Sainthood candidate seen as excellent model for today

WASHINGTON – Father Michael J. McGivney, an American parish priest and founder of the Knights of Columbus in 19th-century Connecticut, would be a model saint for today, according to the Knights’ supreme chaplain.
After Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, told the Knights’ annual convention in Nashville, Tenn., Aug. 7 that he was taking a personal interest in Father McGivney’s sainthood cause, Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., the supreme chaplain, expressed delight.
“I think he appreciates what it would mean for parish priests in the United States and around the world, to have one of their own canonized a saint,” Bishop Lori told the Eternal Word Television Network.
A similar view has been stated by Dominican Father Gabriel B. O’Donnell, the postulator, or chief petitioner, for the cause.
In a 1998 interview with Catholic News Service, Father O’Donnell said it was remarkable how much Father McGivney resonated with modern-day concerns. He said the Knights’ founder defended the immigrant poor and the marginalized, working both in multicultural situations and in close collaboration with the laity.
“His sense of the dignity of the human person and the need to defend the integrity of the family place him, though he lived a century ago, right in the center of the issues that face us today,” he told CNS.
The Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn., with Vatican approval, formally opened Father McGivney’s sainthood cause in December 1997. The archdiocesan phase of the investigation into the priest’s life and holiness concluded in 2000; since then the Vatican Congregation for Saints’ Causes has continued the investigation.
An alleged miracle connected to Father McGivney is being examined by the congregation, but no details have been released. Generally for sainthood, the church must accept two miracles attributed to the intercession of the prospective saint, one occurring before beatification and one occurring after beatification.
Father McGivney, born Aug. 12, 1852, was the eldest of 13 children born to Patrick and Mary Lynch McGivney in Waterbury, Conn. Emigrating from separate towns in Ireland’s County Cavan, the couple met and married in the United States. Only seven of their children lived past childhood.
According to a Knights’ booklet, “The Life and Legacy of Father Michael J. McGivney,” young Michael attended school in Waterbury’s working-class neighborhood, but left school at 13 to work in the spoon-making department of a brass factory.
At 16 he left the factory to begin seminary studies, traveling with his pastor to Quebec, where he registered at the French-run College of St. Hyacinthe. He also studied at Our Lady of Angels Seminary, attached to Niagara University in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and at the Jesuit-run St. Mary’s College in Montreal.
He went home to Waterbury when his father died in 1873 and stayed there for a time out of concern for his family and because he lacked funds. However, at the request of Hartford’s bishop, he enrolled in St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, where he completed his priestly studies.
In 1877 he was ordained in Baltimore by Archbishop James Gibbons for the then-Diocese of Hartford. A few days after his ordination, he said his first Mass in the presence of his widowed mother at Immaculate Conception Church in Waterbury.
Father McGivney served as an assistant pastor at St. Mary’s Parish in New Haven from 1877 to 1884. With a small group of Catholic laymen he founded a fraternal order, the Knights of Columbus, at St. Mary’s in 1882 to strengthen religious faith and to help families overwhelmed by the illness or death of their breadwinner.
In 1884 he was named pastor of St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, a factory town about 10 miles from Waterbury. He fell ill during an influenza epidemic and died Aug. 14, 1890, probably from complications of pneumonia and tuberculosis, according to Father O’Donnell. He had just turned 38.
The Knights’ publication said his funeral was one of the largest in the history of Waterbury. “It was reported that every available carriage for miles around had been rented for the great procession,” which included Hartford’s bishop, 70 Connecticut priests, many civic leaders and delegations from almost all 57 Knights of Columbus councils established during the order’s first eight years, it said.
In a 1999 interview with CNS, Father O’Donnell said Father McGivney’s parents “were part of the great emigration of the potato famine.” He said a trip he made to Ireland to investigate the priest’s roots provided an important context for Father McGivney as the eldest child of famine immigrants.
“I don’t think the McGivneys came to the United States looking for a bright new world,” he said. “I think they were desperate for food and sustenance.”
In family lore passed down to great-nieces and -nephews still alive, he said, there are no stories or anecdotes about Michael, but many about his younger brothers, Patrick and John, who became priests after his death and lived well into the 20th century.
The postulator said he believed Father McGivney was historically and psychologically bracketed in family history.
“He’s kind of the first fruits out of this terrible devastation of the Irish famine,” he said. This might also explain Father McGivney’s enigmatic quality and unsmiling portraits, Father O’Donnell suggested. “He must have heard terrible things from his parents about their life in Ireland. And I think it probably accounts also for the sensitivity of his heart to suffering.”
Father O’Donnell said the Knights’ founder “can be a tremendous reminder of the cultural transition that’s occurred over a hundred years.”
In addition to being the Knight’s founder, Father McGivney also was the organization’s first supreme chaplain. His brothers, Msgrs. Patrick and John J. McGivney, also served as supreme chaplains.
Contributing to this story was Andy Telli in Nashville.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.