The First & Future Saint from Connecticut?
There are only ten or so people canonized by the Catholic Church who are considered saints from the United States — yet most were not native to America’s shores.
However, Michael J. McGivney — a former Nutmegger, born and raised in Waterbury — may one day be recognized here on this earthly plane as a saint now dwelling in heaven’s eternal glory. And he may be the first from Connecticut.
During his life, Father McGivney humbly served as a parish priest at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, where he founded the Knights of Columbus (the largest Catholic fraternal organization in the world), and as pastor at St. Thomas in Thomaston until his death on Aug. 14, 1890, at 38 years old.
While most of his personal writings have not survived (just 13 remain), nevertheless, his charism has inspired millions of men for nearly a century and a half — from the U.S. to Poland to the Philippines to South Korea — to actively engage with their local communities in charity through programs like Coats for Kids, Special Olympics and assistance to Ukrainian refugees. Even the pancake breakfasts, fish fries and Tootsie Roll drives that Knights are known for are fundraisers to help those in need.
Father McGivney’s life is the epitome of actions speaking louder than words as expressed by Pope Francis, who decreed that the priest had a “zeal for the proclamation of the Gospel and generous concern for his brothers and sisters” that “made him an outstanding witness of Christian solidarity and fraternal assistance.” The Church celebrates the example of his holy life (or feast day) on August 13.
The story that follows is a brief account of his life and impact on Christendom, Connecticut and the world — along with an explanation of the miracle attributed to Father McGivney and his potential path forward to sainthood.
From Spoon Making to Saving Souls
McGivney was born on Aug. 12, 1852, in Waterbury to Irish immigrants, Patrick (a molder at a brass mill) and Mary. He was the oldest of 13 children, of which six passed away before adulthood. As a young boy, he attended public schools in the city’s working-class neighborhoods, growing up on Railroad Hill Street. According to the Blessed Michael McGivney Pilgrimage Center, McGivney’s life was “not easy, especially for Catholic immigrant families who often faced prejudice, social exclusion, and financial and social disadvantages,” but “his faith sustained him.” At 13, he graduated three years early and then worked in a brass factory making spoons.
Several years later, he felt God’s call to pursue the priesthood, and went on to flourish academically. First at the College of St. Hyacinthe in Quebec, Canada, then at Our Lady of Angels Seminary in Niagara Falls, N.Y., (where he formed a baseball team) and finally at St. Mary’s Seminary in Montreal. However, his vocation was nearly cut short after the tragic death of his father since he had no means to pay for his education. When he returned home, the young man was faced with leaving the seminary and applying for a factory job.
However, upon hearing the McGivney’s dilemma, Bishop Francis McFarland of Hartford intervened by providing the financial support — in what amounted to a full scholarship — for the young man to enter St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, Md. Four years later, McGivney was ordained on Dec. 22, 1877, at the Cathedral of the Assumption in Baltimore, and celebrated his first Mass at the Immaculate Conception Church in Waterbury on Christmas. Staying in Connecticut, the young priest was assigned as curate (assistant) of St. Mary’s Church in the bustling port city of New Haven where he “faced challenges related to a priest shortage, parish debt, illnesses, and hostility toward Catholics.”
Immediately, he ingratiated himself into the community, diligently serving the increasing needs among the Irish-immigrant population on the peripheries of society — so much so that he did not take “even one day off for the first year of his priesthood,” according to the Knights of Columbus. Among his undertakings was joining the St. Joseph’s Young Men’s Total Abstinence and Literary (TAL) Society, a temperance movement filled with working-class men. As noted in his biography “Parish Priest” by historians Douglas Brinkley and Julie Fenster, Father McGivney was not a passive member, but “intended to find out why so many of his young parishioners became drunks, while others managed to avoid it.”
While keeping men sober, the group also put on theatrical productions of which Father McGivney helped organize as treasurer and, in later years, director (and occasionally as an actor). Additionally, the energetic priest organized parish picnics complete with baseball games, shooting matches (which, on one occasion, he won), horse races, among other activities, much to the delight of New Haven locals. All in all, he aspired to “give the Catholic men in his charge more options in their daily lives, and a better perspective on how they looked at themselves,” according to his biography.
This hope of his priesthood is best exemplified in his ministry to New Haven inmates, particularly 21-year-old James “Chip” Smith — who was on death row for killing a police officer while drunk. Father McGivney visited Smith daily discovering that the young man, behind bars, was “thoughtful, kind and devout.” It was also proof that “with the right spiritual guidance, even the hardest characters might soften and find their way back to the Church,” suggests the 2020 article ‘A Priest for his People’ by Kevin Coyne. As the execution date drew nearer, Father McGivney felt the “crushing weight” of the ordeal, and asked St. Mary’s parishioners for prayers that Smith “may die a holy death.” He was recorded saying, “If I could consistently with my duty be far away from here next Friday I should escape perhaps the most trying ordeal of my life, but this sad duty is placed in my way by Providence and must be fulfilled.”
Father McGivney’s grief the day of the execution, Sept. 1, 1882, was profound enough where Smith comforted his ministerial guide, saying, “Father, your saintly ministrations have enabled me to meet death without a tremor. Do not fear for me, I must not break down now.” Father McGivney’s biographers write that Smith even reaching that point of spiritual clarity and peace is a testament to the priest’s tireless ministry.
Charity, Unity and Fraternity
The priest recognized a need to combat the social ills placating the community, as well as financially protecting families threatened with destitution after the loss of their breadwinner — which often occurred as the Irish-Catholic immigrants he served took on dangerous jobs (like his own father).
But this reality even occurred to “popular and prominent” men like Edward Downes, one of the city’s leading stationers (selling news and paper goods), according to Father McGivney’s biography. When Downes passed away, he left his widow and 14 children penniless. Considering the situation, the court ordered that the three youngest children needed guardians, or they were to be placed in public institutions. Enough funds were scrounged for two of them, George and Joseph — but not for Alfred. That is, until Father McGivney stepped in (with assistance from a local grocer), becoming the child’s guardian.
The late 19th century was also a time in America where fraternal organizations and secret societies were popular, luring Catholic men away from the Church for monetary benefits or influence in society.
With an affinity for establishing and/or helping fraternal groups, Father McGivney proposed a Catholic organization oriented toward the men in New Haven to, as he wrote, “prevent people from entering secret societies, by offering the same, if not better, advantages to our members. Secondly, to unite the men of our Faith throughout the Diocese of Hartford, that we may thereby gain strength to aid each other in time of sickness; to provide for decent burial, and to render pecuniary assistance to the families of deceased members.”
On Oct. 2, 1881, he gathered nearly 80 men in St. Mary’s basement to propose establishing this society, which was well-received. Several months later, on Feb. 6, 1882, the Knights of Columbus was officially formed, then incorporated on March 29 after Connecticut’s General Assembly formally recognized its charter. Despite a slow start, Father McGivney zealously committed time and energy to promoting the new organization with its motto of charity, unity and fraternity, which eventually paid off with more than ten Knights of Columbus councils (or groups) being founded by November 1884, and 6,000 members by the time of his death five years later.
On Nov. 5, 1884, after seven years in New Haven, Father McGivney was reassigned to serve as pastor of St. Thomas Church in Thomaston — a quieter yet still a working-class community. According to the New Haven Evening Register, parishioners “wept aloud and others sobbed audibly” at the news of his pending departure, and Father McGivney was equally remorseful, saying, “Wherever I go, the memory of the people of St. Mary’s and their great kindness to me will always be uppermost in my heart.”
As pastor, he quickly developed friendships with local families and prominent business owners and continued directing theater productions — like Handy Andy — at the Thomaston Opera House (which still has the same exact floorboards, so you can literally walk in his footsteps). Father McGivney also resuscitated the parish’s Holy Name Society and Sunday school, organized church fairs, acted as third-base coach for the baseball team and served as chaplain for the Knights of Columbus Atlantic Council 18, which he founded.
But life expectancy for a priest in the late 19th century was below 50 years old — and the level of ministry Father McGivney invested made him exhausted and “vulnerable to disease.” He contracted the Russian flu — a pandemic now considered a coronavirus — and made several trips to New Haven, New York and Virginia to recuperate. He, unfortunately, failed to recover. Yet, while on his deathbed, he still retained the mindset of a man devoted to his people, “continually ask[ing] about various members of his parish,” according to “Parish Priest.”
As Father Joseph G. Daley — a contemporary and friend of Father McGivney — wrote about the priest, “He died without leaving any pecuniary debts; but he died also without owning a dollar: and the reason of it was that in his heart of charity he had given his last dollar away.”
A ‘Blessed’ Man
There is an anecdote in the book “Parish Priest” of how a blind man — a non-Catholic — would go to St. Mary’s each Sunday to hear “that voice” belonging to Father McGivney. Whether each Sunday is hyperbole is uncertain. Nevertheless, the blind man, like others in the communities he served, were attracted to his charism — for instance, Alida Harwood, the daughter of a prominent Episcopal minister in New Haven (who asked for him on her death bed). As Father Daley described, people “found in Father McGivney a soul of immense sympathy, which invited them strongly toward investigating the religious truths his lips proclaimed.”
In his heroically virtuous life, people gravitated toward his humility and promotion of community. This effect has rung true to many Catholic faithful since his death (especially to the more than 2 million members of the Knights of Columbus). Today, his remains are interred in a sarcophagus at St. Mary’s, becoming a site for pilgrims.
But what of his sainthood? In the Catholic Church, there are essentially two ways one is canonized — martyrdom or two miracles attributed to one’s intercession (i.e., prayers of petition to God). Since he did not die for the faith like St. John the Baptist, St. Joan of Arc, St. Sebastian, St. Maximilian Kolbe or the more than 20 Coptic Christians of Libya who were beheaded by ISIS, Father McGivney would need to accomplish the latter by the grace of God.
And he is one down, one more to go. On May 27, 2020, the Vatican recognized Father McGivney’s intercession in the miraculous healing of an unborn child in 2015. Mike “Mikey” Schachle was diagnosed with fetal hydrops, a condition that causes a fatal accumulation of fluid throughout the body. He was given a zero percent chance of living. But several years ago, yours truly met the young boy on a work assignment — and Mikey introduced me to his numerous siblings and parents as “his friend.” It was one of the more unexplainable events in my life so far, and one of the most endearing. As a Catholic, we believe God is not an absent, detached being, but active in our daily lives; but to hold the hand of someone confirmed to be miraculously blessed is truly otherworldly.
With the miracle, Father McGivney was declared “blessed” in at a beatification Mass at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hartford, Oct. 31, 2020.
His legacy has unquestionably impacted the lives of those in need: from Ukrainian refugees escaping war, and others who escaped Bolshevism and communism; to rebuilding communities after natural disasters; and to helping veterans, children, the elderly and the immobile. The Knights is even responsible for the addition of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Today, many people report that the priest has interceded on their behalf — and he is someone I turn to daily for guidance (to the point where my mom has called him “my friend”). Yours truly hopes to live long enough to see the day when Father McGivney, Connecticut’s own, is recognized as a canonized saint. And if not here, God-willing, I hope to at least say ‘thank you’ in the hereafter.
Till then and till next time —
Your Yankee Doodle Dandy,
Father McGivney, pray for us!
What neat history do you have in your town? Send it to yours truly and I may end up highlighting it in a future edition of ‘Hidden in the Oak.’ Please encourage others to follow and subscribe to our newsletters and podcast, ‘Y CT Matters.’