The Spirit of Father McGivney
There’s a granite tomb inside St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn.
Resting here is no bishop from the founding days of Connecticut’s hierarchy or wealthy benefactor, but a simple parish priest.
My wife and I have passed the tomb many times on our way out of the church, our parish for the last few years. Angeles sometimes touches the cold green stone, as if venerating a relic, and offers a quick prayer. Though I’m a member of the organization founded by the priest buried here, I have been content to let her do the praying while I fuss with my car keys.
This changed recently as we arrived for Mass one day. I had just finished reading the new biography Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism by Douglas Brinkley and Julie Fenster (see “A Knightly Priest’s Tale,” the Register’s Weekly Book Pick for Jan. 8-14). Though I was proud of having joined the Knights of Columbus in the church where Father McGivney founded it, I now wanted for the first time to sit here, “talk” to Father McGivney and tell him how much I admire him.
I had read his life, filtered by Brinkley and Fenster through sheaves of old newspapers, documents and archives, and I felt I knew him as well as any of the priests who serve St. Mary’s today. I wanted to “listen” to what he had to say to me, as I meditated on the kind of priest he was and the way he lived the Gospel.
One hears of “making friends” with saints, who can intercede for us in heaven. I think I’ve found a friend of my own.
Father McGivney’s cause for canonization was opened in 1997. Dominican Father Gabriel O’Donnell, postulator of the cause, is waiting for a judgment from Rome on whether Father McGivney manifested “heroic virtue” in his life and whether a reported healing attributed to his intercession can be considered a miracle.
In the meantime, people come up to the tomb — Knights and others — and offer the official prayer for his canonization.
“St. Mary’s Church is the only building left in which Father McGivney actually lived or worked,” Father O’Donnell told us. ”So this really is the pilgrimage site for him.”
This was Father McGivney’s first assignment after ordination in 1877. With the pastor often ill, the young priest more or less ran the place for seven years. He celebrated Mass, baptized babies, went on sick calls, heard confessions and buried the dead. He shepherded a society for young men who pledged not to drink alcohol and organized parish plays and picnics. A young man on death row returned to the Church because of Father McGivney’s visits, spiritual care and friendship.
With women and children often left penniless upon the untimely death of the family breadwinner in the late 19th century, Father McGivney saw a need for a fraternal benefit society offering low-cost life insurance. And he wanted a way for Catholic men to grow together in their faith and have a way to bring the Gospel to the larger society.
The result, the Knights of Columbus, was founded in this church basement in 1882.
Origins of ‘The Order’
Built in 1874, St. Mary’s bluestone structure is now nestled in amid the classroom and research buildings of Yale University. Though the original altar, confessionals, baptismal font and pulpit where Father McGivney celebrated the sacraments and preached are long gone, one might sit in the church and imagine Father McGivney breezing through in his cassock. A 1980s renovation, funded by the Knights, restored the color scheme to what it was in the beginning — blue ceilings and red-and-gold reredos.
The renovation included the addition four life-sized statues sculpted by Bavarian artist Erich Hoffmann of the Sacred Heart, the Assumption, St. Joseph and St. Dominic. Above the sanctuary hangs a 6-foot Carolingian crucifix, modeled after one that Charlemagne presented to the Vatican in the ninth century.
It was on the centennial of the Knights’ founding, March 29, 1982, that Father McGivney’s remains were transferred from the family plot in Waterbury, Conn. Knights councils regularly visit to see where “the order” got its start, and members of the Father Michael J. McGivney Council 10705 at St. Mary’s offer tours.
If you happen to be here during a tour, feel free to tag along, says Robert Goossens, a member of the council who is also state deputy. Or, for group visits, Kathy Cogan at the Knights of Columbus Museum can arrange a tour if a guide is available (203-865-0320; [email protected]).
Otherwise, give yourself a tour with the help of a brochure available in the vestibule, “St. Mary’s Church and the Knights of Columbus.”
After seven years at St. Mary’s, Father McGivney was appointed to nearby Thomaston, Conn. He soon became worn down, serving two parishes by himself. He caught influenza, developed pneumonia and recovered. But he never got his full strength back and, in August 1890, he died. He was just 38.
Meanwhile, the bishop of Hartford turned to the Order of Preachers — the Dominicans — to take over St. Mary’s. Friars have staffed the parish to this day.
With its five resident priests, the parish offers five Masses on Sunday, three on weekdays, daily confessions and regular novenas preached by itinerant Dominicans. Daily, a Mass is offered for deceased Knights and their wives.
Reading Parish Priest, I was impressed by the account of Father McGivney’s untiring work in the business of saving souls. I’d call him an American Curé d’Ars, the universal patron saint of parish priests.
If Father McGivney is ever canonized, he would be the first American-born priest to be raised to the altars. I would suggest he be known as patron saint of American parish priests.
John Burger is the
Register’s news editor.
- March 26-April 1, 2006