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    Father McGivney’s seminary formation in Baltimore helped him to respond to the needs of his time

    by Andrew J. Matt and Paul McMullen 3/1/2020
    Michael McGivney is pictured during his seminary days in Baltimore. The photo was included in a photo album of Father Alphonse Magnien, a long-time professor who became superior at the seminary in 1878. Photo courtesy of Associated Archives at St. Mary’s Seminary & University

    Michael McGivney was preparing for final exams at a Jesuit-run seminary in Montreal when he heard the tragic news. His father, Patrick, had died suddenly at age 48. In June 1873, 20-year-old Michael promptly packed his bags and headed home to Waterbury, Conn., where his mother and six younger siblings were reeling from the loss.

    A few months later, after ensuring his family’s financial security, Mc- Givney received support from his bishop to continue his priestly formation. He did not, however, return to Sainte-Marie College in Montreal. Instead, in what proved to be a decisive turning point in his vocational journey, he began studies at a different St. Mary’s — a Sulpician-run seminary in the bustling port city of Baltimore.

    Father Joseph G. Daley, a priest who knew McGivney, later described the Sulpician fathers’ impact on Father McGivney in a June 1900 article in The Columbiad.

    “To them he unfolded his mind anew; and they … diverted him entirely from the thought of joining the Jesuits,” Father Daley wrote. “Humanity, and not the humanities, should engage henceforth his most devoted study; sympathy for human woes was a property more intrinsic than knowledge: to store up knowledge was good, they admitted; but to save souls was incomparably better.”

    Father McGivney received this formation over a period of four years in Baltimore, where he was ordained in 1877 by Archbishop (later Cardinal) James Gibbons. He was assigned to St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn., and his passion for healing human woes and saving souls was immediately put into action. Several years later, this same passion, kindled during his studies in Baltimore, would inspire his founding vision for the Knights of Columbus.

    “He was the sort of Christian gentleman he wanted Knights to be,” said Supreme Chaplain Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore. “He was naturally that way, but I think his priestly formation strengthened those qualities within him.”


    Founded in 1791, on a hill above Baltimore’s harbor, St. Mary’s was the oldest seminary in the United States. It drew students from throughout the country, and Cardinal Gibbons, who graduated from St. Mary’s in 1861, proudly proclaimed that alumni included “Irish, Germans, Poles, Scandinavians, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and representatives of almost every nation of Europe.”

    This international student body reflected the city of Baltimore, which was teeming with immigrants in the late 19th century. Only New York City’s Ellis Island was a busier port of entry.

    McGivney would have felt at ease in such an environment, for he had already gained broad cultural and educational experience. He studied for two years at Saint-Hyacinthe Seminary in Québec, with the intention of serving French Canadian immigrants in New England. He then studied for two years at Our Lady of the Angels Seminary in Niagara Falls, N.Y., before his year of priestly formation in Montreal.

    Bishop Francis McFarland of Hartford, aware of the Jesuits’ influence on the academically minded McGivney, was not thrilled with the possibility of one of his seminarians leaving to join a religious order. So, after Patrick McGivney’s death, the Sulpician-trained bishop arranged for Michael to enroll at St. Mary’s.

    The Sulpician order’s primary mission, since its founding in France more than two centuries earlier, was the formation of future priests. The Sulpician fathers, renowned for their piety and rigorous academics, placed a special emphasis on prayer and immersion in Scripture.

    “Life at St. Mary’s in those days was pretty austere,” Archbishop Lori explained. “You had no amenities to speak of. You were up early, worked hard and prayed hard.”

    The students spent most of their time within the seminary’s 12-foot-tall walls.

    “The only time the seminarians went outside the walls during the scholastic year, besides their annual picnic and two other holidays, was for the weekly walk,” James H. Dowdy wrote in a Sulpician alumni magazine. “Two by two, they marched through the city, in frock coats and beaver top hats.”

    Seminarians representing various dioceses and Knights of Columbus councils are pictured with a bust of Father McGivney at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, where McGivney was educated, 1873-1877. From left to right: Nicholas Mwai, Michael Boris, Brendan Foley (seated), James Gebhart and Javier Fuentes. Photo by Brion McCarthy

    Of course, the seminarians were not completely isolated from social realities and national events. For example, when anti-immigrant sentiment erupted during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, Maryland National Guard troops clashed with protestors a mile south of St. Mary’s Seminary. At least 10 people were killed.

    McGivney was sensitive to the plight of immigrants (both of his parents were born in Ireland), but his mission in the seminary was to be “in the world, but not of it.” For now, he was to focus on his studies and religious duties, such as taking care of the liturgical vestments, vessels and books.

    “His taste for order was indeed remarkable,” Father Daley recounted. “During his stay at Baltimore, the Sulpicians would not be content with anyone else for the post of sacristan.”


    A seminary classmate from New York later recalled that, in addition to his orderliness, McGivney was known for “his depth of piety and his fund of good humor” — qualities that were no doubt cultivated by one of the seminary’s most brilliant and ebullient professors, Sulpician Father Alphonse Magnien.

    A native of southern France, Father Magnien was a mentor to generations of seminarians and had a profound impact upon the Church in America. Cardinal Gibbons penned a moving tribute after Father Magnien’s death in 1902, capturing his warm and trusting relationships with students.

    “As time rolls by, I miss more and more his beaming and joyous countenance and his cheering voice as he entered my room. He seemed to diffuse around him and to communicate to others, the benevolence of his ingenuous soul,” Cardinal Gibbons wrote. “It was this candor and frankness that made him so magnetic and attached to him so closely his former pupils.”

    Among the 13 extant letters of Father McGivney, two of them were written to Father Magnien, and they reflect both reverence and affection for his mentor. Writing Oct. 21, 1878, Father McGivney congratulated him for being named superior of the seminary.

    “I was exceedingly glad to hear of your appointment & knowing that I’m not given to flattery you will believe me when I say that I expected your appointment as Superior,” Father McGivney wrote. “Wishing you and the dear fathers of St. Mary’s all manner of blessings I remain as ever a fond and loving son of my Alma Mater.”

    In the same letter, Father McGivney apologized for not writing sooner, noting that he had been alone that summer, with the whole work of St. Mary’s Parish on his shoulders. The pastor, Father Murphy, was on a sabbatical due to health issues.

    Though less than a year into his priesthood, Father McGivney was already plunged deep into the practical arena for which the Sulpicians had prepared him.

    As Father Daley later explained, Mc- Givney was convinced through his seminary formation that “the arena of stirring toilers rather than that of placid thinkers was the sphere best adapted to qualities and energies such as were his.”

    Ultimately, these same “qualities and energies” were also reflected in his vision for a new Order of Catholic men — a group of “stirring toilers” joined in unity and charity, sympathetic to human suffering and intent upon the good of souls.

    ANDREW J. MATT is managing editor of Columbia and a member of Father Kuster Council 3037 in Chester, Conn. PAUL McMULLEN is managing editor of The Catholic Review, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He is a member of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Council 2452 in Essex, Md.


    Father McGivney continues to be honored by new generations of seminarians in Baltimore

    ST. MARY’S SEMINARY moved five miles north from its downtown location in 1929. The Paca Street site where Father McGivney lived and studied is now St. Mary’s Spiritual Center & Historic Site. The only structure still standing from Father McGivney’s days in Baltimore is the historic chapel where he prayed.

    If he visited today, Father McGivney would not recognize much — but he would be recognized.

    Deacon Vito Piazza, the center’s director and a member of Fulton J. Sheen Council 7612 in Sykesville, Md., calls Father McGivney “a consummate priest.”

    “The reason he died at age 38 was because he was constantly giving,” Deacon Piazza said. “He pretty much died from exhaustion. He was constantly with the people and had an extraordinarily empathetic heart.”

    Father McGivney and his legacy are also commemorated at his alma mater. A bust of Father McGivney, commissioned by a group of seminarians, was dedicated at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in 2010, during the Year for Priests.

    In gratitude for the Order’s support of priestly vocations, the seminarians contributed the bulk of the $10,000 cost from their own funds. Father Andrew Nelson, now pastor of St. Ignatius and St. Mary Parishes in Manchester, N.H., helped to lead the effort.

    “Most of us were Knights, myself included, and were most grateful to the Knights of Columbus councils for their support,” Father Nelson said. “We thought the seminary should do something for one of the important figures in the life of the American Church.” — Reported by Paul McMullen




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