On Wednesday May 27, 2020 Pope Francis advanced the cause for canonization of twelve holy men and women, one of them being the Venerable Father Michael Joseph McGivney, an American Catholic priest and founder of the Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest Catholic fraternal lay organization.
There is always much joy to be experienced by Catholics when the Church recognizes holy men and women who, by the grace of God, have lived a life of heroic virtue and now intercede for us in Heaven. In particular, many in the Church who are associated with the Knights of Columbus found this announcement by Pope Francis to be a momentous and historic occasion.
Yet, for the amount of activity done by the Knights of Columbus in local communities and parishes, many Catholics still wonder about the story behind its founder. The existing photographs of Fr. Michael J. McGivney and the numerous artistic renditions of the man, show a priest, gazing ahead with a determined, yet unassuming character. These traits were echoed by the contemporaries of his day, who also stated that Fr. McGivney had a child-like manner, a strength of purpose, an indomitable will, and holiness. Shortly after his death in 1890, the Knights’ official publication would comment that Fr. McGivney was “..rich in every priestly virtue” and had “… the love for souls of the true alter Christus, the childlike piety of the Curé d’Ars, the zeal of Vincent de Paul for works of mercy, the unfatigued optimism of the associates of Ozanam…”. The life of Fr. McGivney, his love for Christ, and the strength he saw in the Catholic family and why it ought to be protected, is a story worth exploring and which explains why the Knights of Columbus carries on this man’s mission and vision.
Michael J. McGivney was born on August 12, 1852, the son of Irish immigrant parents, Patrick and Mary (née Lynch) McGivney, in the Waterbury, Connecticut area. At the age of 16, Michael would discern God’s call to him for the Catholic priesthood by entering the seminary in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec. During the end of his first year of studies at this Jesuit seminary in June 1873, Michael would receive the distressing news that his father, Patrick – a molder in a brass factory – had died at the age of 48. Initially, Patrick’s death caused a disruption in the family’s finances, with Michael having to postpone his studies and support his mother and siblings, because he was the oldest of thirteen children in his family. Over time, the McGivney family became stabilized and thanks to the generosity of James Gibbons (1834-1921), the Archbishop of Harford, Michael was able to find the necessary financial support to continue his studies at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, Maryland.
By the grace of God, Michael J. McGivney was ordained to the priesthood on December 22, 1877 by Archbishop Gibbons at the Baltimore Cathedral of the Assumption, and assigned as a curate to St. Mary’s parish in New Haven, Connecticut in 1878. The life of a priest is one of sacrifice and devotion to his flock, with St. John Chrysostom once commenting, that a shepherd of souls should die daily for his flock. Fr. McGivney realized this aspect of the priesthood and understood that that duty of loving God and neighbour did not simply pertain to his responsibilities at Mass, as he sought to actualize charity in a practical way for his parishioners that he loved so dearly. Not only did he desire to lead his flock to Christ, but he also desired to care for their temporal wellbeing. Through the culmination of his personal experience and ongoing episodes of widows and orphans being left destitute due to the death of the primary breadwinner, Fr. McGivney knew that this was something which needed to be addressed. He believed that an organized community in the Church was needed, and this fraternal organization would unite Catholics in fraternal charity, and provide protection from the financial effects of disability, illness, and death.
After the American Civil War, it was common for many individuals – even Catholics – to become members of fraternal lodges or secret societies, for reasons such as community, replacement of religion, and for the mutual benefits these organizations offered (i.e. life and sickness insurance). Still, there were many organizations inside the Catholic Church that offered similar benefits. However, Fr. McGivney discovered that these Catholic organizations to be lacking and not suited for the average parishioner – more specifically for majority of the practical tradesmen and his family. Fr. McGivney proposed his own solution: create an authentic Catholic fraternal organization, which focused on Catholic unity and the financial protection of its members. With the support and interest of a few good men at an organizational meeting on October 2, 1881 in the basement of St. Mary’s parish, the fraternal mutual benefit organization known as the Knights of Columbus was founded and later incorporated under the state laws of Connecticut on March 29, 1882. Fr. McGivney would send a letter to all parishes in his diocese, notifying other priests of this organization’s purpose and necessity of having a council in every parish:
“By permission of our Rt. Rev. Bishop, and in accordance with an Act of the Legislature of the State of Connecticut, we have formed an organization under the name of the Knights of Columbus…. Our primary object is to 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.” [He would ask pastors to] “… exert your influence in the formation of a council in your parish.”
With the structure of the Knights of Columbus, Catholic men who became members of this organization knew where to turn to for charity, unity, and fraternity. The Knights would be an avenue in the parish to look for support and grow in the faith. With the reality of the breadwinner dying at a young age in the 19th century, there would be peace of mind for Catholic families. Thanks to the insurance program of the Knights, widows would not have to fear the reality of losing their children. During this time, various counties had the right to remove a child from their mother and place them in a public institution, for the purpose of protecting them from possible neglect and destitution. Fr. McGivney saw the need for strengthening of the spiritual life and the safeguarding of the family, and the Knights of Columbus was now his fraternity that would achieve those ends. Concerning the motto and purposes of the Order, Fr. McGivney would comment that, “‘Unity and Charity’ is our motto. Unity in order to gain strength to be charitable to each other in benevolence whilst we live and in bestowing financial aid to those whom we have to mourn our loss.”
Following the inception of the Knights of Columbus, Fr. McGivney would continue to glorify God in his daily life, working tirelessly to serve the needs of his parishioners, and playing a pivotal role in the earliest days of his fraternity as it slowly expanded. At the age of 38, Fr. McGivney died from pneumonia on August 14, 1890, and his beneficiaries were entitled to his life insurance death benefit that he believed was so essential. Fr. McGivney was the primary force of the development of the Knights of Columbus, yet despite the loss of its founder, the fraternity would not disappear, but rather grow from strength to strength.
Over the next century, the Knights of Columbus would expand into dozens of countries. Not only did Fr. McGivney’s fraternal organization expand in terms of membership, but so too did its charitable outreach and insurance program. Each year, the Knights contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to charity, along with countless volunteer hours. Its charitable work is legendary, whether it be in the pro-life sphere, feeding the hungry, supporting persecuted Christians, aiding those suffering in natural disasters, and so forth. Despite being an exclusive non-profit organization, with membership only open to Catholics, the Knights is annually recognized as one of the most ethical and strongest insurance companies throughout the world. For its charitable work and care and protection of the family, St. John Paul II once touted the Knights of Columbus as the strong right arm of the Church.
Fr. McGivney was known by his contemporaries his charity and zeal for the faith. While he died at the age of 38, he accomplished a significant amount during his time on Earth, reflecting the words from scripture, “Being perfected in a short time, he fulfilled long years; for his soul was pleasing to the Lord…” (Wisdom 4:13-14). His cause for canonization would begin in the Archdiocese of Hartford in 1996. Then in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI declared Fr. McGivney to have the title of “Venerable” due to his life of heroic virtue. Several years later, a Catholic family would turn to Venerable Fr. McGivney for a miracle. Daniel Schachle (a Knights of Columbus insurance agent) and his wife, Michelle, were expecting their 13th child and were initially given the tragic news that their unborn child not only had Down Syndrome, but also a fatal condition known as fetal hydrops. They were given no hope for their child’s survival and were offered abortion, which they refused. The Schachle family and many of their family members, friends, and co-workers, would invoke the intercession of Fr. McGivney for the unborn child’s survival. After the initial diagnoses, Michelle would undergo a scheduled ultrasound, and discovered that her child was completely healed, with no medical or scientific explanation. Their son, Michael McGivney Schachle, would be born on May 15, 2015. Today, their son – affectionately called “Mikey” – is alive and well. This heartwarming story certainly reflects the Knights of Columbus’ work all in one: the son of a Knights insurance agent, was miraculously healed through the intercession of Fr. McGivney, serving as another example to choose life – something which we are all called to do, in order to build a civilization of love.
It is a time for Knights of Columbus members and all Catholics to rejoice in the good news of Fr. McGivney’s beatification and the miracle that the Schachle family has experienced. And, as Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson commented in his report at the 138th Supreme Convention, let us reflect on this miracle (an excerpt from his report follows):
Why did this miracle heal an unborn child in the womb? Why was that healing discovered through ultrasound technology? Why was a child with Down syndrome saved? Why was he conceived into a large Catholic family? A family whose father sees his business as a vocation of service to fellow Catholics? A father who is a dedicated brother Knight of Columbus?
The answer to all these questions must have deep meaning for the future of the Knights of Columbus.
As St. John Paul II said on his visit to Fatima, “in the designs of Providence, there are no mere coincidences.” Is it a mere coincidence that Michael McGivney was the oldest of 13 children, while Michael Schachle is the youngest of 13 children? How can we not see in the circumstances of this miracle an affirmation of the vision and legacy of our Founder?
And how can we not also see in the circumstances of this miracle the call to each of us as brother Knights of Columbus to live more fully our own vocation of charity, unity and fraternity?
Soon we will call our beloved Founder “Blessed,” and millions around the world will better understand why Father McGivney has been a blessing to generations of Catholics.
But with Father McGivney’s beatification comes special responsibility. It calls us to an ever-higher standard of charity, unity and fraternity.
So let us rejoice and be glad in this day the Lord has made. Let us renew our own faith, as we step forward together as Knights of Columbus: Knights of Fraternity to continue our great work.
And may our Founder and brother, soon-to-be Blessed Michael McGivney, pray for us.
Fr. McGivney’s beatification Mass is scheduled for Saturday October 31, 2020 at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford, Connecticut, on this upcoming Saturday, October 31 at 11:00 AM EST (eastern standard time). Further details and updates on Fr. McGivney’s beatification can be found at the Knights of Columbus website by clicking here.
Anderson, Carl A. “Annual Report of the Supreme Knight”. August 4, 2020 https://www.kofc.org/en/news-room/columbia/2020/october/annual-report-of-the-supreme-knight.html
Brinkley, Douglas and Fenster, Julie M. Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006.
Columbia. “Venerable Michael McGivney to Be Beatified.” July/August 2020.
Coyne, Kevin. “Milestones of Knights of Columbus Insurance.” Columbia Magazine, February 2016. 10-11.
Daley, Fr. Joseph G. “The Personality of Fr. McGivney” (abridged). The Columbiad, June 1900. http://www.kofc.org/en/columbia/detail/the-personality-of-father-mcgivney.html
Fr. Michael J. McGivney Guild. “Roots.” Fr. Michael J. McGivney Guild. N.D http://www.fathermcgivney.org/mcg/en/life/history/roots.html.
Knightline. “Pope Benedict XVI Declares Father Michael McGivney ‘Venerable.’” March 28, 2008. https://www.kofc.org/un/en/resources/lc/knightline/knightline_20080328_en.pdf
Rouselle, Christine. “‘Let Michael be the miracle’ – The baby healed through Fr. McGivney’s prayers.” Catholic News Agency. June 16, 2020. https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/let-michael-be-the-miracle—the-baby-healed-through-fr-mcgivneys-prayers-10629
Vatican News. “Church promulgates new decrees for Causes of Saints.” Last modified May 27, 2020. https://www.vaticannews.va/en/vatican-city/news/2020-05/church-recognizes-miracle-attributed-to-ven-michael-mcgivney.html
 cf. “Church promulgates new decrees for Causes of Saints”, Vatican News, last modified May 27, 2020, https://www.vaticannews.va/en/vatican-city/news/2020-05/church-recognizes-miracle-attributed-to-ven-michael-mcgivney.html
 cf. Douglas Brinkley and Julie M. Fenster, Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006), p. 64-67
 cf. Fr. Joseph G. Daley, “The Personality of Fr. McGivney” (abridged), The Columbiad, June 1900, http://www.kofc.org/en/columbia/detail/the-personality-of-father-mcgivney.html
 cf. “Roots”, Fr. Michael J. McGivney Guild, N.D. http://www.fathermcgivney.org/mcg/en/life/history/roots.html.
 cf. Kevin Coyne, “The Origins of K of C Insurance,” Knights of Columbus, last modified February 1, 2016, https://www.kofc.org/en/columbia/detail/origins-kofc-insurance.html.
 Brinkley and Fenster, Parish Priest, p. 112.
 Fr. Michael J. McGivney, quoted in Kevin Coyne, “The McGivney Letters,” Knights of Columbus, last modified August 1, 2018, https://www.kofc.org/en/columbia/detail/the-mcgivney-letters.html.
 Kevin Coyne, “The Origins of K of C Insurance,” ibid.
 cf. Knightline, “Pope Benedict XVI Declares Father Michael McGivney ‘Venerable’”, Knightline, March 28, 2008,
 cf. Christine Rouselle, “‘Let Michael be the miracle’ – The baby healed through Fr. McGivney’s prayers”, Catholic News Agency, last modified June 16, 2020, https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/let-michael-be-the-miracle—the-baby-healed-through-fr-mcgivneys-prayers-10629
 cf. Columbia, “Venerable Michael McGivney to Be Beatified,” Columbia, July/August 2020, p. 6.
 Carl A. Anderson, “Annual Report of the Supreme Knight”, August 4, 2020, https://www.kofc.org/en/news-room/columbia/2020/october/annual-report-of-the-supreme-knight.html