John Walshe, Margaret Ransom and Sister Louise Finn stood applauding among the congregation as a banner depicting Father Michael J. McGivney was unveiled. Moments earlier, the title “Blessed” had been officially bestowed upon the Knights of Columbus founder during the Mass of Beatification at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford, Conn., Oct. 31. But for these descendants of the McGivney family — all great-grandchildren of Father McGivney’s sister Rose — he was, and would always remain, “Uncle Mike.”
Moreover, the long-awaited day only confirmed what they already knew from family stories and his impact on their spiritual lives: Father McGivney was an ordinary person who did extraordinary things for love of God and neighbor.
“He represents what Pope Francis calls for constantly and consistently,” said Sister Louise, a member of the Congregation of Notre Dame. “The love of the Father drove Father Mike to ignore no one, to exclude no one. He lived a Catholic way of life that modeled God’s love for sinner and saint, for all of us.”
John Walshe has been steeped in Father McGivney’s legacy since he was a child. In 1957, he had a starring role at the Order’s 75th anniversary celebrations. A new monument to the Knights of Columbus founder was dedicated in Waterbury, Conn., and 12-year-old John unveiled the statue to the crowd of 10,000.
As a teenager, Walshe was taught how to drive by Msgr. Leo Finn, his granduncle. Msgr. Finn — Rose’s son and Father McGivney’s nephew — succeeded Father McGivney’s brothers as supreme chaplain from 1939 to 1960. The driving lessons became family history lessons as well.
“He wouldn’t let me play Elvis Presley or the Everly Brothers on the radio, so he told me family stories and Knights of Columbus stories,” Walshe said.
For example, Walshe learned that Father McGivney wanted to learn French, but had trouble doing so during his two years at Sainte-Hyacinthe Seminary in Québec. “The story is, he came back not knowing French because the kids up there wouldn’t speak French to him,” Walshe said. “They wanted to learn English from the American.”
Decades before Father McGivney’s cause for canonization opened in 1997, Walshe and Sister Louise heard family testimonies about the virtues of their hardworking, deeply spiritual great-granduncle. They also heard lighthearted stories about how Father McGivney’s family teased him when the opportunity arose.
One anecdote that entered family lore — though Sister Louise claims it is only “partially true” — took place soon after Rose’s wedding.
Father McGivney celebrated the nuptial Mass at St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, Conn., where he then served as pastor. While Rose and her husband, Edward J. Finn, were en route to their honeymoon, they spotted Father McGivney on the same train. The priest was probably heading to New York City to rent supplies for his parish’s theatrical shows.
“But the family joke was that he so loved his sister, he went on her honeymoon with her and his newly acquired brother-in-law,” Walshe said with a chuckle. “Forty years later, the grandnieces were still telling the story.”
Like Walshe and Sister Louise, Margaret Ransom grew up hearing tales about her great-granduncle, including his founding of the Knights of Columbus and ministry to Chip Smith. She also felt connected to him because she lived in Waterbury — the town where he was born, went to school and got his first job — until she was 12 years old.
For all three relatives, the family stories acquired more significance as they got older and began to appreciate Father McGivney’s role in shaping the Catholic Church in America.
“I knew about the relationship and his importance to the Knights of Columbus, but I didn’t really understand his importance until I was an adult,” Ransom said.
Her personal relationship with Father McGivney developed through the years, largely inspired by the example of the Knights of Columbus. She has attended the Supreme Convention for nearly 20 years with her husband, Bob, a longtime Knight and Supreme Council employee.
“I began to understand his impact through their devotion to him,” she said. That devotion, and Father McGivney’s modesty, has influenced her own spiritual life, and even her approach to raising her and Bob’s two sons.
“Through the years, I found myself thinking more about his life and example and even found myself asking, ‘What would Father McGivney do?’” she said.
When Sister Louise entered religious life in 1947, her vocation was not inspired, at least consciously, by Father McGivney. But his impact on her spiritual life has grown over time.
“The more I learned about Uncle Mike, the more I realized that I would like to live my religious vocation as he lived his calling,” she said.
Sister Louise said she admires Father McGivney’s business acumen in establishing a fraternal benefit society from scratch — but much more, she admires the bold faith and concern for others that motivated him.
“His deep spirituality gave him an ability to see the needs of those around him,” she affirmed, “and his love for God’s people gave him the ability to respond to these needs as best he could, not worrying about whether he would succeed, but simply remaining faithful.”
In the years since his car rides with Msgr. Finn, Walshe has also grown closer to Father McGivney.
He joined Park City Council 16 in Bridgeport, Conn., in 1965. He later became a Fourth Degree Knight, and believes his Fourth Degree lapel pin, given to him by Msgr. Finn, might have belonged to one of Father McGivney’s brothers. Today, Walshe prays often for his great-granduncle’s intercession and finds inspiration in his selfless service.
“The beauty of Father Mike is that he could have gone to work in his uncle’s rubber factory or any number of things. But he didn’t. Instead, he went into the seminary,” he said. “He became a priest because he wanted to help the people he was serving. And that’s why he started the Knights of Columbus.”
When it was announced that Father McGivney would be beatified, his relatives were elated but not surprised.
“He’s probably the best sort of person to be made a saint — one who’s too humble to even want to be recognized as one,” said Ransom.
Still, the experience of seeing him raised to the honor of the altars as a witness for the whole Church had a profound impact. Ransom admitted that she wasn’t sure it could live up to her heightened expectations, but her worry was unfounded.
“The Mass was beautiful and so moving,” she said. “I remember thinking at the time that this would be something I’d remember for the rest of my life.”
ANDREW FOWLER is a content producer for the Knights of Columbus Communications Department.
Our founder’s holy witness is a call to his fellow first-generation Americans
By Luis F. Guevara
THIS PAST FALL, I was honored to participate in the internationally broadcast beatification Mass of Father Michael Joseph McGivney by reading one of the prayers of the faithful in Spanish. The beatification was an occasion of great joy for me as a Knight of Columbus, a spiritual son of this holy priest, and also as an immigrant to the United States.
Father McGivney, the son of Irish immigrants, grew up in a society that was more hostile to the Catholic faith and more prejudiced toward immigrants than today. His parents, Patrick and Mary, surely experienced both religious discrimination and xenophobia. And, like many immigrant parents, they may have had aspirations for their children to become doctors, lawyers or businessmen. These professions, beyond opening greater opportunities, signify assimilation in a society that will no longer discriminate against them.
In this light, Michael McGivney’s fiat to his priestly vocation is particularly inspiring. He — and later, two of his brothers — bravely said “yes” to the call of God to labor in the most essential profession, for the salvation of souls. His response is also a compelling invitation to today’s first-generation Americans to respond as he did. What can have a greater global impact than building the Body of Christ, feeding humanity’s deepest hunger and providing spiritual healing through the sacraments?
As a Hispanic immigrant and parent, I realize the great need that exists today in our community for priests who aspire to holiness. For this reason, I have entrusted to Holy Mary of Guadalupe my infant son, Joseph Michael, so that she may teach him to say “fiat” if God wills to call him to the priesthood. I also turn to Blessed Michael McGivney, who knows well the struggles and needs of immigrant families, to grant holy priestly vocations among us Hispanics, to work in the abundant vineyard of our Lord.
The exemplary life of this son of immigrants, and his vision for the Order he founded, are a great witness for the whole Church — and especially for Hispanic immigrants, whom I invite to join the work of the Knights of Columbus, helping us build a civilization of love.
Padre Miguel McGivney, pray for us!
LUIS F. GUEVARA is the Knights of Columbus director for Latin America and a member of Santa María de Guadalupe Council 15891 at the basilica in Mexico City.
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