Next Saturday, August 13, is the feast day of Blessed Michael McGivney. Fr. McGivney is well-known for having founded the Knights of Columbus in 1882, which today is a Catholic fraternal organization that has over 2 million members worldwide, providing hundreds of millions of dollars in charitable giving as well as countless man-hours of service from its members. But it all started with McGivney, who was a Connecticut native, born and raised in Waterbury. At 16, he entered seminary formation for the Diocese of Hartford, which encompassed the whole state until 1953. When his father died, however, McGivney had to put his formation for priesthood temporarily on hold. He returned to Waterbury to help his mother and provide support for her and his 6 living siblings. Eventually, he was able to return to seminary and was ordained a priest in 1877, assigned to serve as the Associate Pastor of St. Mary Church in New Haven.
This was a difficult time period for Catholic immigrants in the United States, many of whom were forced to work in dangerous conditions to support their families. Fr. McGivney knew from personal experience how devastating the untimely death of a husband and father could be on the family left behind. With the help of a small group of parishioners from St. Mary’s, he founded the Knights as a mutual aid society, that would provide material support to families that found themselves in such a situation. As a fraternal organization it also provided solidarity and protection to Catholic men, who were often excluded from other fraternal organizations. The support of the Knights helped them to remain faithful in the face of the many socio-economic and cultural pressures of the time. While the Knights are the initiative for which Fr. McGivney is most remembered, he was also well-known in New Haven for being a priest who was completely devoted to his parishioners during the seven years he ministered there. He would eventually become the pastor of St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, CT, serving there for six years before dying from pneumonia in 1890. He was 38 years old.
I have been a member of the Knights for a long time. But I never felt a great devotion to Fr. McGivney until I visited his tomb at St. Mary’s in New Haven a few days after his beatification in 2020. There, I realized two things. First, Fr. McGivney’s beatification is proof positive that a parish priest from Connecticut can actually get to Heaven, thank God. Second, his work with the people at St. Mary’s shows how important and powerful a parish community can be when its members (including clergy) decide to live together in Christian solidarity. Happily, we have a strong and active local KoC council, and I’d recommend it to men in our parish who want to get more involved. I also pray that we might find other ways to grow stronger as a community – worshipping Our Lord together at Mass on Sundays, but also gathering together as friends, both at the parish and at each other’s homes, supporting each other in our shared faith and love for Christ. The life of Blessed Michael McGivney shows how culturally transformative life in a parish can be, and should inspire us to imagine what the Lord might desire for our own parish family.