On Christmas Day 1877, the future founder of the Knights of Columbus, Father Michael McGivney, began his ministry as curate of St. Mary's Church in New Haven, Conn.

It was the start of something that one day put St. Mary's on the map.

St. Mary's was the city's first Catholic church, dedicated in 1874. Since then, it has served not only its parishioners, but Yale University students and people from well beyond the New Haven area. This is especially evident at Christmas and Easter Masses, and during the five solemn novenas celebrated in the church every year.

The church has also come to be a site of personal pilgrimage for the Knights of Columbus throughout the year. Many members of Father McGivney's society who visit the area ask for the location of the church, and then stop by to say a prayer or attend Mass here where the priest's remains are located. Virgil Dechant, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, said the church is considered a shrine by many, though it isn't officially designated as such.

There is, however, a shrine to the Infant of Prague inside St. Mary's, to the right of the altar. This is where five solemn novenas are offered each year by the Dominican priests who have staffed the parish since 1886.

Presiding at the Birth

Father McGivney's legacy is stronger today than ever. Deeply concerned about his flock's spiritual and financial welfare, he believed there should be a fraternal benefit society that would strengthen religious faith and also provide for the financial needs of families overwhelmed by illness or the death of the family's breadwinner.

On Oct. 2, 1881, in the basement of St. Mary's, Father McGivney and a small group of men met to discuss the formation of such a society. Out of that meeting came the founding of the Knights of Columbus, now a worldwide organization of about 1.6 million members. The Knights are still headquartered in New Haven, not far from St. Mary's.

The first meeting of the new society was held at St. Mary's on Feb. 7, 1882. Its principles were unity and charity. The concepts of fraternity and patriotism were added later.

According to the account of one of the charter members, William Geary, at that first meeting, Father McGivney was “acclaimed as founder by 24 men with hearts full of joy and thanksgiving, recognizing that without his optimism, his will to succeed, his counsel and advice, they would have failed.”

Father McGivney did not remain at St. Mary's long; he was reassigned in 1884 to a church not far from his birthplace of Waterbury, Conn. Still, his love and concern for his people were remembered by every parishioner, and by many others in New Haven. His parishioners drew up a resolution that said Father McGivney's kindness and the purity of his life had “secured the love and confidence of the people of St. Mary's, which will follow him in every future field of labor.”

A Short Life

That future was cut short just six years later, after a long bout with pneumonia. Father McGivney died on Aug. 14, 1890, two days after his 38th birthday. He was buried in Waterbury.

In 1982, during the centennial celebration of the Knights' founding, Father McGivney's remains were moved to St. Mary's. His sarcophagus occupies a prominent place in the church, just inside the main entrance. It is the site of many devotions for the Knights and for many other faithful.

In 1996, the cause for Father McGivney's canonization was begun, with Dominican Father Gabriel O'Donnell, who resides at St. Mary's, appointed as postulator. In 1997, the Vatican notified the Archdiocese of Hartford that the cause for sainthood for Father McGivney could proceed.

No miracles are yet attributed to Father McGivney, but devotion to him continues to grow. Father O'Donnell has said, “In the end, there is only so much we can do on behalf of Father McGivney. The rest is up to God.”

In the early 1980s, the Knights renovated St. Mary's. One important addition was the imposing steeple, which rises 179 feet from the once-unfinished tower — left so because of an enormous construction debt when the church was built. It features an 11-foot Celtic cross and contains three bells, the largest of which weighs 3,300 pounds. The bells ring out the Angelus each morning, noon and night and call the faithful to worship at other times.

Another magnificent addition during the renovations was a 400-pound, bronze Carolingian crucifix, made by Italian sculptor Tomasso Gismondi. It was modeled after a cross presented by Charlemagne to the old St. Peter's Basilica in the ninth century.

St. Mary's medieval Gothic architecture, a landmark decades before Yale University buildings were constructed around it in similar design, is reminiscent of European churches that predate it by many centuries. It is complemented by enormous stained-glass windows, which depict the 15 decades of the rosary. The Stations of the Cross, set between each window, are hand-carved and more than 4 feet in height.

Corinthian pillars, topped with gold leaf, support the buttressed ceiling, which also is coated with gold leaf. Elaborately hand-carved dark wood for the pews and altars dominates the nave.

A visitor will be struck by the remarkable life-size statues of the Blessed Mother, St. Dominic and St. Joseph. The Virgin wears a gold crown on her head that came from South America. St. Dominic is holding a replica of St. Mary's Church in his hand. At his feet is a dog holding a torch in its mouth, depicting a dream the saint's mother had that her son would carry the light of truth to the world.

The organ is impressive. It has nearly 3,000 pipes, the longest of which is 16 feet. It was built by George and Elias Hook of Boston in 1871 and was originally placed in St. Alphonsus Church in New York. Moved to St. Mary's in 1982, its tones now fill the church at Sunday Mass and at the 12:05 p.m. Mass every Friday.

St. Mary's provides a spiritual haven for the faithful seven days a week, between 6:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. While there are no scheduled tours, literature placed at the entrance to the church provides a history of St. Mary's and of Father McGivney. Pilgrims and other visitors can pray and be inspired by the Old World aura of St. Mary's.

Jim Malerba is based in North Haven, Connecticut