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    Father McGivney's personal relationships reveal his practical leadership and compassionate heart

    by Kevin Coyne 11/1/2020
    This photograph of Father Michael J. McGivney seated in a rectory setting circa 1880 is attributed to the New Haven photography studio of John J. Tierney, a parishioner at St. Mary’s Church and a member of San Salvador Council 1. Knights of Columbus Multimedia Archives

    On a Monday morning in February 1882, Father Michael McGivney left St. Mary’s rectory and headed south. The 29-year-old priest made his way through streets still covered with the foot of snow that had blanketed New Haven over the weekend. He was on a mission to help one of the parish’s families and was due at probate court.

    Edward Downes Sr., the father of 14 children, had died a few weeks earlier at age 52, and his widow was required to show that she could support the children who were still minors. The court ruled that guardians were needed for the three teenage Downes boys, who otherwise might be placed in public institutions. Relatives cobbled together bonds of $2,500 to assume guardianship of two of the boys, George and Joseph, but that still left their brother Alfred.

    Father McGivney, who was close to the Downes family, had no money to offer — just his character and his faith. These were enough to convince another man, a local grocer, to sign a $1,500 bond. On Feb. 6, 1882, the court appointed the priest as Alfred’s guardian.

    “His intervention enabled Alfred Downes to remain with his family and one day to go on to graduate from Yale Law School,” explained Supreme Knight Carl Anderson in the new documentary film Father Michael McGivney: An American Blessed. “This is a pivotal moment in the life of Father McGivney. He had lost his own father and had seen the financial and emotional cost to his own family. Now, he is able to make a tremendous difference in the life of another family.”

    The big ideas in Father McGivney’s life came out of small human encounters; the public plans he envisioned were rooted in personal relationships. He walked fast but spoke slowly, in a voice so clear and pleasant that an old blind man, not even Catholic himself, came to Mass each Sunday just to hear it.

    In his three years at St. Mary’s, Father McGivney had become “a great favorite with the people,” and was particularly popular “with the energetic, pushing, go-ahead young men” of the city. Thus wrote two founding members of the Knights of Columbus — William Geary and Cornelius Driscoll, the nephew of the grocer who backed the guardianship of Alfred Downes — in an unpublished memoir. The friendships that Father McGivney forged with these men and many other individuals — rich and poor, Catholic and non-Catholic alike — were a hallmark of his ministry and his legacy.


    Father McGivney tirelessly celebrated the sacraments with his parishioners, but was not the kind of priest who believed his ministry ended with the Mass. He organized picnics for the parish with horse races and baseball games. (He had played left field himself in the seminary.) He turned St. Mary’s moribund temperance league into a lively group that filled the Music Hall in New Haven for a theatrical production on St. Patrick’s Day.

    Father McGivney no doubt saw in parish families like the Downeses something of his own — a large Irish clan with an abundance of faith and devotion to each other. His parents, Patrick and Mary McGivney, had immigrated to Connecticut from Ireland; they had 13 children, seven of whom survived to adulthood.

    Michael was the eldest, and when his father, an iron molder at a brass factory in Waterbury, died at age 48, he had to cut short his seminary studies in Montreal. Only the generous intervention of his bishop allowed him to resume his studies for the priesthood in Baltimore.

    Nearly a decade later, Father McGivney was able to advocate for the Downes family when it was most vulnerable. And he wanted to help not just his parishioners, but all Catholic families, on a scale greater than he could accomplish alone.

    He had already been meeting with some men of the parish to discuss his idea for a new kind of Catholic fraternal organization that would offer them solidarity, both spiritual and material, in the face of a world whose harshness he and his own family had felt. A month after that February day in court, the Knights of Columbus was officially incorporated.

    Among the Order’s first members was Cornelius Driscoll. Seven years older than the priest who came to be his close friend, Driscoll embodied the rising immigrant story that Father McGivney hoped would be a model for other new Americans.

    Just a boy of 5 when he arrived in Connecticut with his parents from Ireland, Driscoll had graduated from Yale College and Yale Law School and was serving as a New Haven alderman when he met Father McGivney. One of the early meetings that led to the formation of the Knights was held at Driscoll’s law office next to City Hall, and he would go on to serve as the Order’s first supreme advocate.

    In a scene from He Was Our Father by Dominican Father Peter John Cameron, Father McGivney approaches the scaffold where Chip Smith awaits execution. Actors from the Blackfriars Repertory Theatre Company performed the play Aug. 1, 2005, at the 123rd Supreme Convention in Chicago. Photo by John J. Tierney/Knights of Columbus Multimedia Archives


    It wasn’t just the professional men of the city with whom Father McGivney engaged. He made regular pastoral rounds to the New Haven jail, and in 1882, he grew especially close to James “Chip” Smith, a prisoner awaiting execution for the murder of a police chief. Behind bars, locked away from the alcohol that had fueled his worst moments, Smith became a different person — thoughtful, kind and devout. In Smith’s jailhouse transformation, Father McGivney saw his fondest hopes for a whole generation of brawling, drinking young men of immigrant stock. Here was proof that, with the right spiritual guidance, even the hardest characters might soften and find their way back to the Church.

    McGivney visited daily as the summer wore on and the gallows neared. On the last Sunday of August, five days before the execution, he celebrated a High Mass for Smith at the jail.

    “I am requested by Mr. Smith to ask pardon for all faults he may have had and all offenses he may have committed, and at his request I ask for the prayers of all of you, that when next Friday comes he may die a holy death,” Father McGivney said at the end of the Mass, his voice breaking. He then asked for prayers for everyone who would be part of the execution, himself included. “To me this duty comes with an almost crushing weight. If I could consistently with my duty be far away from here next Friday I should escape perhaps the most trying ordeal of my life, but this sad duty is placed in my way by Providence and must be fulfilled.”

    On the morning of the execution, a day of leaden skies and misty rain, Father McGivney celebrated Mass for Smith in a temporary chapel at the jail, crowded with nuns, altar boys and a choir. A soloist sang the hymn Smith requested, his favorite: “O Sacred Heart.”

    McGivney walked behind as Smith was led into the courtyard and climbed to the gallows. After saying some final prayers and blessing Smith with holy water, Father McGivney watched as the noose was placed over Smith’s head. Then the priest, who had tended Smith’s soul with more care than almost anyone else in his short life, approached him, spoke some parting words and kissed him on the cheek.

    Minutes later, Chip Smith departed this world without a struggle. When the doctor opened his coat and vest to check that his heart had stopped, he found pinned to his shirt a Sacred Heart badge.


    In the months after Smith’s death, Father McGivney nurtured a seed of faith in another seemingly unlikely soul: Alida Harwood, the daughter of a prominent Episcopal clergyman. Drawn to Catholicism, she began attending Mass at St. Mary’s, where she found in McGivney what one account described as “a firm spiritual friend and advisor.” Her father, Dr. Edwin Harwood — the rector of Trinity Church on the New Haven Green — did not approve. He packed Alida off with her mother and sister to Europe one summer and to Maine the next. His plan didn’t work: She entered the Catholic Church, but before she could enter a convent, as she desired, she was felled by malaria at just 25. Her deathbed wish was for Father McGivney to come and pray for her and administer the last rites.

    After Alida’s death, her parents asked Father McGivney to return to New Haven from the parish in Thomaston, Conn., where he was then pastor. Sensitive to her family’s grief and position, he did not object to their plans for an Episcopal service. But before the funeral, he came to the Trinity rectory, where, according to one account, “with a voice that almost trembled with the grief he felt for the dead, he read the mournful Latin prayers for the repose of the soul of the fair creature in the casket before him.”

    Father McGivney himself died just five years after Alida, but his influence continued long after — both in the Order he founded and the personal relationships he had tended in his life.

    Alfred Downes attended Yale Law School, wrote for The New York Times and later served as a top advisor to the mayor of New York City and secretary of the New York City Fire Department. Cornelius Driscoll became the first Catholic mayor of New Haven; when he died in 1931, he was the last survivor of the original 11 incorporators of the Knights of Columbus.

    Father McGivney’s two younger brothers, Patrick and John, both became priests, and both served as supreme chaplain. When John died in 1939, he was succeeded by his nephew, Msgr. Leo Finn, who served until 1960 — the year another Knight was elected the first Catholic president of the United States.

    The Knight of Columbus has since grown to 2 million men around the world, and they continue to find inspiration in their founder’s vision and personal witness.

    KEVIN COYNE is a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism. He lives in Freehold, N.J., with his family.


    Key Moments in the Life and Ministry of Blessed Michael McGivney

    Aug. 12, 1852 — Michael Joseph McGivney is born in Waterbury, Conn., the first child of Mary (Lynch) and Patrick McGivney, immigrants from Ireland.

    Aug. 19, 1852 — Michael is baptized in St. Peter’s Church in Waterbury.

    1857 — Construction begins on Immaculate Conception Church, which becomes the McGivney family’s parish.

    13-year-old Michael McGivney (lower left) pictured with his graduating class Knights of Columbus Multimedia Archives

    1859 — Michael enters East Main Street School, where he is advanced several grades and is noted for “excellent deportment and proficiency in his studies.”

    1865 — Michael graduates at age 13. He senses he has a vocation to the priesthood but lacks his father’s approval. He takes a job in a local brass spoon factory to help support the growing family.

    1868 — The pastor of Immaculate Conception, Father Thomas Hendricken, encourages Michael’s vocation. Now with his father’s consent, Michael travels with other young men from the diocese to the seminary college of Saint-Hyacinthe in Québec, where he studies for two years.

    1871-72 — Michael continues preparation for the priesthood with the Vincentian Fathers at Our Lady of Angels Seminary in Niagara Falls, N.Y. He receives honorable mention in five subjects, including Greek, Latin, translation, algebra and composition, and also plays on the school’s baseball team.

    1872-73 — Michael studies at the Jesuit- run Sainte-Marie College in Montreal.

    June 6, 1873 — Patrick McGivney dies, and Michael returns to Waterbury for the funeral without taking final exams. As the eldest son, now 20 years old, he is expected to support the family, which could no longer afford seminary tuition.

    September 1873 — Bishop Francis McFarland of Hartford secures funding for Michael’s theological studies at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, under the guidance of the Sulpician Fathers. In his final four years of formation, Michael serves as sacristan of the seminary.

    Michael McGivney during his studies in Baltimore, circa 1877 Courtesy of Associated Archives at St. Mary’s Seminary & University

    Dec. 22, 1877 — Archbishop (later Cardinal) James Gibbons of Baltimore ordains Michael McGivney in the nation’s first cathedral.

    Dec. 25, 1877 — Father McGivney celebrates his first solemn Mass in his home parish of Immaculate Conception, Waterbury, with his widowed mother and other family members present.

    January 1878 — He begins his ministry as associate pastor of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven. With the pastor ailing, Father McGivney does not take even one day off for the first year of his priesthood.

    Oct. 2, 1881 — He gathers about 80 of New Haven’s accomplished Catholic men to discuss plans for a Catholic fraternal society that would provide a death benefit to deceased members’ families.

    Feb. 2, 1882 — He chairs a committee meeting that resolves to form “a purely original organization” to be called the Knights of Columbus. William Geary, a charter member, later notes that they acclaimed Father McGivney as their Founder “with hearts full of joy and thanksgiving, recognizing that without his optimism, his will to succeed, his counsel and advice, they would have failed.”

    Feb. 6, 1882 — Father McGivney appears in New Haven probate court to vouch financial support for Alfred Downes after the death of his father, allowing the teenager to stay with his family.

    March 29, 1882 — The charter for the Knights of Columbus is approved by the state of Connecticut, a date celebrated annually as Founder’s Day.

    April 3, 1882 — The first induction ceremony is held. Father McGivney writes to Connecticut priests about the new Order, which takes “Unity and Charity” as its motto, and its objectives: to prevent Catholic men from entering secret societies, to unite men of faith and to provide financial assistance to families of deceased members.

    Knights of Columbus leaders attend the 1897 Supreme Convention in New Haven. Among them are four men who would serve as supreme knight — John J. Phelan, James E. Hayes, John J. Cone and Edward L. Hearn. Donnelly Studio/Knights of Columbus Multimedia Archives

    May 15, 1882 — The first Knights of Columbus council is formed; it is named San Salvador Council after the first New World island discovered by Christopher Columbus.

    Sept. 1, 1882 — After months of pastoral visits to James “Chip” Smith — imprisoned for killing a police officer while drunk — Father McGivney prays with the condemned man on the morning of his execution.

    Nov. 5, 1884 — Father McGivney is reassigned to serve as pastor of St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, 20 miles north of New Haven. At a going-away gathering a few days later, he speaks from the heart to his St. Mary’s parishioners: “I have been with you for seven long years, visiting your sick and guiding the steps of your children in the paths in which they should go. Wherever I go, the memory of the people of St. Mary’s and their great kindness to me will always be uppermost in my heart.” Reporting that people wept in the pews, a New Haven newspaper noted, “Never, it seemed, was a congregation so affected by the parting address of a clergyman as the great audience which filled St. Mary’s yesterday. There was never a more energetic or hardworking young priest stationed in New Haven than he.”

    May 1886 — Father McGivney assumes pastoral care of Immaculate Conception Church in Terryville as well, which requires him to travel 4 miles each way by carriage to offer Sunday Mass at both churches.

    Dec. 8, 1888 — His mother, Mary, dies on the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.

    December 1889 — Father McGivney falls ill during the “Russian flu” or “Asian flu” pandemic. Father McGivney eventually develops pneumonia, and despite medical care and rest, he remains sick and weak through the spring and into the summer.

    August 1890 — Confined to bed in the St. Thomas rectory, Father McGivney assures his parishioners of his prayers and sacrifices for their spiritual welfare and receives the last rites.

    August 1890 — Confined to bed in the St. Thomas rectory, Father McGivney assures his parishioners of his prayers and sacrifices for their spiritual welfare and receives the last rites.

    Aug. 14, 1890 — Father McGivney dies in the rectory, two days after his 38th birthday. The cause of his death is recorded as pulmonary tuberculosis.

    Aug. 18, 1890 — Mourners at Father Mc- Givney’s funeral Mass overflow from St. Thomas Church. His body is brought to Waterbury for burial, where it is met by the largest funeral procession the city had ever seen. Among those gathered at the family plot in St. Joseph Cemetery are the bishop of Hartford, priests of Connecticut and many representatives of the Knights of Columbus, which has grown to 6,000 members.



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