His Cause Marches On
As a parish priest, Father Michael J. McGivney developed a spirituality suited to the hard lives and open hearts of his parishioners. The eldest of 13 children of Irish immigrant parents, Father McGivney had a practical, workaday attitude. Confident that a religious vocation need not separate him from others, he resolved to serve God amid the cities and factory towns of Connecticut.
Following ordination in 1877, Father McGivney was assigned to St. Mary’s Church in New Haven. There he founded the Knights of Columbus in 1882, in part to keep Catholic men from joining secret societies and to provide for their families in the event of the breadwinner’s death. Two years later, he was assigned as pastor of St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, a manufacturing town just north of his hometown of Waterbury, which was known for its brass mills.
Whether serving in the shadows of Yale University or in the heart of a working-class community, Father McGivney exhibited the same simple spirituality coupled with an innovative vision that sought hands-on collaboration with laypeople, who knew his love for them and returned it in full.
Worn down while tending to a large flock, paying down a parish debt, and venturing into unsanitary conditions to minister to the ill and dying, Father McGivney eventually contracted the flu, which soon turned into pneumonia. He died peacefully on Aug. 14, 1890, two days after his 38th birthday.
Less than a year later, Edward Downes, whose brother was saved from court-ordered foster care by Father McGivney’s generous intervention, offered a heartfelt tribute: “He was a man of the people. He was ever zealous for the people’s welfare, and all the kindliness of his priestly soul asserted itself most strongly in his unceasing efforts for the betterment of their condition.”
For 125 years since his death, Knights have expressed their appreciation for Venerable Michael McGivney’s life and legacy, inspired by his practice of humility and charity, and by his pastoral efforts that have changed millions of lives for the better. To this day, a growing number of people across the world pray for the cause of Father McGivney’s canonization and seek his intercession.
AN UNASSUMING HERO
The initial impact of Father McGivney’s relatively short life was on display when vast numbers of people turned out for his funeral Mass, filling the Thomaston church where he served and spilling out onto the streets. Thousands more thronged the streets of Waterbury, where the city’s largest-ever funeral cortege at the time carried his remains to a family gravesite.
Appreciation for Father McGivney’s priestly ministry was expressed not only among Knights but also throughout the community. A Waterbury paper captured well the balanced aspects of his character, noting that while he was a prominent figure and “well-known throughout Connecticut” for founding the Knights of Columbus, he was “unassuming in manners.”
Over the years, devotion to Father McGivney continued to grow among people of faith, leading the Archdiocese of Hartford to open his cause for canonization in 1997. Just over a decade later, in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI signed a decree of heroic virtue recognizing the Order’s founder as a Venerable Servant of God.
Today, as Venerable Michael McGivney’s cause continues, the faithful have embraced his reputation for holiness and seek him out as a powerful intercessor in needs large and small.
This devotion is clearly embodied by the Father McGivney Guild, which promotes his canonization, publicizes facts on his life and legacy, and documents favors received through his intercession. Open to anyone dedicated to Father McGivney’s memory — including Knights and their families — the guild has more than 158,000 members worldwide.
“There is nobody like Father McGivney,” said George Frates, who serves as both state warden and Father McGivney Guild chairman for the California State Council. “I tell our Knights: How can you represent the Order if you don’t know the founder? He was a wonderful man of God with a prophetic vision that remains very powerful for our times. We really need to pray to him for his intercession and also pray for his canonization.”
Many Knights have embraced this message in California, which leads all jurisdictions in guild membership (11,000 members), followed by Illinois (8,000 members). For instance, members of Father Michael J. McGivney Council 15034 in Valinda, Calif., not only adopted Father McGivney’s name for their council but also established a 20-member McGivney Choir, which performs at K of C functions.
“We want to show our devotion to Father McGivney as a sign of where the Knights come from,” said Grand Knight Jerry Lee. “The choir also gives us a chance to reach out to others.”
A PLACE OF HONOR
In addition to its relatively high participation in the Father McGivney Guild, Illinois boasts the only U.S. high school named for the Order’s founder. Father McGivney High School opened in 2012 with 19 freshmen boys and girls. Members of that inaugural class will soon return as the first seniors at the school, which has been relocated to a newly constructed building in Glen Carbon and now has an enrollment of 150 students.
According to Principal Mike Scholz, Father McGivney is a perfect patron for the school, in part because of the concern the parish priest expressed for young people, helping them to build a brighter future.
“All the students learn about Father McGivney, his life and virtues, in theology class,” Scholz explained. “He is very much a part of what we do and who we are at the school. It’s in his spirit that our students develop a commitment to service.”
Another high school named for the Order’s founder, Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy, opened in 1992 in Markham, Ontario. With an enrollment of more than 1,000 students, the school is “guided by Gospel values and Catholic virtues,” according to its mission statement.
Canada is also home to a prominent place of pilgrimage and devotion to Father McGivney: the Venerable Father Michael J. McGivney honoris (Latin for “place of honor”) at St. Patrick’s Basilica in Ottawa. Located in the basilica’s lower level, the honoris opened in 2012 with a centerpiece 4-foot statue of Father McGivney, produced by the guild for council homes and churches. The site includes kneelers for the faithful to pray, a printed history of the life of Father McGivney in English and French, prayer cards, and a second-class relic consisting of a piece of his cassock. There are also offertory boxes where people can place the names of deceased loved ones and ask prayers for special intentions.
“The honoris was placed here in order to keep Father McGivney front and center in all the Knights of Columbus do, and also to make him known to those outside the Order who would look to him for intercession,” said Michael J. O’Neill, a member of St. Patrick’s Basilica Council 12158, who developed the idea for the site. “A constant flow of working people from Ottawa and visitors come to the basilica for four daily Masses and five or six weekend Masses, and we have given out about 30,000 Father McGivney prayer cards.”
Newly installed Ontario district deputies gathered at the honoris in late June following a Mass celebrated by Bishop Marcel Damphousse of Alexandria-Cornwall, the Ontario state chaplain.
“I have been a Knight since I was 18 years old,” said Bishop Damphousse, “and it is a great privilege to be able to serve as state chaplain and also honor the memory of Father McGivney. He was a simple, humble parish priest who knew God’s call for his time. That inspires me to be a simple, humble bishop and chaplain who seeks the will of God today.”