FR. MICHAEL McGIVNEY
Since starting the K of C in New Haven, Connecticut, Blessed Michael McGivney’s
legacy has spread across the world, touching millions of lives.
Michael Joseph McGivney was born in Waterbury, Conn., on August 12, 1852, the first child of Patrick and Mary (Lynch) McGivney. His parents came to the United States in the great 19th-century wave of Irish immigration and were married in Waterbury. Patrick was a molder in the heat and noxious fumes of a brass mill. Mary gave birth to 13 children, six of whom died young, leaving Michael with four living sisters and two brothers.
Life was not easy, especially for Catholic immigrant families who often faced prejudice, social exclusion, and financial and social
exclusion, and financial and social disadvantages. Young Michael thus experienced from an early age grief, anti-Catholic bigotry and poverty. But his faith sustained him. At home and in church, he learned and embraced love, faith, fortitude, prayer and putting love of God above any earthly rewards.
Michael attended the public schools of Waterbury’s working-class neighborhoods. A good student, he was noted for “Excellent deportment and proficiency in his studies.”
At age 13, shortly after the Civil War, he graduated three years early and began work in the spoon-making department of a brass factory to provide a few more dollars for his family.
Seminarian and Priest
In 1868, 16-year-old Michael left home to pursue God’s call to the priesthood. His formation as a seminarian was rich and diverse, spanning two countries, four seminaries and instruction by three religious orders — the charity-oriented Vincentians, the academically rigorous Jesuits, and the experienced formers of diocesan clergy, the Sulpicians.
Throughout his formation, his personal virtues, concern for others and use of God-given intellectual talents shone forth. At the College of St. Hyacinthe in Quebec, Canada, he received an award for his studious dedication. He also stood out academically at Our Lady of Angels Seminary in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and St. Mary’s Seminary in Montreal.
Father McGivney was assigned as curate (assistant) of St. Mary's Church, the first Catholic parish in the busy port city of New Haven. There he faced challenges related to a priest shortage, parish debt, illnesses, and hostility toward Catholics. The church became a lightning rod for anti-Catholic derision, expressed in a New York Times headline, “How an Aristocratic Avenue Was Blemished by a Roman Church Edifice.”
Against this backdrop, Father McGivney navigated relationships with non-Catholics gracefully, while striving to prevent the culture’s hostility from eroding the faith of his people. Sought out for his wise counsel, and instrumental in a number of conversions to Catholicism, Father McGivney had a gift for touching hearts and leading souls to God.
Decades ahead of his time, Father McGivney had a keen sense of the layman’s unique vocation, needs and potential contributions, and he drew his people into the life and activities of the parish. This respect for the laity led Father McGivney to found the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal organization for Catholic men, in 1882.
The young priest designed a way to strengthen the Catholic faith of men and their families while providing financial protection when they suffered the death of the breadwinner. He well knew that keeping families together assisted both temporal and spiritual needs. At the time, without means of financial support, families were often split up, threatening both the integrity of the family and — depending on the destination of the various family members — their faith as well. His new fraternity was designed to provide Catholic men with an alternative to anti-Catholic secret societies that offered social and employment advancement but drew them away from the faith.
Father McGivney proposed that the new group be named for Christopher Columbus. Universally esteemed at the time as the heroic discoverer of the New World, Columbus would highlight the deep roots of Catholics in America — and the long history of Catholic evangelization in this hemisphere.