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    ‘In Union There Is Strength’

    A friend of Father McGivney reflects on his virtues, spiritual genius and vision in founding the Knights of Columbus

    By Father James H. O’Donnell 11/1/2020
    The Knights of Columbus erected this statue of Father McGivney, near the center of his hometown of Waterbury, Conn., to commemorate the Order’s 75th anniversary. At the March 1957 dedication, Supreme Knight Luke Hart said, “May this monument long stand as an eloquent witness to the enduring respect, gratitude and affection in which we hold our priestly benefactor and Founder.” Photo by Christopher Beauchamp

    Editor’s Note: The first major pilgrimage to Father McGivney’s gravesite took place June 10, 1900. Thousands of people, including hundreds of Knights and their families from throughout Connecticut and New York, gathered in Waterbury, Conn., for a special “Knights of Columbus Day” in Father McGivney’s honor.

    The pilgrimage began with a solemn high Mass at the Church of the Immaculate Conception; his brothers, Father Patrick J. McGivney and Father John J. McGivney — both of whom would later serve as supreme chaplain — celebrated and served as sub-deacon, respectively. Following Mass, a huge procession walked 1.5 miles from the church to St. Joseph Cemetery, where Father James H. O’Donnell, a longtime friend of Father Mc- Givney and chaplain of Hendricken Council 36 in Waterbury, delivered remarks at the McGivney family gravesite.

    The following text is abridged from Father O’Donnell’s address, which was published the next day in the Waterbury Democrat.

    You are come from your cherished homes to pay homage today to the memory of a departed priest, whose name is inseparably linked with the splendid organization of which it is our privilege to be members. You are come hither to gather about the grave of your founder and to place upon his tomb tributes, which bear silent but eloquent testimony to the affectionate remembrance in which you hold him — as true a priest as ever received the character, as loyal a citizen as ever obeyed the laws, as stanch a friend as ever honored another with his friendship. Your pilgrimage to the spot hallowed by the dust of this anointed representative of Christ presages a still more glorious future for the Order, which his genius brought into existence. It bespeaks your unwavering adherence to the principles which underlie our organization.

    These principles ever animated Father McGivney and regulated his life. You will, we believe, carry hence to your homes the influences that are enshrined about this grave, influences that are vital, potent, far-reaching, ennobling; influences that survive from a life unselfishly given to the service of others, a life spent in the promotion of his neighbors’ welfare, a life redolent of deeds whose motive was the social, moral, intellectual and religious improvement of his fellows. With him the demands of self were ever subordinated to the needs of others, and the splendid legacy he has left in the Knights of Columbus attests the love in which he held his brother man, as it also evidences his profound knowledge of the special needs of the hour.

    A practical, conservative and intelligent exponent of the needs as well of the duties and obligations of young men, he has bequeathed to society an organization whose merits shine resplendent and whose devotion to the Church is one of its pronounced characteristics; an organization rich in deeds that have evoked the heartfelt benisons of numberless widows and orphans; an organization faithful to its high ideals and to the spirit infused into it by its founder; successful in the past; prosperous and progressive in the present; a glorious future in prospect; in a word, an organization whose unwritten motto is “Excelsior,” and which is destined, we would fondly believe, to make still greater conquests in the field of philanthropy.

    A Fourth Degree color guard leads a procession of Knights to Father McGivney’s grave in St. Joseph Cemetery on June 21, 1947. Knights of Columbus Multimedia Archives


    Well shall it be with the Knights of Columbus as an Order, if its individual members possess the spirit that dominated its founder. Genial, approachable, of kindly disposition, cheerful under reverses, profoundly sympathetic with those upon whom had fallen the heavy hand of affliction, a man of strict probity and sterling integrity in his business transactions. He was charitable to a fault, if I may so speak. The poor found in him a Good Samaritan, and were frequent recipients of his bounty. In time, the years spent by Father McGivney in the sacred ministry were replete with deeds that honor his name and are now, no doubt, the brightest jewels in the crown he has received from the just Judge.

    There are few clergymen in my recollection who enjoyed in a greater degree than he the respect of his colleagues and the reverence of the people. His life was an open book, whose pages all might read, and the influences that radiated from his active, energetic and zealous personality, brought many a poor wanderer to the house of God, back to the faith of his childhood, and to the sacred tribunal of penance. Father McGivney was nothing if not active. His energy was restless, ever seeking new outlets, and to this disposition are we indebted for the existence of the Knights of Columbus.

    Father McGivney had unbounded faith in the saving graces dispensed by Holy Church. He was cognizant of the efficacy of those divine splendors of the Church, the sacraments, to spiritualize his fellow men of good will and to bring them to the knowledge and love of Christ. But he recognized also the social aspirations of the young men of his time, their tendency to form themselves into associations. To nourish their legitimate aspirations and to provide for his young men a field in which their activities might find proper exercise, he set for himself the task of organizing a society on lines different from existing Catholic associations. I was in a position to know that it was his intention that his society should be an auxiliary to the Church in her glorious, divinely commissioned work, that it was to operate in its chosen sphere under her guidance and with her blessing.

    As an auxiliary, then, of the Church, it was Father McGivney’s purpose in instituting the Knights of Columbus, to keep the young men of his parish within the household of the faith, to preserve them from the taint of infidelity, to weld together the scattered units whose influence was nil, into one grand, compact whole, whose sphere of usefulness would be enlarged and whose influence would be paramount, commensurate with its high purposes. It was his aim to surround his proteges with an atmosphere of religion and to bring them into even closer relationship to Mother Church, to give them a practical illustration of the strength that comes from intelligent organization — these were the motives that inspired Father McGivney in the foundation of the Knights of Columbus.

    To him the familiar saw “In union there is strength” was no mere figure of speech. It was the expression of a great truth to which he bent all his energies; and the results of his labors in this direction are visible today in this magnificent assemblage of Knights. But after everything is said, the great fact stands out prominently, that in organizing the Knights of Columbus Father McGivney was actuated primarily by religious motives. Zeal for souls is the corner stone of the superb organization, which today pays tribute to his memory.

    I have a vivid remembrance of the days that preceded the foundation of the Order. I have personal recollections of the anxiety that preyed upon Father McGivney as he resolutely sought the realization of his heart’s desire. I know something of the obstacles he encountered and surmounted before the Knights became a reality. I witnessed the revision of this article and of that section of the law of the Order, until he was satisfied that it met all needed requirements.

    The grain of mustard seed planted in February 1882 has grown with wondrous vitality. The Order has developed with marvelous rapidity, nor has this rapidity been at the expense of its solidarity. Modifications in non-essentials may be deemed advisable, but the watchword of the Knights of Columbus should forever remain “Unity and Charity.” They are the marks which have hitherto distinguished it.

    The McGivney family plot, pictured here at Old St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Waterbury, Conn., was the site of Father McGivney’s remains until Dec. 8, 1981. At that time, they were exhumed and prepared for interment at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven on March 29, 1982 — the centenary of the Knights of Columbus. Photo by Christopher Beauchamp


    No organization, how numerous so ever its membership, can long maintain a successful existence in which there is no unity of purpose; but the Knights of Columbus rejoice in such unity. We have a community of interests which bind us together, though widely separated by town, city and state boundaries. And foremost among these interests is that of religion. It is the highest, the noblest, the most exalted of all interests. As the child of Mother Church is at home in any part of this wide world where there is an altar of sacrifice, so the Knight of Columbus meets his brethren in the faith, wherever a council exists. And the faith which the Order demands in its members is no negative nor passive, much less a dead faith; but a living, active force, animating the entire spiritual being, a faith that produces and abounds in works of mercy, that summons a Knight to the bedside of a brother stricken with illness, that speaks words of comfort and cheer, that opens the heart and the hand, and which gives practical evidence of its sincerity and efficacy — a faith which culminates in love.

    It is this faith that will make him loyal to God and loyal to the state. If he aspires to the privilege of citizenship in the kingdom beyond the skies, he will strive to be worthy of citizenship here below. This two-fold loyalty the Knights of Columbus strenuously inculcates — God and country. There is no antagonism here; rather, is one complemental of the other. Unity of purpose, unity of action and unity of faith complete a trinity which makes the Knights of Columbus a mighty agent for good, an upholder of order, a protective force in society.

    The second distinguishing mark, but in reality the first, of the Knight of Columbus, is charity, the queen of the virtues — charity, “the virtue of the heart and not of the hands.” Charity is the love of God and the love of the neighbor in whom dwells the image and likeness of God. It expands the heart of man and enlarges his vision. The faithful and earnest practice of it lifts him above the things of earth and gives him a foretaste of the joys that are of heaven. He participates in the mission of Christ, who went about doing good and whose blessings for soul and body alike fell upon all.

    Charity — this is the virtue that ennobles the Knights of Columbus and attracts so many within its fold. It impels each Knight to extend the helping hand, to banish sorrow, to bring sunshine into gloomy lives, to lift up the fallen, to strengthen the weak, to encourage the downcast. But the charity of the Knights of Columbus is not confined to, nor does it cease, with life. Amid the sorrow that follows the final departure of loved ones, it bestows assistance which brightens the existence of mother, or wife or children.

    Brother Knights, the rapid expansion of the Order — and its growth is a marvel — with its increasing responsibilities, admonishes us to jealously safeguard its interests. Its catholic character should be maintained: the man of wealth and his less favored neighbor; the high in station and the humble laborer; the professor and the artisan — all classes standing upon an equality in its councils. Equality should have no distorted meaning, nor should fraternity be an empty sound.

    Among the shining characteristics of the Catholic Church none is more conspicuous than the equality of its membership. Before the altar all are equal. The beggar if such there be, kneels by the side of the possessor of wealth and the man of dark skin occupies the same pew with his white brother. And this spirit pervades the Knights of Columbus; and so should it ever be. The most perfect organization on this earth is the Church, to which you cheerfully yield spiritual allegiance. Let the Knights of Columbus learn from her, as far as possible — and the prosperity of the Order in the world of the future is doubly assured.



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