A Parish Priest: Nothing More ... But Nothing Less

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2/1/2006

Julie M. Fenster is co-author with Douglas Brinkley of Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism, published in January by William Morrow, a division of HarperCollins ($24.95 US/$32.95 CAN). Award-winning author and historian Fenster has written several books and has had articles published in American Heritage and American History magazines, among other publications. She is also narrator of the audiobook version of Parish Priest.

Fenster and Brinkley have recreated the daily life of Father McGivney in their moving new biography. They have chronicled not only his life but daily life in 19th century America. Father McGivney’s passion for his vocation, for the family and young people, and for the Knights of Columbus are captured in Parish Priest.

In this interview Fenster shares additional insights into Father McGivney, what drew her and Brinkley to the subject, and what she hopes readers will learn from reading Parish Priest.

COLUMBIA: Your previous books have covered a broad range of topics — historic battles, medical pioneers and discoveries, finances, travel. What drew you to writing about a little-known 19th century U.S. parish priest?

FENSTER: Whatever the general topic, my books spring from social history, wondering how people lived. I guess that’s just a way of saying that I’m very curious when it comes to people in history. I don’t much care about current people, maybe because I already know what it’s like to live in 2006. I want to know what it was like to live in some other time.

I do live in 2006, however, and like everyone else, I was very riled by the scandal swirling around pedophile priests. I used to talk about it occasionally with Doug Brinkley, a great historian and a friend, and we both resented the fact that the reputation of all priests was pretty well ruined by the heinous behavior of a minority of priests. You could say that Doug and I had a certain anger about the damage done to all priests by the destructive ones.

Anyway, one day, Doug and I heard about the effort to propose a priest named Michael McGivney for sainthood. We thought he should go on our list of potential book subjects: a reminder of what a priest can be. The more we learned about Father McGivney, the more committed we became to the project. He was full of humor and a love of fun, but dedicated to the dignity of his calling. If we were so fascinated by him, we reasoned that others would be, too.

How did you and co-author Douglas Brinkley overcome the challenge of writing a biography about a very public person who left little in the way of personal writings, such as letters or a diary. Was that easier in some respects?

I once had a laugh with Father Gabriel O’Donnell, the postulator for the cause of Father McGivney’s sainthood, that somewhere on this planet there is a cardboard box overstuffed with McGivney letters, diaries and notes. He and I had it pictured in perfect detail. The only thing is, it doesn’t exist as far as we know. Father McGivney, or more specifically his brothers and sisters, didn’t preserve many of his papers. One might think that that would make writing a biography about him kind of tough. But not really. Anytime you become intrigued with a historical character, there is never enough surviving material. I study Abraham Lincoln quite a lot, and the material he left would fill truckloads. But I want even more, and so does everyone else interested in Lincoln. Even though Father McGivney only left about a dozen letters, a day-journal and just a few other writings, Doug and I found that he came through in those items and we could build on them. I admit, however, that practically everything McGivney wrote is fully quoted in Parish Priest. We didn’t have the luxury of cutting anything!

You and Brinkley provide such rich details and interesting insights into Church and everyday life in the 19th century. The book is as revealing about such things as family, parish and city life, as it is about Father McGivney. I found it very helpful in understanding how Father McGivney may have been motivated to act as he did not only in founding the Knights, but in ministering to a death row inmate, or reaching out to young people. Was it your intention to tell this broader story as well as the story of one man’s life?

Father McGivney lived for others. That is his story. For that reason, the plan from the start was to reconstruct as much of his world as possible. We found, in any case, that McGivney lived at a compelling time. He was fortunate to serve in Connecticut, which was open to new ideas and altogether a really hopping place then. Electric lights and the telephone were changing life for everyone, including him. More than that, in America and other urbanizing, industrializing countries, the role of the man within the family was evolving quickly during the 1880s. Father McGivney was aware of that sometimes confusing shift from his parish work, and it became one of his motivations in starting the Knights of Columbus.

Were there any episodes or events in his life that you and Brinkley felt were especially revealing about Father McGivney — things that really captured for you who he was and what he lived his life for?

Father McGivney lived with a sense of balance, which is well-worth pondering. He knew just where all that was within him belonged, in relation to all that was around him. As his life continued, the sense of peace he possessed — both inwardly and outwardly — was probably poised on that fine balance. In that, Father McGivney was much more charismatic than even he cared to realize. I am fascinated by the many times when he turned away from grasping more power, even when it was handed to him. To describe that, there are many episodes, but one occurred during a presidential campaign in which one of the candidate’s representatives made a blatantly anti-Catholic speech. Locally, campaigners from both sides were standing around Father McGivney’s church after Sunday Mass, and one man ran up to him very brusquely, demanding to know why the priest hadn’t used his influence to tell the parishioners to vote against the anti-Catholic candidate. Father McGivney didn’t shrink back, even as others restrained the man. He had told the congregation that he thought each person should vote, without undue influence from anyone. When push came to shove — literally — that meant him, too. Quite a few other people would have been unable to resist the chance to aggrandize himself. Father McGivney wanted to empower the people around him, not control them. In view of that, the fact that he wasn’t famous is only another part of his glory.

This biography is the first in-depth study of Father McGivney’s life and it will obviously appeal to Knights. But what would you say its selling points are for Catholics in general, people interested in 19th century America, or others?

Doug insists that some day Father McGivney will be listed in the index of every American history book. That’s true, I think. The influx of Catholics in the late 19th century was an enormously significant aspect of American history. The subject is often covered from the point of view of the prejudice that arose against them. Parish Priest comes from the other direction, showing the effort made by Father McGivney to help Catholics to secure their place in America.

I’d also like to think that it presents the story of a priest in an accessible way. (It seems a bit odd to me that the most representative priest in America should be Father O’Malley, the fictional character Bing Crosby played in the movie Going My Way.)

Finally, the book does have a parallel theme in the role of the husband and father in the industrializing society of the 19th century. What made for manhood in the post-pioneer era? The book constantly examines the need of each man in that era to find ways to establish his role and understand his responsibilities, especially within the family. These are questions that ought to ring true with Catholics and non-Catholics, alike.

He seems very alive and real to me — or at least you depict him in his relationships with people as very like a priest you would want to know today.

You have just expressed why Father McGivney is so important, even beyond founding the Knights. He is, as you said, “a priest you would want to know today.” Those who have read the book or heard the audio edition have said that he has stayed with them as a distinct personality and a source of strength. We don’t take that as a reflection of the book itself, but as a sign that Father McGivney’s spirit is very real and relevant. We didn’t leave anything out, and looked through extensive original material and reporting of the day for any and all details of his life.

In terms of his personal style, Father McGivney was noticeably ahead of his time. He could play baseball and have a laugh with his young parishioners — in other words, he had a way of mixing into the secular lives of parishioners without forsaking his spiritual responsibilities to them; quite the contrary, I think. Judging by his actions, he didn’t want people to leave their religious lives in church — a lot of clergymen of all faiths preach that, but Father McGivney did have a graceful way of proving that Catholic teachings could be a part of everything, all the time.

There are several North American saints and blesseds who were contemporaries of Father McGivney’s: St. Katharine Drexel, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, St. John Nepomucene Neumann and others. Did you and Doug Brinkley look at their lives to see what, if any, similarities there were in their vocations, calls to service or forms of outreach?

We did try to familiarize ourselves with the people who might be considered Father McGivney’s peers, either in terms of his lifespan or his calling as a parish priest. Many of the individuals about whom there is a great deal of research fell into one of two categories. They were builders, like Mother Cabrini or Father Nelson Baker of Buffalo (who attended college at Niagara with McGivney). Or they were Church leaders, like Bishop Neumann or Cardinal James Gibbons (who was about 18 years older than Michael McGivney, but had a similar early career and ordained him). There wasn’t, however, a great deal on just plain parish priests, because they don’t generally receive a lot of attention.

You and Doug Brinkley conclude that Father McGivney was a priest of the “modern” world. Could you elaborate on that?

Up to the generation before his time, priests were quite isolated from general society, within their own parish circles. Father McGivney was a bit more relaxed about the world in which he lived. Not too many other priests, even in his day, were quite as active and accessible. More than most of his fellow priests in the 19th century, he saw the world as his parishioners did, not merely from the point of view of a priest. That allowed Father McGivney to found the Knights as a lay group sanctioned by the Church. It was revolutionary at the time for the Church to accept within its embrace any group that did not have a priest at the head. Father McGivney’s flexibility in seeing worldly issues from the two points of view — Church and laity — grew to be a part of the modern Roman Catholic Church.

You wrote the book during a time when the Catholic priesthood was being scrutinized because of the clerical sex abuse scandal. Did that shape your work?

Do you want to hear something really depressing? All during the time that I was working on the book and would tell people in casual conversation that my latest project was about a priest, they would invariably — invariably — ask if he fooled around, or something like that. It didn’t take me too long to get offended, inwardly, by these comments, knee-jerk as they seemed to be. I can’t vouch for the moral rectitude of every priest in 19th century Connecticut, but it is clear that, as dire as the need for priests was in those days of heavy Catholic immigration, the screening of potential priests on character issues was taken very seriously. The attitude then was that, with anti-Catholic prejudice lying just beneath the surface in America, the Church couldn’t afford to have any bad apples slip through and cause a public scandal. Recent times have shown how proper that stance was. Father McGivney was part of that older tradition in that his education for the priesthood took almost 10 years and he was continually scrutinized. That was the way then.

The fact that there are 1.7 million Knights in several countries, that there are more than a half-dozen Knights who are saints or blesseds, that the Knights is going strong nearly 125 years after its founding — what does that ultimately say to you about Father McGivney’s vision and its continued relevance for the world and the Church?

Father McGivney had a brilliant understanding of the family, and each person within it. That was at the core of many of the things he did. As he designed it, the Knights of Columbus gave men the tools, both financial and spiritual, to make something better of their lives, especially as leaders in their families. In giving them an understanding of their relevance, Father McGivney’s influence carried past Catholics to men of other faiths, as well.

I’d give anything to have lunch with Father McGivney. Not just because he’d make me laugh and then talk about my favorite sport of baseball, but because he left everyone better off, feeling a little stronger, seeing a little further.

Tim S. Hickey is editor of Columbia.