A tree canopy shades the old horse-and-buggy path to St. Thomas Cemetery in Thomaston, Conn. Etched into the steep hillside, a set of steps offers a shortcut — once the only pedestrian path to the cemetery, with a rather famous pedestrian.
While Blessed Michael McGivney is best known for his ministry in New Haven, where he founded the Knights of Columbus, he spent his last six years — half of his priestly life — in Thomaston, including service to the mission church in nearby Terryville.
“Father McGivney, or anyone who walked to the cemetery, would have come this way,” said Father Jim Sullivan, a longtime parishioner in Thomaston and now rector of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in McGivney’s hometown, Waterbury. “He would have walked these steps regularly.”
On a hot Saturday morning in June, Father Sullivan and members of Sheridan Council 24 in Waterbury, which he serves as chaplain, joined Knights from Thomaston and Terryville for a work day at the cemetery. Together, they cleared the footpath and power-washed the grime of time from the headstones of priests who, like Blessed Michael McGivney, served and died in Thomaston.
The cemetery steps are not only a tangible link to Father McGivney’s days there — they also evoke the theme of ascent and the path toward sanctity that he walked with so many people. Preserving the footpath is just one of many ways that councils in the towns where he lived and ministered honor his legacy. As he did in life, Father McGivney continues to inspire the Knights of Thomaston, Terryville and Waterbury to acts of faith and charity.
“Father McGivney gives us a great example of how to live a holy life — to live a life that is not only serving God, but serving our fellow man,” said Paul Folino, grand knight of Leo XIII Council 1090 in Terryville. “We feel really blessed and honored that we can look back and say that he was our pastor.”
One wonders what the several hundred parishioners of St. Thomas Church expected when Father Mc- Givney rolled into town in November 1884.
A description by his close friend, Father James O’Donnell, gives us a picture of the holy priest who arrived in Thomaston to start his assignment as pastor.
“Genial, approachable, of kindly disposition, cheerful under reverses, profoundly sympathetic with those upon whom had fallen the heavy hand of affliction,” Father O’Donnell would later say of Father McGivney. “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 Thomaston, Father McGivney would shoulder many challenges that today’s pastors might recognize: parish debt, a chronic priest shortage, far-flung parishioners. Although Father McGivney was aided periodically by a revolving door of assistant priests, the bulk of responsibility fell to him.
The parish undoubtedly grew more stable under his leadership. He ran down the debt, putting the parish on a financially sustainable path. He put the latest technology to work for the church, installing electric lights and a telephone.
But practicalities were not ends in themselves. For Father McGivney, the spiritual well-being of his parishioners was paramount.
‘We feel really blessed and honored that we can look back and say that he was our pastor.’
“Father McGivney had unbounded faith in the saving graces dispensed by Holy Church,” O’Donnell said. “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.”
Father McGivney bolstered the parish’s devotional groups for adults and children. Within a few months, he drew enough interest to form a Knights of Columbus council — Atlantic Council 18, which is active to this day. He also wove parish and social life together, drawing young people together for theatrical events at Thomaston’s grand Opera House.
Father McGivney remained connected to other priests and parishes as well. He led or assisted with 40 Hours Eucharistic adoration devotions, took part in Tenebrae services with local clergy in Waterbury, and lent his resonant voice to the liturgy consecrating Sacred Heart Church, also in his hometown.
Two years into his assignment as pastor, he was entrusted with a second church, the recently built Immaculate Conception a few miles away in Terryville. That made for busy Sunday mornings — three Masses, with two carriage rides in between.
As the diocese grew, so too did the Knights of Columbus, to Father McGivney’s great joy. The Knights’ lay leadership was largely self-directed and independent, as McGivney intended. He remained a key agent, however, especially when really needed — communicating with the bishop in Rhode Island, for example, and traveling there in January 1889 to help expand the Order beyond Connecticut. He also penned a passionate defense of the Knights, explaining the Order’s mission and fidelity to the Church.
But as the Knights of Columbus grew in strength, Father McGivney weakened. Exhausted from work, he took ill in December 1889, perhaps from the so-called Russian flu then spreading around the world. He never recovered. When he died at age 38 on Aug. 14, 1890, thousands attended his funeral at St. Thomas Church. It was noted that not a carriage could be rented for miles around.
In Thomaston and Terryville, Blessed Michael McGivney’s ministry does not feel like the remote past.
“We still have people whose grandparents or great-grandparents were part of the parish that knew Father McGivney,” said Father Joseph Crowley, his successor as pastor of St. Thomas and Immaculate Conception, now joined as St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish.
Father Crowley, who is also chaplain of Council 18 and Council 1090, speaks of Father McGivney to his Knights and parishioners often. He believes that having such a close and human example of holiness — a pastor who lived, walked and worked here — has helped the parish grow spiritually.
“It’s an amazing, amazing gift that God gave us through his life,” he said.
A few years ago, Father Crowley commissioned a painting of Father McGivney for the altarpiece of Immaculate Conception Church. And he is working to create a suitable place in St. Thomas Church for visitors to venerate the relic of Father McGivney given to the parish after his beatification.
Father McGivney also returned recently to the Thomaston Opera House stage — theatrically, that is. In 2018, as part of a special McGivney Day celebration, the Thomaston and Terryville councils worked with a parishioner to bring to the stage “He Was Our Father,” a 2005 play about Father McGivney’s life by Dominican Father Peter John Cameron. The staged reading had an impact that lingered after the curtains closed.
“I think that was the beginning of deeper activities within our council,” recalled Emile Drillon, past grand knight of Council 18 in Thomaston; the play helped inspire the council to take on more spiritual activities.
In nearby Waterbury, as well, Father Sullivan and the Knights are getting things done to celebrate the town’s native son.
For starters, the church hall at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is being transformed into the Blessed Michael McGivney Parish Center. A life-size statue is also planned for the basilica — with a Waterbury twist. In honor of the city’s history as a center of the brass industry, the statue will be made from brass donated for the cause. Among the first donations are six military buttons from a local monsignor. The statue’s base will be quarried from a hilltop, home of Holy Land U.S.A., which overlooks the Brass City.
McGivney’s legacy in Waterbury and Thomaston, however, goes beyond artwork and memorials. His charitable spirit is alive and well.
“We have a very small parish, but it’s very generous,” Folino said. “They see the work that the Knights do and they’re more than willing to support our efforts.” The council’s work includes support for parish widows and fundraising for a local pregnancy center.
As the latest pandemic ramped up in 2020, Council 24 in Waterbury responded promptly to the needs caused by COVID-19. Even before the Order’s Leave No Neighbor Behind initiative officially launched in March 2020, Knights went to work, delivering groceries and medicine to vulnerable neighbors, collecting food donations, and more.
Another thing hasn’t changed: From heaven, Father McGivney still seems to be drawing men to the Knights.
“I think the beatification of Father Michael McGivney really highlighted the Order and everything we do,” Folino said. “I can tell you that it was a component that helped us bring in many new members through the course of the pandemic.”
And the future? “I think Father McGivney is a priest for the 1800s. He’s also a priest very much for today,” Father Sullivan affirmed. “Because the human heart is still the same. We still have a desire for love and to know God who created us. Here’s a man who showed us the way.”
MAUREEN WALTHER is co-author of The Knights of Columbus: An Illustrated History (2020) and writes from Guilford, Conn.
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