Blessed Michael McGivney — the Eucharist, the Priest and the Great Hunger

The holy priest was beatified during a Eucharist famine like no other

A stained-glass window of Blessed Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, is seen at St. Catherine of Siena parish in Trumbull, Connecticut.
A stained-glass window of Blessed Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, is seen at St. Catherine of Siena parish in Trumbull, Connecticut. (photo: Kategombos / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0)

From 1845 to 1852, Ireland suffered what was known in Gaelic as An Gorta Mór (“A Great Hunger”).

To history, it became known as “the Famine.”

A million Irish died of starvation; another million were forced to flee the country, heading overseas in search of a new life. When the Famine had run its course, Ireland’s population had dropped by 20%.

It was the Famine that brought the McGivneys, Patrick and Mary, from County Cavan to Connecticut. Patrick worked at a brass mill in Waterbury; Mary looked after the home. Their first child, Michael, was born Aug. 12, 1852, the eldest of 13 children; six of whom were to die in infancy. The boy’s schooling ended when he was just 13 years old, even though he had easily outstripped his classmates. For now, until he was of an age when he could enter the seminary and follow what he believed to be a priestly vocation, Michael had to be content with working with his father making spoons in the factory.

In the end, Michael’s path to priesthood was a long and winding one, involving formation in four seminaries. In 1868, when he was 16, he entered the Séminaire de Saint-Hyacinthe in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada. From 1871-72, he continued his studies at Our Lady of the Angels Seminary, near Niagara Falls, New York, before returning to Canada to attend the Jesuit-run St. Mary's College in Montreal. By all accounts, he was an exemplary student who was also a talented player of the emerging sport baseball.

Then tragedy struck. In June 1873 his father died. As the eldest child, Michael was obliged to abandon his studies and return home to support his mother. It seemed as if Michael, now 20 years old, would have to work in the local factory of his youth; only this time, it appeared he might have to remain there for the rest of his life. The interruption to his studies – and the challenge the death of his father brought to his vocation – was to have a profound influence on his life and would later become the catalyst for one of his most enduring legacies: the Knights of Columbus.

In the end, thanks to the generosity of his local bishop of Hartford, Michael was able to resume his studies. He was sent to St. Mary's Seminary, in Baltimore, Maryland. By the time he was ordained on Dec. 22, 1877, the young priest had received instruction from three religious orders — the Vincentians, Jesuits and the Sulpicians — as well as from diocesan clergy, in four different seminaries.

In contrast to his broken and geographically dispersed seminary training, Father McGivney’s priestly service was concentrated in a single area. In due course, he was appointed curate of St. Mary’s Church at New Haven. Situated in an up-market area, not far from Yale University, the church was impressive architecturally, built to serve the needs of the largely immigrant Irish congregation. However, it provoked hostility and resentment from Protestants living nearby. A New York Times headline summed up this outrage: “How an Aristocratic Avenue Was Blemished by a Roman Church Edifice.”

Anti-Catholicism was part of the world into which Father McGivney had been born and in which he now had to navigate. Throughout the 1850s the Know Nothing movement had been prominent in its attacks — both verbal and physical — upon Catholics. By the 1870s such naked sectarianism was rarer, but the inherent prejudice and antagonism towards Catholic immigrant communities — mainly Irish and German — was still a daily reality. Still, in this anti-Catholic climate of the United States, it is remarkable that the priest received so many converts to the faith.

If this was not enough of a challenge for the young curate, he soon found himself parish priest following the death of the former incumbent. The 25-year-old Father McGivney now had to shoulder responsibility for the sizeable debt that had been incurred by building St. Mary’s.

When the young priest left St. Mary’s some seven years later, in 1884, he was revered by his flock. Not only as an able parish administrator, good at fundraising, or that he had managed to assuage much of the Protestant hysteria about St. Mary’s very existence, but rather because he was a priest who had cared diligently and selflessly for the souls entrusted to his care. His manner of priestly ministry was straightforward, sincere and without ostentation. In short, the priest’s qualities were just the natural attributes of the man — which had been noted both by family and his seminary teachers — but refined by the Holy Spirit. A parishioner wrote of his parish priest:

His life was an open book, whose pages all might read, and the influences that radiated from his active, energetic and zealous personality, brought many a poor wanderer to the house of God, back to the faith of his childhood, and to the sacred tribunal of penance, where with faith, contrition and humility, he became reconciled to his Heavenly Father.

There is one story from this period that stands out and tells us something of his priestly soul. In a drunken episode, a 21-year-old Catholic, James Smith, shot and killed a police officer in New Haven. Inevitably, he was sentenced to death. While on Death Row, he encountered Father McGivney. The priest visited him daily, realizing more clearly than the prisoner that his eternity was now at stake. Any initial resistance to the priest’s counsel soon melted away. James made his Confession and quickly the prisoner became a changed man. Not only did the two now pray together but the priest was even permitted by the prison officers to offer Holy Mass in the condemned man’s cell.

That privilege was granted to the prisoner on the day of his execution. But Father McGivney was later to comment that that day of execution was one of the most harrowing in all his priestly ministry. One can only wonder at the scene in the cell: a man going to his death, with a priest offering for him the Sacrifice of the Mass. When Mass had ended, Smith turned to Father McGivney and calmly affirmed: “Your saintly ministrations have enabled me to meet death without a tremor. Do not fear for me.” The priest walked with the prisoner to the scaffold where he would bless James Smith for the last time.

Father McGivney’s early life had been marked by the sudden death of his father. Poor families were vulnerable to destitution in such circumstances. They were also more prone to early death than the affluent, often suffering industrial injury or illness provoked by poverty. The death of a working parent could mean that the bereaved family was broken up, its members being sent to various state institutions for care. Father McGivney had had first-hand experience of this threat. He, therefore, decided to address it. He began to explore the idea of a Catholic fraternal benefit society that would ensure the financial support of any family after a bereavement.

On March 29, 1882, Father McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus. Ostensibly, it was a mutual aid society: in the event of a husband’s death, it would provide financial assistance to his widow and orphans. The Knights of Columbus was a way, he would later write, “to unite the men of our Faith … 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.”

The Knights of Columbus would not just help the living after a bereavement with practical means but would nurture the Catholic faith of those who joined the charitable enterprise. It also gave a particular focus to men’s need for fraternity. The title “Knight,” as Father McGivney foresaw, chimed with the chivalrous instincts of those who wanted to provide for their loved ones in the event of an untimely death. In regard to the Knights, there was another element central to Father McGivney’s purpose, however.

In the 19th century, mutual aid societies were not uncommon. Often, however, these were linked to Freemasonry. In a letter to his fellow priests, Father McGivney explained how important it was that the practical charity offered was also “to prevent people from entering Secret Societies, by offering the same, if not better, advantages to our members.” This was a fraternity that would be situated within the faith as opposed to within the ideology of Freemasonry, which was covertly anti-Catholic.

There was yet a further strand to his vision. Many thought at the time that it was impossible to be both a good Catholic and a good citizen of America. The Knights would explode that myth. Christopher Columbus, the revered founding father of what had become the United States, was the Knights’ titular patron. It would remind Americans that this same Columbus had been a Catholic. Father McGivney’s naming of his new society was a stroke of genius. It located the Knights in the continuum of American history reuniting that history with its (Catholic) origins. With such a pedigree, the Knights of Columbus might present themselves to American society, confident both of their place within that society and of the charity and compassion they offered to their citizens. 

Two years after the founding of the Knights at St. Mary’s, Father McGivney moved parishes. In 1884 he became pastor of St. Thomas Church in nearby Thomaston. But the clock was ticking. He died at 38 years of age, amid a global viral pandemic. Never robust in health, he had been plagued with tuberculosis in his later years before a severe case of pneumonia claimed him on the eve of the feast of the Assumption 1890.

It is said that no carriage could be rented for love nor money on the day of his funeral: extra train services were laid on to transport Catholics from all over Connecticut to Waterbury, where more than 70 priests and one bishop attended his Requiem Mass. 

The Knights of Columbus now consist of millions of members worldwide. But as impressive a legacy as the Knights is, the real achievement of Father McGivney’s life was his sanctity. He knew all the trials and tribulations of a parish priest that persist to this day. Yet, he persevered. It was this — linked inextricably to the Sacrifice his ministry made manifest — that was the source and summit of his life. 

During another worldwide pandemic, on Oct. 31, 2020, Father McGivney was beatified. At the time, Holy Mass had been denied to many of the faithful for months. They had endured a Eucharistic fast like no other.

The McGivney family had been forced to leave their homeland due to a “great hunger.” When they arrived in the New World, the family’s eldest son, Michael, was called to the priesthood to feed the “hunger” of the souls entrusted to his care. And as a priest, he did so with the only Food that truly satisfies, and which became the catalyst for all he did — namely, the Holy Eucharist.