A FEW YEARS BEFORE the founding of the Knights of Columbus at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, The New York Times published an article about the parish under the headline, “How an Aristocratic Avenue was Blemished by a Roman Church Edifice.” The article noted that these Catholics had previously been worshiping in “a cheap building” elsewhere in the city.
The real blemish in the writer’s eye was not the Gothic style of the church building — nearby Yale University had pioneered the American Academic Gothic style — but the fact that these Catholics had moved from the margins of the city to its cultural and intellectual center.
Although many of Father Mc- Givney’s parishioners were recent immigrants and manual laborers, a number of the “go ahead” men who became early members of the Knights of Columbus would go on to elected office and positions of prominence in New Haven and Connecticut.
New Haven — one of the four original Puritan colonies in New England — was a cultural, religious and intellectual center. And like the rest of New England, it wrestled with the legacy of its Puritan past. Popular philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and novelists like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville all grappled with the stern rigidity of Puritanism.
We do not know what was on Father McGivney’s bookshelf or how much time the young priest had for reading. But we do know that Catholics were involved in the great intellectual debates of their time, as Faith of Our Fathers (1876) by Cardinal James Gibbons (who ordained Father McGivney) and The American Republic (1865) by Orestes Brownson attest. We also know that Mc- Givney had once hoped to join the Jesuits, and he was recognized for excellence in his studies while in seminary. Within walking distance of Yale University, its School of Divinity and the prominent Protestant churches on the New Haven town green, Father McGivney frequently defended his Catholic faith.
But as a priest who was Father McGivney’s contemporary said of him, McGivney made a decisive shift in his thinking during his studies at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore: “While praising scholarship as a possession of great value, they taught him to regard it as merely a subsidiary quality in a priest — humanity, and not the humanities, should engage henceforth his most devoted study; sympathy for human woes was a property more intrinsic than knowledge.”
The 19th-century America in which Father McGivney lived was tumultuous. In the decade before his birth, anti-Catholic riots burned churches and destroyed convents. The decade in which he was born marked the emergence of the nativist “Know- Nothings.” Their political influence was strong throughout the country, and their message simple. In New England, posters read: “All Catholics and all persons who favor the Catholic Church are … vile imposters, liars, villains, and cowardly cutthroats.”
Soon, America was plunged into civil war — and vengeance became an operating principle. “As the Civil War escalated in scope and intensity,” writes historian James McPherson, “the fury of hatred and revenge … crowded out Christian charity.”
In this way, the war presented an “unending challenge,” observes another eminent historian, Bruce Catton — “a challenge to the world’s greatest democracy to establish itself on a foundation so broad and solid that it will endure.”
“Put at its simplest,” Catton writes, “it is nothing less than an avowal that we believe in the brotherhood of man and are determined that we will eventually find some way to put it into actual practice.”
This is what Father McGivney did. He put into “actual practice” a Catholic brotherhood based on the principles of charity and unity; and while its membership was restricted to Catholics, its charity would be open to all. Father McGivney called on Catholics to see in the face of their suffering neighbor the face of Christ — so that, in their charity, they might show that neighbor not retribution or hardheartedness but the mercy of God.
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