VATICAN CITY – The sainthood cause of the founder of the Knights of Columbus has taken a major step forward.
On March 15 Pope Benedict XVI approved a decree of “heroic virtues” for Father Michael McGivney, a U.S. priest who, after establishing the Knights of Columbus, worked as a pastor until his death at age 38.
Father McGivney can be beatified if a miracle is attributed to his intercession. Canonization – a declaration of sainthood – requires an additional miracle.
Supporters of Father McGivney’s cause are hoping he will be the first U.S.-born priest to be canonized.
Father McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn., in 1882. The fraternal order for Catholic men has become the largest lay Catholic organization in the world with more than 1.7 million members, sponsoring a wide range of educational, charitable and religious activities.
In the United States, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said, “The strength of the Knights of Columbus today is a testament to his timeless vision, his holiness and his ideals.”
Last August, the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, spoke warmly of Father McGivney when he celebrated Mass at the opening of the Knights of Columbus’ 125th annual national convention in Nashville.
The cardinal said at that time that he would take a personal interest in the sainthood cause.
The Archdiocese of Hartford formally opened Father McGivney’s 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.
The congregation has examined an alleged miracle connected to Father McGivney, but no details have been released.
Father McGivney was born Aug. 12, 1852, 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.
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. 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, 1877-1884. He founded the Knights of Columbus with a small group of Catholic laymen, in order 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.