"Father Mike" was known for his holiness and his sense of humor.
As a celibate priest of the Latin Catholic Church, Fr. Michael J. McGivney would have had no direct descendants of his own. But he seems to have passed down certain traits to members of his extended family, some of whom continue to tell stories to one another about the life and times of the founder of the Knights of Columbus.
Many of those relatives — great-nephews and great-nieces and their own children — will be on hand this Saturday at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hartford, Connecticut, as Fr. McGivney is beatified.
Like McGivney himself, who was the first Supreme Chaplain of the new organization, his two younger brothers, Patrick and John, who followed him into the priesthood, would serve the Order as supreme chaplains. So would his nephew, Fr. Leo Finn.
Fr. McGivney was a serious, holy, and devoted priest, whose first concern was the salvation of souls. But that did not make him stiff or aloof. In fact, according to the Fr. Michael J. McGivney Guild, which promotes the cause of his canonization, “he was remembered for his sense of humor.”
It’s a trait that certainly comes through in Fr. McGivney’s great-grandnephew, John Walshe, a Connecticut attorney. He grew up in Westbrook, Connecticut, surrounded by cousins and uncles who were priests, including Fr. Leo Finn.
“Fr. Leo would tell me stories all the time, about … the McGivneys and the Knights of Columbus,” Walshe, 76, said in a recent interview. “One of the stories that came down was that Fr. Mike was so close to his sister Rose that when Rose got married, and Fr. Mike was a priest in Thomaston [Connecticut], he went on their honeymoon with them, which was not true. What happened was that he was on the same train, going to New York to get costumes for the church’s theater group. But here they are, the newlyweds sitting on the train, and here comes her brother walking down the aisle of the train.
“This shows you how close they were in the family that there was this teasing that went on,” Walshe attested.
Marianna Phillips, the granddaughter of one of Fr. McGivney’s sisters, Margaret McGivney Dwyer, also grew up in Waterbury. Since her father died young, her aunt — one of Fr. McGivney’s nieces — played a big role in her growing up. Although this aunt, Marguerite Dwyer, was born only after Fr. McGivney died at age 38, she often spoke about him in glowing terms.
“It was the big claim to fame of our family, or the joy of our family, that we had such an illustrious ancestor,” Phillips said in an interview. “It was talked about all the time, and it was just part of the fabric of my family.”
When Philips and her husband, Jack, were first married in 1971, her husband was a Lutheran (he would become Catholic in 1987). “We were in Waterbury with my mother, who was a widow, and my aunt, who had never married, and she was going on at great length about Fr. McGivney,” she recalled. “My husband — as often happens when you marry into a family, they talk about people, and you don’t necessarily get who’s who and how they fit — at one point said to my aunt, ‘Well, just who are these McGivneys anyway?’ Well, my aunt was so shocked he would say something like that. … She was incensed, because the McGivneys were these Catholic stars of Waterbury, that’s for sure.”
Walshe has a slightly different take. Although much of the family conversation was about the founding of the Knights of Columbus, it was taken as a matter of course. “This was not an arrogant family,” Walshe said. “They told it like it was. Some families might be puffed up about having this sainted priest in the family. There was no pomposity. … There was none of this ‘Do you know who my family is?’”
Even public honors were a cause for some humorous banter. When a monument to Fr. McGivney was to be dedicated in Waterbury, Connecticut, in the 1950s, Walshe, who was in 8th grade, was called upon to do the unveiling.
“I was a year young for the grade, so I was 12,” he recalled, during an interview earlier this month. “It was on the local radio. I didn’t hear it, but my friends repeated and repeated it. It would drive me crazy, because the commentator said ‘Here’s young Johnny Walshe to unveil the monument. Oh, he’s a nice looking boy, a good looking kid, but 10 years old.’ Well I wasn’t. I was 12. When you’re 12, you don’t want anyone calling you 10, particularly if you’re a boy, right? My friends would needle me on it for weeks and months after that.”
After the unveiling, a woman approached the dais and put forward a pad and a pen for an autograph. “Fr. Leo goes to get it,” said Walshe, who sat next to the priest on the dais. “And she said, ‘No, I wanted the little boy’s autograph.'”
Fr. Finn’s siblings kidded him for weeks after that, Walshe recounted: “Oh no, I want the little boy’s autograph. I don’t want yours!”
The McGivney Guild also noted the Knights founder’s “enthusiasm for the relatively new game of baseball.” Again, that was not lost in succeeding generations. In May of 1960, Walshe had to stay in Fr. Finn’s rectory because his mother had to care for his grandmother. Fr. Finn taught the 16-year-old how to drive, and as they drove through the back roads of Connecticut, the priest told his nephew a number of stories, and then took him to meet his cousin, Msgr. William Fox.
“He was probably 90 years old when I met him,” Walshe said. But he was “the coolest guy I ever met in my whole life at that point. Why? Because he’d played baseball for Holy Cross, and one of his teammates was Louis Sockalexis, who was an Indian. And the rumor was that later on — because he played baseball for the pros, including the Cleveland Indians — that they were called the Cleveland Indians because of Sockalexis. There’s a debate about it. But here’s a guy who played with this famous Indian.”
Now that their beloved ancestor is being beatified, “the whole family is doing somersaults about what’s going on,” Walshe said. He expressed satisfaction about the miracle that is attributed to Fr. McGivney’s intercession — the healing of an unborn child of a fatal condition. “Hearing about this miracle that happened to this little kid who was in his mother’s womb, and praying to Fr. Mike, and getting cured of fetal hydrops, it’s awe-inspiring,” Walshe commented.
“This is just phenomenal,” said Philips, 74. “I am so thrilled. And I’m so thrilled to be alive for this, and I hope it won’t be too long before he’s declared a saint. …It was just such an incredible heritage, to think that an Irish Catholic priest, the son of Irish immigrants, would start such a phenomenal organization that grew and grew and has had such an impact on the world. I’m very proud to be a part of it.”
Walshe has his own story about an inexplicable “favor” he received from Fr. McGivney — or Fr. Mike, as he refers to him. He was recently in hospital with a serious condition, and his wife, Kathleen, invited a priest to come and pray for him.
“I opened my eyes,” he said, “and standing in back of [the priest] was Fr. Mike.”
This too might one day become part of the family lore.
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