Founding Father

Founding Father

Michael McGivney spent only seven years of his short life in New Haven, but he left an indelible stamp on it—and, indeed, the world. The parish priest served St. Mary Church on Hillhouse Avenue from 1878 to 1885, where he “labored for all he served: his parishioners and students, widows, orphans, men, prisoners, the addicted, the unemployed, those with cancer, those estranged from their families, young adults, those far from God or far from the practice of the faith,” according to a display on a walkway outside the church today.

But Father McGivney is perhaps best remembered as the founder of the fraternal organization Knights of Columbus, which began with a dozen men in the church’s basement and today numbers nearly 2 million members in more than a dozen countries. This year, McGivney was beatified by Pope Francis, the first American parish priest to be so honored. In response, the Knights of Columbus Museum on lower State Street has been renamed the Blessed Michael McGivney Pilgrimage Center.

sponsored by

The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

McGivney was born in Waterbury in 1852, the first of 13 children of Patrick and Mary McGivney. From the age of 12, McGivney told his parents he wanted to become a priest, but his father, a skilled iron molder, disapproved, and upon leaving school at 13, Michael went to work at a spoon factory. It took him three more years to convince his father of his calling. Finally, in 1868, at the age of 16, McGivney traveled to Quebec to begin his seminary education. Ultimately, he attended four different schools en route to the priesthood. His dream of serving the church was nearly ended when his father died in June of 1873, but the Hartford Diocese stepped in to support him financially through the last four years of his education. Following ordination, he was named curate of St. Mary’s.

In their biography Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism (2006), authors Douglas Brinkley and Julie M. Fenster describe the priest as tall, shy, energetic and earnest and a “naturally talented” baseball player with a “soft, pleasant voice” that turned stern “when necessary.” One thing that prompted sternness in the young priest was other young men who preferred forming their own “secret societies” to attending church. McGivney attempted, with some success, to beef up a pious social alternative for them, St. Joseph’s Young Men’s Total Abstinence and Literary Society. (The “abstinence” referred to alcohol.) Under McGivney, the TAL took on “anything regarded as a wholesome pursuit, from ball games to billiards,” Brinkley and Fenster write, including several wildly popular theatrical productions that—scandalously, as some saw it—featured women playing the female roles.

Those amusements only went so far. In the fall of 1881, McGivney decided it was time to launch a fraternal organization himself. “In a less liberal diocese, he would not have dared make any such suggestion,” Brinkley and Fenster write. McGivney’s idea was to create not another secret society, but rather “a combination of insurance endeavor, charity and a faith-based fraternal organization,” the St. Mary’s display says. The group was named for Christopher Columbus—at that time, the most American hero the beleaguered Irish immigrants could evoke to “show their fidelity to America.”

Prejudice against Catholics was commonplace in New Haven and elsewhere. Philadelphia had seen anti-Catholic riots in 1844, and the Native American Party, a.k.a. The American Party, a.k.a. the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s had set out to “promote nativism and to fight immigration, particularly that of Roman Catholics,” Brinkley and Fenster write. A New York Times article published in 1879, during McGivney’s tenure, was headlined “An Unprofitable Church: How an Aristocratic Avenue was Blemished by a Roman Church Edifice” and went on to describe St. Mary’s as “an eye-sore on the avenue, a source of annoyance and injury to neighboring residents, and a complete failure as a business enterprise.” A photograph from that era shows a dignified Gothic building made of stone that dominated its position on Hillhouse Avenue near the corner of Grove Street.

In 1885, seven years after arriving at St. Mary’s, McGivney was transferred as a matter of course to another parish, this one in Thomaston, Connecticut. By 1889, at the age of 37, his health was failing—a common hazard of the priesthood. Due to overwork and frequent exposure to disease, Catholic priests at that time had “little chance of reaching fifty years of age and almost no hope of reaching seventy,” Brinkley and Fenster report.

McGivney died of tuberculosis on August 14, 1890. At the time, a “Russian flu” pandemic was raging, so “nearly all of his belongings were burned,” the St. Mary’s display says. Having weathered a slow start, the Knights of Columbus, by the time of its founder’s death, had a membership of 6,000; that year 66 families received death benefits from the organization, many of them a result of the pandemic.

Archbishop Daniel A. Cronin of the Hartford Diocese initiated the process of canonizing the beloved priest in 1997, and a 700-page document was compiled—“both a biography of him and also a reflection on the time in which he lived,” explains Peter Sonski of the Blessed Michael McGivney Pilgrimage Center. Following review by a committee at the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI recognized McGivney as venerable. “That begins a formal process inviting people to pray through this person,” Sonski explains. In order for beatification to occur, a miracle had to be attributed to McGivney. That miracle was found in the Schachle family of Tennessee, who prayed to the priest to save the life of their unborn son, diagnosed with a fatal condition. With no medical explanation, the child—now five years old—survived. A second documented miracle would be required for sainthood.

The first Catholic church in New Haven, St. Mary’s “still is to this day kind of the mother church of Catholicism in New Haven,” says Father John Paul Walker, the current pastor. It’s also evolved with the times. “In Father McGivney’s day, the congregation would have been almost exclusively Irish immigrants,” Walker says. “Now it’s, of course, a far more diverse group.”

Anyone is welcome to step into the quiet, warm sanctuary to light a candle, to pray or simply to sit in silence. In one rear corner, visitors will find a polished granite sarcophagus, covered for the season with a cross of evergreen boughs. It’s the final resting place of the Blessed Michael McGivney, who may someday become New Haven’s own saint.

St. Mary Church
5 Hillhouse Ave, New Haven (map)
Open daily 7am-7pm (masses, both virtual and in person: Mon-Sat noon, Sun 10am & noon)

Blessed Michael McGivney Pilgrimage Center
1 State St, New Haven (map)
Temporarily closed to the public

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1, featuring Michael McGivney, photographed by John Tierney and provided courtesy of the Blessed Michael McGivney Pilgrimage Center. Image 2, featuring the main entrance to the McGivney Center, and image 4, featuring the nave of St. Mary Church, photographed by Dan Mims. Image 3, featuring a statue of McGivney outside St. Mary Church, photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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