Founder Father McGivney


Father Michael J. McGivney would be first American born priest to be declared a saint.

Catholic News Service
Hartford Courant

Pope Benedict XVI Saturday approved a decree recognizing the heroic virtue of Father Michael J. McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus. The pope’s declaration significantly advances the priest’s process toward sainthood and gives the parish priest the distinction of “Venerable Servant of God.” If canonized, Father McGivney would be the first American born priest to be so honored.

“All of us who are members of the Knights of Columbus are profoundly grateful for this recognition of the holiness of our founder,” said Supreme Knight Carl Anderson. “The strength of the Knights of Columbus today is a testament to his timeless vision, his holiness and his ideals.”

Worried about the religious faith and financial stability of immigrant families, Father McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus with the help of several men of St. Mary’s Parish in New Haven in 1882 to help strengthen the faith of the men of his parish and to provide financial assistance in the event of their death to the widows and orphans they left behind. He was also known for his tireless work among his parishioners.

Born in Waterbury, Conn., Aug. 12, 1852, Michael Joseph McGivney, was the first of Patrick and Mary (Lynch) McGivney’s 13 children, six of whom died in infancy or early childhood. His parents, natives of Ireland, had immigrated to the United States during the 19th century. Patrick was a molder in a Waterbury brass mill, where Michael himself worked for a brief time as a child to help support the family.

From an early age, however, he realized a calling to the Catholic priesthood. After studying in several seminaries, he was ordained in that Baltimore’s historic Cathedral by Cardinal James Gibbons Dec. 22, 1877.

He took up his first assignment, as curate at St. Mary’s Church, New Haven, Conn., Jan. 2, 1878. Father McGivney was named pastor of St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, Conn. in 1884. He became seriously ill with pneumonia in January 1890, and died Aug. 14, 1890 at age 38.

The cause, or process, for Father McGivney’s sainthood, was opened by Hartford Archbishop Daniel A. Cronin, in December 1997. The cause was presented to the Vatican in 2000, where it has been under review by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. With the pope’s recent decree, and the authentication of a miracle at Father McGivney’s intercession, the priest could be beatified. A second miracle would be required for canonization.

Still maintaining its headquarters in New Haven, the Knights of Columbus is the world’s largest Catholic Fraternal Organization with more than 1.7 million members in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Central America, the Caribbean islands, the Philippines, Guam and, most recently, Poland.


People who knew Father McGivney in this period were impressed by his energy and intensity. Father Gordian Daley later recalled, "I saw him but once, and yet I remember this pale, beautiful face as if I saw it only yesterday. It was a 'priest's face' and that explains everything. It was a face of wonderful repose. There was nothing harsh in that countenance although there was everything that was strong."

William Geary, one of the Order's charter members, said that at the first council meeting in 1882, he was "acclaimed as founder by 24 men with hearts full of joy and thanksgiving, recognizing that without his optimism, his will to succeed, his counsel and advice they would have failed."

Father McGivney had suggested Sons of Columbus as a name for the Order. This would bind Catholicism and Americanism together through the faith and bold vision of the New World's discoverer.

The word "knights" replaced "sons" because key members of the organizing group who were Irish-born Civil War veterans felt it would help to apply a noble ritual in support of the emerging cause of Catholic civil liberty.

In the first public reference to the Order on February 8, 1882, the New Haven Morning Journal and Courier said the Knights of Columbus' initial meeting had been held the night before.

On March 29, the Connecticut legislature granted a charter to the Knights of Columbus, formally establishing it as a legal corporation. The Order's principles in 1882 were "Unity" and "Charity." The concepts of "Fraternity" and "Patriotism" were added later. Each of these ideals played a major role in ceremonials from the beginning. The Columbus-linked themes, says historian Christopher J. Kauffman, "reverberated with pride in the American promise of liberty, equality and opportunity."

During the Civil War, many of the nation’s native Protestants had the same question about the tide of immigrant Catholics, overwhelmingly Irish, that had been surging across the Atlantic: Just how American — how real, pure, genuine American — were they?

Some New Haven men thought they had answered that once and for all by joining the Union Army and serving alongside scores of thousands of other Irish immigrants. So deep was the bond they formed among themselves while fighting for their new nation that they stuck together after they returned home. Their regular meetings evolved into a fraternal group that took its name, the Red Knights, from the color of the blankets they had carried in their knapsacks.

And when a young curate at St. Mary’s got the idea to start a Catholic fraternal organization, he borrowed many of his ideas about its form and purpose, as well as most of its first leaders, from this local group of patriotic Catholics.

Father Michael J. Mc- Givney was himself the son of immigrants. Like many other first- and second-generation Americans, he was concerned about what role the faith his family had brought from the Old World would have in a new world that often regarded it with suspicion, even scorn.

The Church provided spiritual sustenance to be sure, but what practical value might it additionally offer? How might it keep men from drifting away from the faith and into the competing rituals of the secret societies that were so popular? How might it help the families left behind, as his own had been, when fathers died too young, felled by hard jobs and heart-straining worries at the bottom of the economic ladder? How might it help Catholics become better Catholics at the same time that they became better Americans?

On March 29, 1882, the Connecticut state legislature officially chartered the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal benefit society founded by Father Michael J. McGivney with a group of parishioners in the basement of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven. Still true to its founding principles of charity, unity, and fraternity 125 years later, the Knights of Columbus has grown to the largest lay Catholic organization in the world with more than 1.7 million members.

Throughout its history, the Knights of Columbus has been an effective advocate and defender of civil and religious rights for all. The organization has also contributed billions of dollars and millions of hours of volunteer service to charity. This site recalls many prominent events in the Knights of Columbus’ history and offers the Supreme Knight’s view for its future.

Over the course of its history, the Knights of Columbus has been an unstoppable force for good in the Church and society. Learn how a handful of immigrant Catholic men, led by one visionary priest, Father Michael J. McGivney, seized the spirit of their times to found an organization whose appeal is timeless because its goals are for all eternity.

How to be Catholic in America — that was the theme which inspired and animated the organization that Father McGivney founded in the basement of St. Mary’s Church 125 years ago.

It was embodied in the name chosen by the 75 men at the first official meeting on a snowy February evening in New Haven. By calling themselves the “Knights of Columbus,” they were indelibly linking their church and their country, staking their own claim to the New World.

By invoking the name of the Italian explorer, they underlined a simple, stark, unassailable fact — that this predominantly Protestant nation might openly discriminate against Catholic immigrants and impugn their loyalty, might scurrilously defame the Church and the pope, might do everything it could to make Catholics feel unwelcome here, but it was in fact a nation that celebrated as its discoverer a Catholic.

And the Catholic descendants of Columbus, one charter member said, “were entitled to all rights and privileges due to such a discovery by one of our faith.”

By 1885, the Order had paid its first death benefit and accumulated enough members for a thousand Knights to parade through downtown New Haven, led by a carriage carrying Father McGivney. “The parade is a credit to the Irish race,” the former governor of Connecticut said as the marchers passed.

The Hartford Telegram agreed: “There are some narrowminded people living in New England yet who imagine that the Irish race are idle, slovenly and often vicious,” an editorial declared, but the parade proved that “the second generation in this country are intensely American in their instincts, and they are forging ahead to prominent positions in commerce, trade and in the professions.”

By the mid-1890s, the Order was spreading beyond Connecticut, and fighting back hard as the Nativist movement gained strength during a four-year economic depression.

“With true American patriotism,” wrote Thomas Cummings, editor of The Columbiad and the Order’s national organizer, “they demand from their members respect for manhood and liberty for the individual, particularly that liberty which is the essence of all liberty and which was first planted on this continent by Roman Catholics, viz: Freedom to worship God according to one’s conscience.”

When America went to war against Spain in 1898, the Catholic Church opposed it, but the Knights did what it regarded as its national duty and supported the war.

“[A]t the declaration of war all personal opinions as to the wisdom of such a course were forgotten” one state deputy reported, “and the Catholic people, imbued with the teachings of our Holy Church, to be always ready to sacrifice everything for our Faith and Country, offered themselves by the hundreds to fight and, if need be, to die in defense of our Country’s cause.”.

Part V: Strong Enough to Take a Stand

Knights at the 1901 national meeting in upstate New Y1910_Meeting_390ork. Msgr. Patrick J. McGivney, the founder's brother, is shown seated center in the front. He was supreme chaplain from 1901 to 1938.
Some of the more traditionally minded bishops had initially been skeptical of the Order — believing that it leaned too close to America, and too far from Rome — but by 1905, there were councils in every state, and most of the clerical opposition had melted away.

And the Knights had spread beyond America by then as well, into most of Canada, all the way across the Pacific into the Philippines, and into Mexico, a presence that would take on particular importance after the revolution there, when the Catholic Church was often under attack by the government, and the Order was a powerful force of resistance.

The Knights of Columbus was part of the great Progressive debates of the era, pressing for the kinds of governmental reforms that were in tune with Catholic social teachings. And in June 1912, 20,000 of them came to Washington to mark their biggest public triumph yet, the dedication of a potent symbol of how far they, and their religion, had advanced: the Columbus Memorial near the Capitol.

In attendance was the whole official apparatus of the nation: President Taft, Supreme Court justices, Congress. The parade of Knights, Supreme Knight James A. Flaherty declared, represented “the flower and chivalry of Catholic manhood,” a spectacle that “would thrill and gladden the heart of any Christian man.”

Not the hearts of their enemies, though, the number of which grew again as anti-Catholicism swelled in the years before the First World War, a reaction to the great wave of immigration.

The Knights fought back with lecture tours, libel suits, even a Commission on Racial Prejudices. In one court case, a judge turned to a panel of Masons, who, investigating the Knights, declared that it “teaches a high and noble patriotism, instills a love of country, inculcates a reverence for law and order.”

When the U.S. entered the war in 1917, the Order entered, too, with the same patriotic fervor as those Red Knights from New Haven. By the time it ended, the K of C emblem on the khaki-uniformed arms of the secretaries at the Order’s network of recreation centers, clubs and welcome huts had evolved into a fond nickname: Casey.

“Everybody Welcome, Everything Free” was the motto of the Knights’ war effort, and it earned such goodwill that new members poured into the councils back home, more than 400,000 new Knights by 1923.

“God has so guided us that today we stand more powerful than ever and with ever-increasing power,” wrote Supreme Knight Flaherty, “acknowledged throughout the world as a force for good.”

Pope Benedict XV offered Mass in the Vatican gardens for a delegation of Knights visiting Europe in the 1920s. The Knights were honored in France and Italy for the Order’s assistance to soldiers during World War II.
The Order published the work of W.E.B. DuBois, America’s most prominent black intellectual, as part of its Racial Contribution series, which was designed to upend what it called “the theory that the bulk of the nation are ‘hyphenates’ who are not, and never can be, true to the United States.”

It urged the American government to take a tougher stand against a Mexican regime that was brutalizing Catholics. It successfully fought every outbreak of the compulsory education movement, a series of ballot measures, proposed laws and court cases aimed at requiring all children to attend public schools — what Flaherty called “a national movement to abolish the parochial school.”

And it claimed as its most famous member Babe Ruth, who joined Pere Marquette Council 271 in South Boston when he was still playing for the Red Sox.

On a summer afternoon in 1920, before the first pitch of a game between the New York Yankees and the Detroit Tigers, a cluster of Knights gathered at home plate at the Polo Grounds to present him with a diamond-studded watch fob in the shape of the K of C emblem. He hit his 25th home run in the fifth inning, into the upper tier of the rightfield stands, one of the previously unimaginable 54 he would hit that year.

And then Al Smith lost, and the Knights learned just how much more work they still had to do.


Part VI: New Horizons

Pope John Paul II greets the Order's officers and directors during a private audience granted the Knights in 1993. Claps_221
In 1960, the Democrats nominated another Catholic as their candidate for president: John F. Kennedy, a member of Bunker Hill Council 62 in Charlestown, Mass., and a Fourth Degree Knight. Hart was by then the supreme knight of an organization that had grown so much in stature and influence that its 75th anniversary in 1957 had been marked by a cover story in Life magazine.

Hart believed that Kennedy’s election “would do more to eliminate bigotry in this country than anything else that ever happened.”

Anti-Catholicism wore different masks than it did during Al Smith’s campaign, but Kennedy had his own Oklahoma City moment. His was in Houston, in a speech to a group of Protestant ministers. “I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” he told them. “I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church, and the Church does not speak for me,” he said.

He railed, too, as Smith had, about religious prejudice, and he outlined his belief in an America “that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish…and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”

But Kennedy won, and when Luke Hart visited the White House, the president greeted him by saying, “Hello, Chief” — a moment that showed just how far upward the Knights had helped to redefine the boundaries of what it meant to be both a Catholic and a real, pure, genuine American.

Al Smith

At each crossroads, each hamlet, each farm town it passed on its way south through Nebraska, the festive campaign train was met by curious onlookers straining for a glimpse of the man who hoped to be the next president of the United States.

They sat in their Model Ts as it sped past them into the next cornfield. They waved from station platforms when it stopped long enough for Al Smith to step out and doff his signature brown derby.

In Fairbury, 800 of them cheered as a band struck up “The Sidewalks of New York,” a song about a place few of them had ever seen. A local banker welcomed the governor from the East, predicting a “tidal wave” of votes six weeks hence.

Kansas, reliably Republican Kansas, greeted the Democratic nominee with even bigger crowds as the train sped south through the sun-baked afternoon: more than 1,000 at Belleville and Clay Center, 4,000 at Manhattan. At nightfall the train reached Topeka, home of the vice-presidential nominee on the opposing ticket. Spectators climbed the sides of the campaign car and Governor Smith walked back and forth across the platform in the ghostly light of white flares, swinging his derby and shaking every hand he could reach.

On days like this, it was easy to believe that he might actually win. The voters of a largely Protestant nation might set aside fear and prejudice and elect a Catholic to lead them.

The train left Topeka and sped through the night toward Oklahoma. There, Smith was scheduled to deliver a major speech meant to show the farmers of the nation’s vast midsection that a man from the teeming streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan could understand their problems.

It was in the last hours before dawn, after the train had crossed the state line and Smith was asleep, that some of the passengers looked out the windows and noticed a light in the distance — a cross burning in a field, a poisonous welcome from a group that was particularly active in Oklahoma, the Ku Klux Klan.

Part II: Proudly American, Defiantly Catholic

President Herbert Hoover dedicated a statue honoring Cardinal James Gibbons, one of the first U.S. churchmen to endorse the Order,in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 14, 1932. The date marked the 42nd anniversary of Father McGivney’s death. Gibbons had ordained McGivney a priest in 1877.

More than 10,000 people packed the Oklahoma City Coliseum that evening. They heard a fiery Al Smith speak a truth he had previously left mostly unspoken — that he was running against not just Herbert Hoover, but against a “whispering campaign” of “bigotry, hatred, intolerance and un- American sectarian division.”

“I here and now drag them into the open and I denounce them as a treasonable attack upon the very foundations of American liberty,” he said about the Klan, which had attacked not just him, but the entire Catholic Church, as well as an organization to which he proudly belonged: the Knights of Columbus (Dr. John C. Coyle Council 163).

“Nothing could be so contradictory to our whole history,” Smith argued. “Nothing could be so false to the teachings of our divine Lord himself. The world knows no greater mockery than the use of the blazing cross, the cross upon which Christ died, as a symbol to instill into the hearts of men a hatred of their brethren while Christ preached and died for the love and brotherhood of man.”

He spoke without notes, his public voice unleashed, rising to a pitch that matched his private outrage. “Let me make myself perfectly clear: I do not want any Catholic in the United States of America to vote for me on the sixth of November because I am a Catholic,” he said to a wave of applause. “By the same token, I cannot refrain from saying that any person who votes against me simply because of my religion is not a real, pure, genuine American.”

The Coliseum filled with more applause, and it radiated out from Oklahoma City, taken up by American Catholics who were tired of having their patriotism questioned. “Win or lose, I think Smith’s campaign has done much for Catholicity by dragging ‘Old Man Intolerance’ out into the broad daylight where the public can have a good look at him,” wrote Luke Hart, who, as the Order’s supreme advocate, had been fighting his own battles in the same long war against anti-Catholic bias.

Hart was less certain, though, about Smith’s prospects in the election, in which the Knights remained officially neutral. “Much as I would love to see it, I cannot convince myself that he has a chance,” he wrote.

He was right. Smith won the big cities, with their large populations of immigrant Catholics, but got barely 40 percent of the total vote, losing even his own home state of New York. America in 1928, it seemed, just wasn’t ready for a Catholic president.

O great and glorious God, You imbued Your holy priest. Father Michael J. McGivney, with deep priestly virtue and especially with pastoral concern for the poor, the orphan, the widow, for the Christian education of youth, for the protection of the faith of the working man of his day. Now that his priestly ministry continues to spread to countless millions throughout the world, through the efforts and influence of the Order of the Knights of Columbus, which Father McGivney founded, we beseech Your, Heavenly Father, to raise Your faithful servant, Michael, to the honors of the altar. We ask this favor through our Lord Jesus Christ and His Holy Mother, Mary and our Mother, Amen.

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