Urgent News for Knights of Columbus
Vatican declares Knights of Columbus
Fr. Michael J. McGivney would be
first American-born priest to be
declared a saint
New Haven, CT - March 16, 2008 -
Pope Benedict XVI Saturday approved a decree
recognizing the heroic virtue of Father
Michael J. McGivney, founder of the Knights
of Columbus. The pope's declaration
significantly advances the priest's process
toward sainthood and gives the parish priest
the distinction of "Venerable Servant of
God." If canonized, Fr. McGivney would be
the first American born priest to be so
"All of us who are members of the Knights of
Columbus are profoundly grateful for this
recognition of the holiness of our founder,"
said Supreme Knight Carl Anderson. "The
strength of the Knights of Columbus today is
a testament to his timeless vision, his
holiness and his ideals."
Worried about the religious faith and
financial stability of immigrant families,
Father McGivney founded the Knights of
Columbus with the help of several men of St.
Mary's Parish in New Haven in 1882 to help
strengthen the faith of the men of his
parish and to provide financial assistance
in the event of their death to the widows
and orphans they left behind. He was also
known for his tireless work among his
Born in Waterbury, Conn., Aug. 12, 1852,
Michael Joseph McGivney, was the first of
Patrick and Mary (Lynch) McGivney's 13
children, six of whom died in infancy or
early childhood. His parents, natives of
Ireland, had immigrated to the United States
during the 19th century. Patrick was a
molder in a Waterbury brass mill, where
Michael himself worked for a brief time as a
child to help support his family.
From an early age, however, he realized a
calling to the Catholic priesthood. After
studying in several seminaries, he was
ordained in that Baltimore's historic
Cathedral by Cardinal James Gibbons Dec. 22,
1877. He took up his first assignment, as
curate at St. Mary's Church, New Haven,
Conn., Jan. 2, 1878. Father McGivney was
named pastor of St. Thomas Church in
Thomaston, Conn. in 1884. He became
seriously ill with pneumonia in January
1890, and died Aug. 14, 1890 at age 38.
The cause, or process, for Father McGivney's
sainthood, was opened by Hartford Archbishop
Daniel A. Cronin, in December 1997. The
cause was presented to the Vatican in 2000,
where it has been under review by the
Congregation for the Causes of Saints. With
the pope's recent decree, and the
authentication of a miracle at Father
McGivney's intercession, the priest could be
beatified. A second miracle would be
required for canonization.
Still maintaining its headquarters in New
Haven, the Knights of Columbus is the
world's largest Catholic Fraternal
Organization with more than 1.7 million
members in the United States, Canada, Mexico
and Central America, the Caribbean islands,
the Philippines, Guam and, most recently,
Father Michael McGivney was born in Waterbury on August 12, 1852.
His parents, Patrick and Mary (Lynch) McGivney, had arrived in the
19th century wave of Irish immigration. Patrick McGivney
became a molder in the heat and noxious fumes of a Waterbury brass
mill. Mary McGivney gave birth to 13 children, six of whom died in
infancy or childhood. So the first child, Michael, with four living
sisters and two brothers, learned early about sorrow and the harsh
grip of poverty. He also learned about the powers of love and faith,
and family fortitude.
He went to the small district schools of Waterbury's working-class
neighborhoods. A good child, he was admired by his school principal
for "excellent deportment and proficiency in his studies." Then,
after the Civil War, when Connecticut's metals industry was booming,
he left school at age 13 to go to work. His job in the spoon-making
department of a brass factory provided a few more dollars for family
When Michael reached the age of 16 in 1868, he left the factory.
With the priesthood clearly in mind, he traveled with his
Waterbury pastor to Quebec, Canada. There he registered at the
French-run College of St. Hyacinthe. He worked hard on subjects
which would prepare him to apply for seminary admission.
Two academic years followed at Our Lady of Angels Seminary,
attached to Niagara University in Niagara Falls, New York. Young McGivney moved next to Montreal to attend seminary classes at the
Jesuit-run St. Mary's College.
He was there when his father died in June of 1873.
Lacking funds and concerned about his family, he went home for the
funeral, lingering awhile in Waterbury. Then, at the request of the bishop
of Hartford, he entered St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, Maryland. After
four years of study, on December 22, 1877, he was ordained in Baltimore's
historic Cathedral of the Assumption by Archbishop (later Cardinal) James
Gibbons. A few days later, with his widowed mother present, he said his
first Mass at Immaculate Conception Church in Waterbury.
Father McGivney began his priestly ministry on Christmas Day
in 1877 as curate at St. Mary's Church in New Haven. It was
the city's first parish. A new stone church had been built,
after the old one burned, on one of New Haven's finest
residential streets, Hillhouse Avenue. There was neighborhood
objection which even the New York Times noted in 1879, under
the headline: "How An Aristocratic Avenue Was Blemished By A
Roman Church Edifice." So Father McGivney's priestly ministry
in New Haven began with tension and defensiveness among the
working-class Irish families he served.
One of the responsibilities of St. Mary's priests was pastoral
care of inmates of the city jail. In a notable case, a
21-year-old Irishman, while drunk, shot and killed a police
officer. James (Chip) Smith was tried for first-degree murder
in 1881, convicted and sentenced to be hung. Father McGivney
visited him daily.
After a special Mass on the day of execution, the priest's
grief was intense. The young offender comforted him:
"Father, your saintly ministrations have enabled me to meet
death without a tremor. Do not fear for me, I must not break
Father McGivney worked closely with the young people of St.
Mary's parish, holding catechism classes and organizing a
total abstinence society to fight alcoholism. In 1881 he
began to explore with various laymen the idea of a Catholic,
fraternal benefit society. In an era when parish clubs and
fraternal societies had wide popular appeal, the young
priest felt there should be some way to strengthen religious
faith and at the same time provide for the financial needs
of families overwhelmed by illness or death of the
He discussed this concept with Bishop Lawrence McMahon of
Hartford, and received his approval. He traveled to Boston
to talk with the Massachusetts Catholic Order of Foresters,
and traveled to Brooklyn to consult the Catholic Benevolent
Legion. He met with other priests of the diocese. Wherever
he could, he sought information that would help the Catholic
laymen to organize themselves into a benefit society.
People who knew Father McGivney in this period were
impressed by his energy and intensity. Father Gordian Daley
later recalled, "I saw him but once, and yet I remember this
pale, beautiful face as if I saw it only yesterday. It was a
'priest's face' and that explains everything. It was a face
of wonderful repose. There was nothing harsh in that
countenance although there was everything that was strong."
William Geary, one of the Order's charter members, said
that at the first council meeting in 1882, he 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
Father McGivney had suggested Sons of Columbus as a name
for the Order. This would bind Catholicism and Americanism
together through the faith and bold vision of the New
The word "knights" replaced "sons" because key members of
the organizing group who were Irish-born Civil War
veterans felt it would help to apply a noble ritual in
support of the emerging cause of Catholic civil liberty.
In the first public reference to the Order on February
8, 1882, the New Haven Morning Journal and Couriersaid
the Knights of Columbus' initial meeting had been held
the night before.
On March 29, the Connecticut legislature granted a
charter to the Knights of Columbus, formally
establishing it as a legal corporation. The Order's
principles in 1882 were "Unity" and "Charity." The
concepts of "Fraternity" and "Patriotism" were added
later. Each of these ideals played a major role in
ceremonials from the beginning. The Columbus-linked
themes, says historian Christopher J. Kauffman,
"reverberated with pride in the American promise of
liberty, equality and opportunity."
In April 1882, Father McGivney, with the permission of
Bishop McMahon, wrote to all the pastors of the Diocese
of Hartford. The Order's primary objective, he wrote,
was to dissuade Catholics from joining secret societies
by providing them better advantages at times of death or
He urged each pastor to exert influence "in
the formation of a Council in your parish." Father McGivney personally installed the first officers of San
Salvador Council 1 in New Haven, in May 1882.
By May 1883, Council 2 had been instituted in
Meriden, Connecticut and Bishop McMahon, so impressed
with the organization, became a member of Council 11
in 1884, and served it as council chaplain. By the end
of 1885, there were 31 councils in Connecticut.
Father McGivney's dedication to the Order was
evidenced in trips he made to all parts of Connecticut
and in handwritten correspondence—little of which
survives—about Knights of Columbus business. At St. Mary's, despite
all this, he remained the energetic curate with
constant concern for every parishioner's problems.
Then in November 1884, he was named pastor of St.
Thomas Church in Thomaston, Connecticut, a factory
town 10 miles from his hometown. It was a factory
parish, heavily in debt, serving working-class
parishioners with few resources beyond their faith.
With prayerful acceptance, Father McGivney put his
seven years at St. Mary's behind him.
His New Haven parishioners, in a testimonial
resolution elaborately superimposed on the drawing
of a chalice and host, declared that despite burdens
and afflictions, his courtesy, his 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."
In six subsequent years at St. Thomas, he wrestled
with the church debt and built the same close ties
of devotion and charitable concern he had developed
in New Haven. He continued, as well, to serve as
supreme chaplain, personally involved in helping the
Order to extend its membership into Rhode Island.
Later, from 1901 to 1939, his younger brothers,
Msgrs. Patrick and John J. McGivney, served the
Order as supreme chaplains.
Then in November 1884, he was named pastor of St. Thomas Church
in Thomaston, Connecticut, a factory town 10 miles from his hometown. It
was a factory parish, heavily in debt, serving working-class parishioners
with few resources beyond their faith. With prayerful acceptance, Father
McGivney put his seven years at St. Mary's behind him. His New Haven
parishioners, in a testimonial resolution elaborately superimposed on the
drawing of a chalice and host, declared that despite burdens and
afflictions, his courtesy, his 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." In six subsequent years at St.
Thomas, he wrestled with the church debt and built the same close ties of
devotion and charitable concern he had developed in New Haven. He
continued, as well, to serve as supreme chaplain, personally involved in
helping the Order to extend its membership into Rhode Island. Later, from
1901 to 1939, his younger brothers, Msgrs. Patrick and John J. McGivney,
served the Order as supreme chaplains.
Never robust in health, Father McGivney was suddenly
stricken with a serious case of pneumonia in
January 1890. It hung on. Various treatments for consumptive illness were tried, but his decline
persisted. The young priest
physical strength just as the Order he founded
was moving toward new vitality. On August 14, 1890, Father
Michael J. McGivney died at the age of 38.
In his 13 brief, busy years as a priest,
Father McGivney's piety and compassion had
won the love of those he served as curate and pastor. His Christian
inspiration, leadership and administrative drive had brought him the
loyalty and affection of thousands who knew him as the founder of the
Knights of Columbus. From the moment he launched it, the organization
fortified Catholics in their faith, offered them ways to greater financial
security in a sometimes hostile world, and strengthened them in
self-esteem. Remarkably developed from its simple beginnings in a church
basement, the Knights of Columbus today combines Catholic fraternalism and
one of the most successful American insurance enterprises. The four towers
of the international headquarters symbolize the Order's worldwide
commitment to charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism. More than 12,000
fraternal councils are active in 13 countries. Nearly 1.7 million Knights
contribute about $130 million and 61 million hours of volunteer
service to charitable causes each year. And—as a particular result of the
Order's multi-faceted services to the Church—the board of directors in
1988 conducted formal business of the Order for the first time in a room
named for the Knights of Columbus within the ancient St. Peter's Basilica
At St. Mary's Church in New
Haven, Father McGivney's polished granite
sarcophagus, sheltered inside a totally
restored church, now has become a shrine
for pilgrim Knights where the Order began.
At the first memorial service for deceased Knights held later in the year
he died, this tribute was accorded him: "He was a man of the people. He
was zealous of the people's welfare, and all the kindliness of his
priestly soul asserted itself more strongly in his unceasing efforts for
the betterment of their condition . . .Oh, Reverend Founder. . .that act
alone which gave life to the Knights of Columbus has surely secured for
thee everlasting joy and eternal peace."
Praised be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus
Christ, who has bestowed on us in Christ every
spiritual blessing in the heavens.
complied by Bill Malecki
District Warden, KofC District #89