal son into its warm embrace. Upon examination of the character of Michael McGivney one can see all the traits of one so wholly devoted to Jesus Christ. He was an exemplar of apostolic zeal, humility and patience. Perhaps, in anticipation of the heavenly banquet in which he was soon to partake, his thoughts echoed that of the Psalmist’s:
How lovely are thy tabernacles, O Lord of Hosts! My soul longeth and fainteth after the courts of heaven. My heart and flesh have rejoiced in the living God. For the sparrow hath found for herself a house, and the turtle a nest for herself where she may lay her young ones. Thy altars O Lord, my king and my God! Blessed are they that dwell in thy house O Lord; they shall praise thee forever and ever (Psalm 83 1-5).
Parish Priest by Dougles Brinkley and Julie Fenster
All scriptural quotations taken from the Douay-Rheims Bible
Father McGivney was beatified on October 31st, 2020, in the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford, Connecticut. Please pray for the continued success for his cause for canonization.
This article was re-published by Oremus Press (June 2021) with the permission of the author.