There's never been a U.S.-born saint, but last month, Father Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, joined a select group who may someday achieve that honor. The first official steps toward his canonization were taken at the chancery office in the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn.
Archbishop Daniel Cronin initiated the official investigation into the life and works of Father McGivney, born into the archdiocese in 1852. McGivney grew up to serve as curate in one parish while pastor of another. He's most remembered for founding the Knights of Columbus, which would become one of the largest societies of Catholic laymen in the world.
“We've been working on a low-key basis on this since the 1970s,” said Supreme Knight Virgil Dechant, who heads the nearly 1.6 million member society. Practical steps began about five years ago and led to the naming of Dominican Father Gabriel O'Donnell OP, who now resides at St. Mary's Church, New Haven, Conn., as postulator for the cause (see accompanying article). Father McGivney began his first assignment at that very parish on Christmas, 1877.
Shortly after founding the K of C, Father McGivney explained its goals in a letter to diocesan clergy: “to prevent our people from entering Secret Societies by offering them the same if not better advantages…to unite the men of Faith…that we may thereby gain strength to aid each other in time of sick-ness…to provide for decent burial, and to render pecuniary assistance to the families of deceased members.”
Upon his death in 1890, at the age of 38, that first K of C society, established in the basement of St. Mary's Church in New Haven, and called the San Salvador Council, had grown to 57 councils. Today, more than 11,000 councils have been established throughout the world, primarily in the United States, Canada, the Philippines, Mexico, Central America, and Caribbean countries.
The Knights actively support Catholic causes and the Catholic faith in the spirit of defending the Faith in a gentlemanly manner, as Father McGivney himself did in the midst of the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant bigotry of his day. The K of C insurance company currently controls assets of $6 billion, and last year, the organization donated more than $105 million to charitable causes.
Father McGivney probably never expected such successes from the Knights. He was focused on the more immediate concern of meeting the needs of people within a society which was hard on both the working classes and immigrants. It was a society where illness was rife and working conditions were hazardous, where many of its bread-winners died in industrial accidents, leaving young widows and orphans destitute.
“He actually understood instinctively as a young priest the social (justice) teachings of the Church,” Archbishop Cronin told the REGISTER. “That was his priestly heart.”
He described Father McGivney as a man “ahead of his times.” The archbishop said the priest provided “social welfare long before the welfare system” and was a “holy person instituting a holy cause.”
Father McGivney was the eldest of 13 children, six of whom died in infancy or early childhood. He understood, firsthand, the hardships facing the working class in the 19th century industrial city of Waterbury, Conn., where he was born. At age 13, due to the financial circumstances of his family, he left school and went to work as a spoon-maker in a brass factory.
He was 16 when he began to attend the seminary, first in St. Hyacinthe's in Canada, then in Niagara, N.Y., and later in Montreal, Canada. His studies were interrupted by the death of his father. A few years later, he resumed studies at St. Mary's Seminary, Baltimore, and was ordained at the Cathedral (and Basilica) of the Assumption. He celebrated his first Mass on Christmas Eve at the Immaculate Conception in Waterbury. As curate at St. Mary's, New Haven, Father McGivney faced anti-Catholic sentiment because of the church's location in the prominent neighborhood. An 1879 New York TImes article entitled “An Unprofitable Church,” and subtitled “How an Aristocratic Avenue was Blemished by a Roman Catholic Edifice” underscored public feeling about the parish.
But McGivney didn't retreat. He suggested Columbus as the patron of an organization which could join both the Catholic and American heritage.
After seven years, he was transferred to St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, a smaller industrial town north of Waterbury. He was Supreme Chaplain and active member of the K of C until his death from pneumonia and tuberculosis.
Spontaneous popular devotion to him began at once and has grown over the past 50 years. On March 29, 1982, centenary of the founding of the K of C, he was reinterred at St. Mary's Church in a polished granite sarcophagus.
In the proceedings to follow, Father O'Donnell reminded that the “crucial thing is whether God performs a miracle to show his approval.” To be named Blessed, or to be canonized, “is not the ‘logical’ outcome. Unless God manifests his approbation, it's not going anywhere…it really doesn't depend upon us—it depends upon God at the end.”
Archbishop Cronin stressed that Father McGivney “can really be a model for the young men considering priesthood,” especially considering the hard times he endured in the 19th century.
Bishop Thomas Daily, current Supreme Chaplain of the K of C and bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn, said that whether the sainthood process ends in McGivney's canonization, the very opening of the cause was a proud moment for Knights around the world.