A Knightly Priest’s Tale

Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism

by Douglas Brinkley and

Julie M. Fenster

William Morrow, 2006

272 pages, $24.95

Available in bookstores

Five years after his 1877 ordination, Father Michael J. McGivney knew three things for certain.

One, Catholic men, keen on camaraderie and community, were voting with their feet by joining secretive secular societies in greater numbers than showed up for Sunday Mass.

Two, while the blatant anti-Catholicism of the mid-century Know-Nothing movement had been rendered passé, lingering discrimination combined with an anemic public-assistance system to threaten fatherless Catholic families with destitution and dissolution. One untimely death and there goes another impoverished Catholic widow, forced into a sweatshop or the street, her malnourished children seized by the state and sent to an orphanage.

And three, the Church was still the instrument of Christ for the salvation of all.

The young priest put one and one and one together and, looking long odds and naysayers squarely in the eye, launched a Catholic men’s group. It would see to the financial needs of its members’ families in case of death or disability while providing the men with a distinctly Catholic outlet for spiritual growth and bonded brotherhood.

The first meeting drew a handful of hearty souls to the basement of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn.

Today, of course, the New Haven-based Knights of Columbus is one of the largest life insurance providers in the world. With 1.7 million members, it’s also the 900-pound gorilla of Catholic men’s organizations. A nonprofit, it raises funds and rallies support for various charitable causes. And, in recent years, it’s emerged as a forceful and unwavering voice in the pro-life cause.

Looking back on Father McGivney’s legacy through the prism of the Knights’ vitality 115 years after he died at just 38, you might say that he was a man of his times — and a parish priest for the ages.

That’s exactly what Douglas Brinkley and Julie M. Fenster do say, in so many words.

“Over the years, grand biographies have been written about famous bishops and cardinals. That’s fine, but the heart of Catholicism in the United States lies with the parish priests,” they write in their preface. “By writing about Father McGivney, we’re celebrating that very obscurity and so honoring all parish priests.”

They succeed on that score despite — or maybe because of — the dustiness of a parish priesthood more than a century gone. Times change, but the essentials and distinctives of the priesthood remain the same.

This is no fawning hagiography; rather, it’s a careful recounting of events by serious historians whose primary interest is American heritage. The cause for Father McGivney’s canonization is underway, so the team had access to source material gathered by the postulator. Plus the Knights of Columbus keep detailed records.

But the art of the authors’ archaeology came out of their time spent at Yale University’s library and at the Connecticut Historical Society: Brinkley and Fenster combed through every available local newspaper and magazine published during Father McGivney’s working years.

The anecdotes they unearthed make for an instructive study of an exemplary parish priesthood. In the bargain you get fascinating glimpses of Americana and a tantalizing taste of a Catholic culture gone by — a sampling that could, and should, push parishes to greater discipleship today. Father McGivney, pray for us.

David Pearson is the

Register’s features editor.

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy