(WTNH) — A Connecticut priest will receive one of the catholic church’s highest honors. Father Michael McGivney, the founder of the Knights of Columbus, is scheduled for beatification on Saturday.
He was a simple parish priest who died 130 years ago. Now, he will be one step away from sainthood, and that has a lot to do with what he did in a New Haven church.
His family fled the Irish potato famine to come work in Waterbury’s brass mills. Michael McGivney grew up during the Civil War. He was a bright student who went off to a seminary. Then came the event that changed his life.
“His father dies,” explained Knights of Columbus CEO and Supreme Knight Carl Anderson. “He is one of 13 children. He has to leave seminary to support his family.”
Fortunately, McGivney was able to return to his studies and become a priest in 1877. He was assigned to Saint Mary’s, a newly-built church that stood in sharp contrast to the wealthy neighborhood around Yale.
“Catholic, very poor, mostly immigrant Irish population,” explained Father John Paul Walker, the current pastor of St. Mary’s. “An article in the New York Times said it’s bringing ‘a bunch of servant girls’ into our neighborhood.”
Among that poor population, McGivney saw a familiar problem: families in which the father and breadwinner suddenly died. The surviving widow had to prove to authorities she could support the family.
“If she could not provide that proof, then her children would be taken from her and put in some sort of a state-run orphanage,” said Fr. Walker.
McGivney saw the church could not do enough to help, so he gathered a group of men in the church’s basement and said something extraordinary.
“‘You, as the men of this parish, need to gather together and pledge yourselves to each other, that should this happen to any one of you, the rest will band together, support the widow,'” Walker said.
That was 1882, and it was the beginning of The Knights of Columbus. While the Knights fought to help poor families, in 1889 came another threat – a global pandemic that killed a million people worldwide.
“There was nothing to protect people from illness or death,” said Hartford Archbishop Leonard Blair.
There was nothing to protect priests, either. McGivney tended to his flock but died of pneumonia in 1890. He was just 38-years-old.
“They say his funeral in Waterbury at the time was one of the largest that had ever taken place there,” said Archbishop Blair.
Thirty-eight was the average lifespan for a parish priest at that time, exactly because they spent so much time with the poor and the sick, just as McGivney had.
“He makes a decision – ‘I’m going to help my community. I’m going to serve my people,'” Anderson explained. “‘I’m going to make a contribution to society,’ and [he] sacrificed a lot to do it.”
As great a sacrifice as that was, it is what happened in the basement of St. Mary’s that is the lasting legacy of Father McGivney.