Father McGivney: Saint for Our Time

by Father Roger J. Landry

Though many of us may know some very holy priests, no native born American priest has ever been formally declared a saint. Moreover, in the history of the Church, no matter what the country, it’s very rare for a parish priest to be canonized – unless he went on to become a saintly bishop or founded a new religious order.

All that may soon change.

In March, Pope Benedict XVI approved a decree recognizing the heroic virtue of Father Michael McGivney, a parish priest of the Archdiocese of Hartford who died in 1890 at the age of 38.

The decree of heroic virtue is the first of the three major steps on the road to canonization. It is given after an in-depth study of the life and writings of a particular candidate meant to determine whether he or she lived the Christian life heroically. After ten years of study by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Pope Benedict declared that Father McGivney had.

The last two major steps on the road to canonization require God’s direct intervention through working miracles – which only God can do – for those praying to him through Father McGivney’s intercession. One medically-certified miracle, from the time after his death until the present, is needed for his beatification. Another miracle, dating from after the time he is declared blessed, is required for canonization. The Archdiocese of Hartford has already submitted to the Vatican a heavily-substantiated file regarding one such miracle, which, if accepted by Pope Benedict, will lead, hopefully soon, to Father McGivney’s being beatified.

A Simple Parish Priest Who Did His Job

What I’ve always loved most about Father McGivney is that he was an “ordinary” parish priest for 13 years who, without fanfare, devoted all his energies to the spiritual and material care of those entrusted to him by God. As far as we know, he had no great miracles associated with his prayer. He wasn’t a flashy preacher. He was not known for any particular theological brilliance. He simply “did his job” with great love for God and others, regularly opting for the toughest assignments, like visiting death-row inmates.

In fulfilling his duties with humble fidelity, however, he ended up affecting the lives not only of his parishioners, but of men and women of all walks if life right down to our day. 

After his priestly ordination on Christmas Day, 1877, he became the parochial vicar of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, in the shadow of Yale College. It was a difficult assignment, because Irish Catholics in that section of New Haven were about as welcome as termites. Sometimes we can think that the mainstream media today is biased towards the Church, but what we suffer is nothing like what Father McGivney’s generation endured. During his second year there, the New York Times ran a front-page article entitled, “How An Aristocratic Avenue Was Blemished By A Roman Church Edifice.”.

He Protected the Family

Early in his time in New Haven, a tragedy happened to one of the families at St. Mary’s that provided an occasion not only for Father McGivney to show his priestly character, but to establish in God’s providence one of the greatest lay foundations in the history of the Church.

One of his parishioners, Edward Downes, died of “brain fever.” For years, he had struggled to keep his newsstand viable, while cheerfully concealing all financial difficulties from his growing family. Upon his death, his wife Catherine discovered that there was no money at all to support her four sons. The Probate Court could assign the children to public institutions lest they be neglected for want of money. Catherine Downes had to demonstrate that her fatherless children had someone to support their education or apprenticeship and prevent them from becoming vagrants.

The oldest son was able to get a job and Catherine’s relatives were able to scrape together $2,500 for each of the two youngest sons. But no guardian was able to be found willing to pay a $1,500 surety and become Alfred’s guardian. During the probate court hearing to determine his fate, the judge asked if anyone would be willing to become his guardian. Father McGivney stepped forward. Even though he didn’t have the money for the bond, the judge accepted an arrangement with a local grocer who trusted the priest enough to insure the guardianship.

Father McGivney saved Alfred Downes from going to a public institution that day, but the 31-year old priest’s eyes were opened to the danger to which families were exposed should their breadwinner be injured or die. He began to pour his pastoral heart and energy into trying to find a solution.

The Knights of Columbus

He met with the young husbands and fathers of St. Mary’s and began to discuss founding a fraternal benefit society that could strengthen them in their Catholic faith and provide security for their families. He also wanted to do something to counteract the draw of certain anti-Catholic secret societies that were luring men precisely because they provided life insurance.

After studying what other fraternal benefit societies did, Father McGivney and 24 lay parishioners founded the Knights of Columbus in the basement of St. Mary’s. From that humble beginning, the Knights have grown over the past 126 years into the largest society of Catholic men in the world, with 1.75 million members in 13 countries. They continue to provide spiritual support and top-rated affordable life insurance policies to its members and families. But that'snot all. Annually Knights raise and donate more than $144 million to the Church’s worthy causes and dedicate over 68 million volunteer hours.

Six years after Father McGivney was made pastor of St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, he contracted pneumonia and died. His funeral Mass was one of the largest the state of Connecticut had ever seen. God-willing, his beatification Mass in New Haven will be much larger still.

This article originally appeared in The Anchor (March 28, 2008), the publication of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass.