In many ways, Father Michael J. McGivney was just one more of that band of hardworking Irish-American priests who spent themselves building up the Church in America in the latter years of the 19th century. But in one truly extraordinary respect, he was unique: Before he was 30, Michael McGivney had founded what was to become the largest Catholic men’s organization in the world: the Knights of Columbus.
That happened, largely unnoticed, in early February 1882 in New Haven, Conn., in the basement of St. Mary’s Church. The young curate had assembled 80 Catholic laymen — Irish-Americans like himself — who voted to launch the new group. No one, least of all Father McGivney, suspected that 132 years later the Knights of Columbus would grow to be an international body of 1.84 million Catholic men, with assets totaling more than $20 billion and an influence for good to match.
“Father McGivney is too modest to assume to himself any honor,” one of his lay associates later said. “But if this Order succeeds … the honor as its founder will be his.” History seconds that judgment.
His Life and Times
In his 13 brief, busy years as a priest, Father McGivney’s piety and compassion won the love of those he served as curate and pastor. His Christian inspiration, leadership and administrative drive brought him the loyalty and affection of thousands who knew him as the founder of the Knights of Columbus.
From the moment he launched it, the organization fortified Catholics in their faith, offered them ways to greater financial security in a sometimes hostile world, and strengthened them in self-esteem.
Remarkably developed from its simple beginnings in a church basement, the Knights of Columbus today combines Catholic fraternalism and one of the most successful American insurance enterprises. The four pillars of the international headquarters symbolize the Order’s worldwide commitment to charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism. More than 14,000 fraternal councils are active in 14 countries.
More than 1.8 million Knights contribute about $160 million and 70 million hours of volunteer service to charitable causes each year. And—as a particular result of the Order’s multi-faceted services to the Church—in 1988 the board of directors conducted formal business of the Order for the first time in a room named for the Knights of Columbus within the ancient St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
At St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Father McGivney’s polished granite sarcophagus, sheltered inside a totally restored church, has now become a shrine to pilgrim Knights where the Order began.
At the first memorial service for deceased Knights held in 1890, the year Father McGivney died, this tribute was accorded him:
“He was a man of the people. He was zealous of the people’s welfare, and all the kindliness of his priestly soul asserted itself more strongly in his unceasing efforts for the betterment of their condition …Oh, Reverend Founder. . .that act alone which gave life to the Knights of Columbus has surely secured for thee everlasting joy and eternal peace.”
Delegations were present from almost every one of the 57 Knights of Columbus councils that had been chartered in the Order’s first eight years.
To mark their 100th anniversary in 1982, the Knights of Columbus brought the remains of Father McGivney from Waterbury back to St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, where he founded the Order. There he now rests in a setting in which daily Mass is offered for deceased Knights and prayers are said for his canonization.The Father Michael J. McGivney Guild serves as a source for information about the life, works and spirituality of Father McGivney. The Guild distributes informational materials about him, receives reports of favors granted through his intercession and oversees the distribution of relics. Guild members receive regular updates on the progress of Father McGivney’s cause for canonization and are invited to participate in promoting devotion to this Servant of God. Members of the Knights of Columbus are not automatically Guild members and must elect to join the Guild. The Father Michael J. McGivney Guild Newsletter is published bimonthly except July- August, and is sent free to Guild members. To join the Guild, please click here.