Old leather-bound Catholic theological dictionaries sit on a shelf of the seminary’s library. (Photography by Stéphane Larivière)
In 2011, as the Church in Canada celebrated the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Jesuit missionaries on Canadian soil, a seminary in a small Quebec city 35 miles southeast of Montreal celebrated an anniversary of its own. Sept. 8, 2011, marked the bicentenary of the Seminary of Saint-Hyacinthe, an institution rich in history and significant for the Church in North America.
Seminary of Saint-Hyacinthe in Montreal, Quebec, constructed a monument in honor of Father Michael J. McGivney, who spent two years at the school as a young seminary student in the late-19th century.
When a committee was formed to organize festivities surrounding the event, proposed initiatives included the building of a monument to commemorate a former student who had the greatest impact on society. Saint-Hyacinthe counts among its alumni many notable figures, including a number of influential churchmen and at least five graduates who went on to become the premier of Quebec. The committee, however, chose to honor Venerable Michael McGivney, the founder of the Knights of Columbus, who spent two years at the school as a young seminary student in the late-19th century.
“Father McGivney was a natural choice,” said Canon Jean Corbeil, rector of the Seminary of Saint-Hyacinthe. “With more than 1.8 million Knights of Columbus throughout the world, this man is clearly the most distinguished among our alumni. We were privileged to have him as a student. It is an honor that few institutions can boast.”
LEAVING NEW ENGLAND
Michael McGivney’s journey to Canada began in his home state of Connecticut, where French-Canadian immigrants had been settling since the mid-19th century to work in New England factories. Pious and strongly attached to their Catholic faith, the French Canadians demanded to be served by priests well versed in their own language. Bishop Francis P. McFarland of Hartford dreamed of answering this need by sending seminarians to Quebec for their priestly formation, and Father Thomas F. Hendricken, who was then pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Waterbury, turned his bishop’s dream into a reality. A charismatic and devoted parish priest, he led 16-year-old Michael McGivney and 10 other young men from his parish to the small community of Saint-Hyacinthe.
For much of the 19th century, the population of Saint-Hyacinthe was fewer than 5,000. But when the railroad connected New England to Montreal, Saint-Hyacinthe quickly became an important crossroads for people and ideas. Diverse and intellectually vibrant, it was an ideal place for a young student eager to expand his mind.
By the time McGivney arrived in September 1868, the seminary system was already well entrenched in French-Canadian culture. Established in response to the dearth of clerical vocations following the British Conquest of New France in 1759, the system of minor seminaries sought to provide young men with an environment in which they could immerse themselves in the study of classical languages and enjoy a community life centered on the sacraments and various devotions. The cours classiques, as they were called, offered young men a quality education and the opportunity to reflect on pursuing theological studies for the priesthood. Although certainly not all young men who studied at these seminaries became priests, the education bore fruit through an increase in vocations.
A DIVERSE EDUCATION
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Seminary of Saint-Hyacinthe went through three stages of expansion in order to accommodate an increased number of students. Following a sharp decline in the number of seminarians over the last few decades, though, the seminary has ceased providing priestly formation. Nevertheless, the facility remains active in education, as it is home to Antoine-Girouard College, a high school named for the seminary’s founder. Saint-Hyacinthe also serves as a residence for retired priests from many regions of Quebec and regularly welcomes various groups seeking formation in the Christian faith.
Although Saint-Hyacinthe was founded for French Canadians, at the time of McGivney’s enrollment the school maintained a curriculum of studies in English taught by a faculty of Irish priests. In fact, many of the students were English speakers of Irish descent.
As he began his priestly formation, Michael McGivney would have spent much time in the chapel of the Seminary of Saint-Hyacinthe. • Portraits hang in a hallway at the seminary. • A newly built memorial to Father McGivney stands outside of the seminary.
The few surviving records that mention McGivney’s presence at the seminary suggest that he was a dedicated student who won several academic awards and whose quiet, amiable personality allowed him to integrate well into community life. The seminary’s 1968-1969 yearbook, marking the centennial of McGivney’s matriculation, notes that McGivney “benefited from an atmosphere favourable to the development of his personality, from contact with true educators, from the spirit of initiative granted to the students.”
McGivney’s education at the Seminary of Saint-Hyacinthe came to an end in mid-1870. He then enrolled at the Seminary of Our Lady of the Angels in Niagara Falls, N.Y., in September 1871, continuing his preparation for theological studies by taking courses in philosophy and classical languages. The following year, he was ready to begin studying theology and chose to attend Sainte-Marie College, a Jesuit institution in Montreal, for its academic rigor and precision. His studies there were interrupted in 1873 when the death of his father forced him to return home. He later completed priestly formation at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore and was ordained in 1877.
THE KNIGHTS IN QUEBEC
Father McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus in 1882 at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn., but he did not live to see the Order expand to Canada. In August 1890, he died of pneumonia at age 38 while serving as the pastor of St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, Conn. Nonetheless, the French-Canadian province that McGivney had called home for three years would embrace the fledgling Order before the turn of the century.
Faith and Fraternalism, a history of the Knights of Columbus by Christopher J. Kauffman, recounts that on Aug. 8, 1897, two residents of Montreal who formerly lived in Plattsburg, N.Y., were among the 66 charter members of Plattsburg Council 255. The two men, J.P. Kavanaugh and Charles F. Smith, returned to Canada determined to establish a new council in their city. With enthusiastic support from a former mayor of Montreal and permission from Archbishop Paul Bruchési, Montreal Council 284 was founded on Nov. 22, 1897.
At first, the council was composed almost entirely of men of Irish descent. The challenges faced by Catholics in French Canada, however, would lead more and more French Canadians to join their ranks. Ever since the British Conquest, French-Canadian Catholics endured much of the same discrimination encountered by Catholics in the United States. The growing Order offered them a welcome refuge in which they could stand together.
Following the foundation of the Knights in Quebec, it wasn’t long before the Order expanded to other parts of the country. The first Canadian Council outside of Quebec was established in Ottawa on Jan. 28, 1900. Just five years later, councils were active in five Canadian provinces and every U.S. state.
The Knights of Columbus remains strong in Quebec today, counting more than 97,000 members in 569 councils. Knights in Quebec continue to lead the way in charitable donations among all of the Order’s jurisdictions and raised $10.4 million during the 2010-11 fraternal year. Recognizing a pressing need to share the Gospel in their province, Quebec Knights focus on projects that support family life and recently launched an initiative to promote pro-family, pro-life education at the parish level.
A SYMBOL OF HOPE
On March 31, two days after Founder’s Day, Quebec Knights will participate in a day of celebration at the Seminary of Saint-Hyacinthe. As they look back on 115 years of dedicated service in Quebec, they will also look toward the future, continuing the work that began with Father McGivney’s dedication and vision.
The bicentennial monument, which was unveiled at the seminary in September 2011, represents the special relationship that has developed between the Order and Quebec Catholics.
Designed by sculptor Claude Millette, who grew up near the seminary, the monument consists of two black granite columns one of which bears an image of Father McGivney and stainless-steel beams and a spire representing a church. Suppliers provided materials for the monument at a reduced cost, while the Quebec State Council and the Supreme Council shared the remaining expense of $50,000.
Millette titled the work Passor Passare. In Latin, the word Passor means “he who opens,” and the word Passare means “to pass.” Millette explained, “Passor reflects very well the work of Father McGivney as the founder of the Knights of Columbus and, in turn, Passare expresses the Seminary of Saint-Hyacinthe as a place of passage that has transformed thousands of young people as citizens with diverse backgrounds.”
The granite signifies distinction, added Millette, and the monument’s four columns represent the Order’s principles of charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism. And since the monument stands directly outside the entrance to the seminary, it has invited visitors to reflect on the school and on Father McGivney’s legacy.
“For the Order, it is incredible visibility, especially at a time when we prepare to celebrate the 115th anniversary of the establishment of the Knights of Columbus in Quebec,” said Quebec State Deputy Jean-Marc Moyen. “For us, the Knights of Quebec, it is an eloquent reminder of the importance of our work. It also represents a vibrant source of hope as we anticipate and pray for the canonization of our exceptional founder.”
JOSEPH WYLLIE GOSKI is an associate producer for French programming with Salt + Light Catholic Television in Toronto. MARC NADEAU, a communications consultant, is a past grand knight of Sherbrooke (Québec) Council 530.