It was one day after the 1884 presidential election. As he was awaiting the results, Father Michael J. McGivney received a letter from the chancery of Hartford. He had been reassigned from St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn., his first assignment and home for seven years after his ordination in 1877. He was appointed pastor of St. Thomas parish in Thomaston, Conn.
He had worked tirelessly for St. Mary’s parishioners and those in the community, such as “Chip” Smith, a young man on death row who returned to the faith and the sacraments under the young priest’s guidance. He organized baseball games, fairs, and plays. He founded groups such as the St. Joseph’s Total Abstinence and Literary Society and, his crowning achievement, the Knights of Columbus.
That life was now being uprooted to head thirty miles north to Thomaston, ten miles from his beloved hometown of Waterbury.
When St. Mary’s parishioners heard the news, they “wept aloud and others sobbed audibly,” according to the New Haven Evening Register. In his final sermon, Father McGivney said:
I have been with you for seven long years, visiting your sick and guiding the steps of your children in the path in which they should go. At times I have been harsh to some of you, but it was only when I thought it for your good. If by any action of mine I have given scandal or offense to the least among you, then I pray you to forgive me. 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. Once again my friends, good bye.
The pace of remote Thomaston would be far different from the bustling port city of New Haven, but Father McGivney’s energy and work ethic, and effort to grow the Knights of Columbus, didn’t diminish.
Eight days after receiving that letter, Father McGivney began his pastorate at St. Thomas. His friend Father Eugene Gaffney, was its first pastor; however, he passed away the previous summer. The parish had been without a pastor since then.
Named after the clockmaker Seth Thomas, Father McGivney’s new home was a working-class town along the Naugatuck River, with factories yet a rural touch. An adjacent town, Terryville, had a productive locksmith industry, home to the Eagle Lock Company. But, unlike New Haven, the towns’ populations were not as poor, despite the familiar immigrant and factory working community.
Father McGivney not only offered Sunday Mass at 8 a.m. in St. Thomas Church, but also made a four-mile carriage ride to celebrate the 11 a.m. Mass at Immaculate Conception Church in Terryville, then made the return trip to Thomaston to celebrate yet another Mass.
He quickly developed friendships with local families and prominent business owners, including the Mack family, who owned the roller-skating rink. He continued directing theater productions — like Handy Andy — at the Thomaston Opera House. He resuscitated the parish’s Holy Name Society and Sunday school, organized church fairs, acted as third-base coach for the baseball team, and served as chaplain for Atlantic Council 18, which he founded. One parishioner stated, “He has been the best friend to the youth since he came here.”
Father McGivney also made time to visit his family in Waterbury. During these visits, his two younger brothers, John and Patrick, “pleased him to no end by expressing sincere interest in following him into the priesthood,” according to Father McGivney’s biography, Parish Priest. Both would later join the priesthood and serve as supreme chaplain for the Knights of Columbus.
Father McGivney kept his parish financially stable. By 1887, the Thomaston parish had no debt. Ever the innovator, Father McGivney had electricity and a telephone installed in the rectory. He also had a dog.
He also never forgot about the Knights during his time in Thomaston. Not only did he establish Atlantic Council 18, but he helped expand it outside of Connecticut into Providence, R.I., in 1889.
However, by 1890, the exhausted pastor was vulnerable to disease and was struck by the Russian flu— a pandemic which is now considered a coronavirus. He made trips to New Haven, New York and Virginia for treatment, but it was not meant to be. Father McGivney died on Aug. 14, 1890.
The faithful in Thomaston came out in full force at Father McGivney’s funeral, as parishioners filled the entire church and spilled out onto the spacious lawn.
At the time of his death, Knights of Columbus membership numbered above 6,000. Today, the Order now has more than 2 million members devoted to his vision and mission, with councils around the world — including in Canada, Mexico, the Philippines, France, Poland, Ukraine and South Korea.
The old St. Thomas Church where Father McGivney presided no longer stands. Following a flood, it was demolished in the 1950s. However, the new St. Thomas Church has an adjoining street named in honor of its former pastor — Father McGivney Way.
Still, there are other aspects of Thomaston that haven’t changed since Father McGivney walked its streets. The railroad station at which he arrived in the town still stands. The opera house stage where he directed productions is still intact; the steps he walked to St. Thomas Cemetery are still there, albeit away from the cemetery’s new entryway; the K of C charter signed when he helped establish Atlantic Council 18 still hangs in the basement of St. Thomas Church.
Now that Blessed Michael McGivney has been beatified, the townsfolk, and especially the Knights, of Thomaston are proud to walk along the same streets as a blessed as they seek to continue his legacy.
“I take that legacy seriously,” said Emile Drillon, grand knight of Atlantic Council 18. “We’re very blessed and special that we are in the parish of Father McGivney and where he died, and that he founded us. Now that he’s beatified, it adds extra value to that.”
Over the years, the council has often honored their founder, including through a production of “He Was Our Father” — a play about Blessed McGivney’s life written by Dominican Father Peter John Cameron. They have also helped maintain the steps Blessed Michael McGivney walked to St. Thomas Cemetery, clearing the brush and overgrowth for preservation.
For the beatification, Drillon said the council wanted the news to be “visible in the community.” therefore, they distributed posters and fliers around Thomaston as well as purchasing banners for St. Thomas Church. The council also encouraged parishioners to participate in St. Mary’s Church’s “McGivney Festival.”
The residents of Thomaston are also preserving his impact on the community. According to Drillon, the Thomaston Opera House’s board of directors recently voted to approve a plaque dedicated to Father McGivney within the building. He is also working with a St. Thomas parishioner to develop a documentary about the K of C founder’s time in Thomaston.
Atlantic Council 18 also plans to have a memorial of Blessed McGivney at St. Thomas Cemetery near “Priests Circle,” where Father Gaffney and other pastors of St. Thomas are buried, although those discussions are just underway.
Blessed Michael McGivney’s liturgical memorial will be observed annually on Aug. 13, the day between his birth (Aug. 12) and death (Aug. 14).
Want to learn more about Blessed Michael McGivney’s legacy and influence on people around the world? Visit FatherMcGivney.org.