September 5, 2008

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Possible U.S. saints: Father Michael McGivney

John F. Fink(Fifteenth in a series of columns)

Father Michael McGivney was ordained only four years in 1882 when he founded the Knights of Columbus. He did it out of pastoral concern for the welfare of his parishioners, most of whom were poor Irish immigrants.

Like so many other Irish, both of Michael’s parents fled Ireland because of the potato famine in the 1840s. They were married in Waterbury, Conn., in 1850. Michael was the eldest of their 13 children, six of whom died in infancy. He studied for the priesthood and was ordained on Dec. 22, 1877, in Baltimore’s Cathedral of the Assumption.

His first assignment was St. Mary’s Parish in New Haven, Conn., where he quickly got to know his parishioners through visits to the sick and other priestly responsibilities. One of the things he learned was how quickly families could become destitute if the husband and father died in those days before Social Security.

Father McGivney envisioned an insurance and benevolent society that would care for such families. After discussing his idea with his bishop and learning about benevolent societies in Boston and Brooklyn, he gathered the men of his parish together.

After months of discussion about insurance, maximum ages for membership, initiation fees and the disbursement of benefits, they founded the Knights of Columbus. Father McGivney became its secretary.

It had a slow start and some criticism, mainly about its lay leaders. Father McGivney held the organization together by his strength of vision, optimism and perseverance. He also prepared a clear statement of its purpose, structure and conduct for the Supreme Knight, the Supreme Council, the Supreme Committee, the Supreme Chaplain and the Knights themselves.

In 1883, five other parishes in Connecticut expressed an interest in joining. At the society’s second convention in 1884, Father McGivney stepped down as secretary and accepted the role of Supreme Chaplain.

The Knights benefited when Pope Leo XIII, in 1884, published an encyclical that condemned Freemasonry and encouraged Church leaders to form Catholic societies to combat secret societies such as the Masons. The Connecticut Catholic editorialized that the Knights of Columbus “is eminently fitted” to “ward off the dangers of those secret societies” which were proscribed by the Church.

By the end of 1885, there were 31 councils. By that time, though, Father McGivney had been transferred to St. Thomas Church in Tomaston, a poor parish in a poor factory town. He again threw himself wholeheartedly into serving both the spiritual and physical needs of his parishioners.

In 1890, Father McGivney contracted pneumonia, which evolved into tuberculosis. He died on Aug. 14 of that year, two days after his 38th birthday.

Today, the Knights of Columbus has 1.7 million members in 13 countries. It has more than 1.5 million premium-based policies in effect. It has become one of the largest charitable organizations; in 2004 alone, it made contributions totaling $135 million.

The most recent book about Father McGivney is Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism by Douglas Brinkley and Julie M. Fenster, published by William Morrow. †

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