Father Michael McGivney — Founder of the Knights of Columbus

Soon-to-be Blessed Michael McGivney’s unassuming gentility, calm strength and childlike joy inspired trust and confidence everywhere he went.

(photo: Public Domain)

Father Michael McGivney is best known as the founder of the Knights of Columbus, but he is on the path to sainthood because he was an exemplary parish priest.

Born in 1852 in Waterbury, Connecticut, he was ordained in 1877, and his first assignment was assistant to the ill, aging pastor of St. Mary’s in New Haven. The parish stood in the shadow of Yale University, a symbol of the congregation’s struggle to find a place in American society as Catholics and immigrants. With his parishioners aspirations and struggles in mind, the young priest launched into his ministry. He gave catechism classes to the children, revived the Total Abstinence and Literary Society for the young adults, visited the elderly and acted as chaplain for the local jail. He soon found himself running the day-to-day aspects of the parish, too, when the pastor left the city to escape the unusually hot and dangerous summer.

“I have not had time for even one day’s vacation since I left,” he wrote to one of his former professors.

Not that anyone would have thought he minded. On the contrary, everyone thought that they were Father McGivney’s special ministry. The old ladies and children loved him, the young men flocked around him, and the ambitious respected him. At the pulpit, his voice, his perfect diction and clear sermons captivated his congregation. A blind beggar who wasn’t even Catholic attended Mass every Sunday just to hear “that voice.” His unassuming gentility, calm strength and childlike joy inspired trust and confidence everywhere he went.

He also had a way with souls and was instrumental in several prominent conversions. The two most talked about were the conversions of Alida Harwood and James “Chip” Smith. Miss Hardwood was the daughter of a distinguished Episcopal minister in the neighborhood. She had started attending St. Mary’s to listen to Father McGivney’s sermons. When she was dying of malaria at just 25 she asked for Father McGivney and received the sacraments of the Church. James Smith’s conversion attracted the attention of the local newspapers. This young man was convicted of killing a police chief and was awaiting his execution at the local jail. He responded to Father McGivney’s spiritual counsel enthusiastically, and the priest helped him prepare for his death. Five days before the execution, Father McGivney celebrated a High Mass for him in the jail and then delivered a message from the prisoner to the community.

“I am requested by Mr. Smith to ask pardon for all faults he may have had and all offenses he may have committed, and at his request I ask for the prayers of all of you, that when next Friday comes he may die a holy death,” Father McGivney said, swallowing back tears.

The priest was there the following Friday, too.

In founding the Knights of Columbus he turned the idea of the mutual aid society into an instrument for living a vibrantly Catholic life.  Mutual aid societies were popular at the time and generally served two purposes. They gave members a social group to belong to and functioned as a kind of member-owned and operated insurance program in the event of illness or death. For working-class families this safety net was important, but most mutual aid societies were secret societies that smacked of Freemasonry and had underlying aims at odds with the Catholic faith. Nevertheless, the sense of belonging that they offered attracted many Catholics who were often excluded from trade unions and other organizations.

There were already other Catholic fraternal societies, such as the Catholic Order of Foresters and the Ancient Order of Hibernians, but Father McGivney thought that they lacked the vibrancy to compete with the appeal of secret societies. He wanted to start something that would be more than a life insurance company or an ethnically-based Old World transplant. He envisioned a mutual benefit society both Catholic and American in identity, able to form its members into the American Catholic gentlemen they aspired to be, and do good in the wider society.  This was the grand idea that solidified that night into the Order of the Knights of Columbus. The motto Father McGivney gave them was “charity and unity.”

Father McGivney lived to see the Knights of Columbus begin is exponential growth, but not much longer. In 1890, he developed a serious case of pneumonia. Remedies for consumption and his iron will not withstanding, he slowly declined until his death on Aug. 14. He was only 38 years old.

Today that legacy is miraculous. Father McGivney was declared venerable in 2008, and in May 2020, a miracle through his intercession was approved that will result in his beatification in Connecticut, perhaps as early as fall 2020.

The miracle stems from the 2014 pregnancy of Michelle Schachle. She was expecting her thirteenth child when doctors told her and her husband Daniel that their unborn son not only had Down syndrome but also fetal hydrops, a rare condition where fluid builds up around the vital organs of an unborn child. According to neonatal specialists, there was no hope for the baby’s survival. He would die before birth.

The family immediately turned in prayer to Father McGivney. They had long had a devotion to him, as Daniel worked for the Knights of Columbus and had been Grand Knight of his local council in Dickson, Tennessee, were the Schachles live. At the next ultrasound appointment, all symptoms and signs of fetal hydrops had disappeared. The attending doctor, a different physician than had given the Shachles the initial diagnosis and the daughter of a member of the Knights of Columbus, asked what the Schachles what they planned to name their son.

“His name his Michael,” Michele said through her tears of shock and joy.

Today Michael Schachle is a happy, active child, thanks to his patron, soon-to-be-Blessed Michael McGivney.