Ven. Michael J. McGivney laid the groundwork for what is now the largest Catholic fraternal service organization in the world.
Born to Irish immigrants in Waterbury, Connecticut, Michael McGivney felt the call to the priesthood early on. At the age of 16 he left home for seminary studies at Séminaire de Saint-Hyacinthe in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec.
McGivney continued his studies at Our Lady of Angels Seminary, near Niagara Falls, New York and then to St. Mary’s College, in Montreal. However, his priestly studies were put on hold when his father died.
He returned home to attend to the needs of his family and provide whatever assistance he could give. Not long after, at the request of the bishop, he went back to seminary, this time at St. Mary’s, in Baltimore. Four years later McGivney was ordained a priest on December 22, 1877.
Father McGivney was then assigned to St. Mary’s church in New Haven, Connecticut. The church welcomed Father McGivney and according to writer Douglas Brinkley, “the youthful parishioners of St. Mary’s looked to a priest who could be one of them, not merely because he loved a good laugh as much as anyone else or a snappy play in baseball even more, but because he knew what it was to be ‘first generation’ or ‘second generation.’ He knew what it was to look for and find a place as both an American and a Roman Catholic. All of his parishioners were trying to do that same thing, along one course or another.”
In 1881 McGivney started to explore ideas he had about a new type of fraternal organization. It would not only bolster the faith of the men at the parish, but also provide financial relief for families struck with the death or sudden illness of the breadwinner. He knew first hand the effect this had on a family, especially an immigrant family struggling to make it in America.
After much consultation he started the “Sons of Columbus” in 1882, named in such a way as to “bind Catholicism and Americanism together through the faith and bold vision of the New World’s discoverer.” The word “Sons” was soon replaced by “Knights” to further invigorate the men who would become members.
Father McGivney put all he had in promoting the new organization and it flourished. In 1884 he received a new parish assignment at St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, Connecticut, but continued his efforts in expanding the Knights of Columbus.
Then in 1890 McGivney was suddenly struck with pneumonia and never recovered, dying at the age of 38. The Knights of Columbus was well established by this point and has grown to be one of the most distinctive parish groups in American Catholicism.
According to their website, “The Knights of Columbus has grown from several members in one council to 15,342 councils and 1.9 million members throughout the United States, Canada, the Philippines, Mexico, Poland, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama, the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, Cuba, Guatemala, Guam, Saipan, Lithuania, Ukraine, and South Korea. Our charitable activities encompass an almost infinite variety of local, national and international projects. From international charitable partnerships with Special Olympics, the Global Wheelchair Mission and Habitat for Humanity to our own Food for Families and Coats for Kids projects and other local charities, the opportunity to work together with fellow Knights and their families is virtually endless. In 2016, the Knights of Columbus set a new all-time record for the 18th consecutive year. Our charitable donations increased from $175 million in 2015 to a new total of $177,500,673 in 2016. In addition, we achieved our highest level of charitable service in 2016, volunteering more than 75 million hours of service.”
Father McGivney’s legacy lives on and many have been inspired by his selfless service and holy life. The cause for his canonization was initiated in 1996 and in 2008 was declared “venerable” by Pope Benedict XVI. A verified miracle is still needed to pave the way for McGivney’s beatification.
Check out our series on the Saints of the United States.