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.
Father McGivney’s achievement is best appreciated in the context of 19th century Catholic immigration to the United States, including especially the newcomers’ sometimes desperate struggle to survive and flourish in the face of nativist hostility. The collision of these two powerful forces — immigration and anti-Catholicism — was central to much that happened in American Catholicism in those years.
In 1820, the Catholic population of the United States numbered only a modest 120,000. Then the great explosion began. Over the half-century that followed, 2.7 million Catholic immigrants poured into the country. By 1900, there were 12 million American Catholics — a hundred-fold increase.
Not all of the immigrants came from Ireland, but many did. Their numbers rose rapidly — 52,000 in the 1820s, 171,000 in the 1830s, 656,000 in the decade that followed, more than a million in the 1850s. The first of the Irish were relatively well-off and mostly Protestant. But by mid-century, with Ireland in the grip of famine and dire poverty, the newcomers were overwhelmingly Catholic and poor.
They struggled to put down roots, and in time they succeeded. In a sermon in 1871 Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, the Irish-American leader of the U.S. bishops, hailed the Irish diaspora as an expression of God’s plan that the Irish play an important role in “the establishment and prosperity of the greatest Republic in the world.”
In 1834, an Ursuline convent outside Boston was burned to the ground by an angry mob. In the years that followed, anti-Catholic, anti-Irish violence flared in other cities. Launching a new anti-Catholic group in 1842, Protestant ministers summed up widely-held sentiments in declaring Catholic principles to be “subversive of civil and religious liberty.” When priests like Michael McGivney sought to promote the interests of their Church and their people, they had their work cut out.
Father McGivney was born Aug. 12, 1852, in Waterbury, Conn., oldest of 13 children of an immigrant couple named Patrick and Mary Lynch McGivney. Six of his brothers and sisters died in infancy or childhood. His father worked in a Waterbury brass mill.
A quick learner, young Michael felt an early attraction to the priesthood and prepared for the seminary. Following studies at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, he was ordained in December 1877 by Archbishop (later Cardinal) Gibbons. His first assignment was at St. Mary’s in New Haven.
There he became convinced that a benevolent organization for Catholic men was required as a means of providing their families with financial support in times of need while also keeping the men themselves out of the clutches of anti-Catholic secret societies. The priest and his lay associates explored various options, including establishing a local branch of some already existing group. Eventually, though, they decided to launch a brand new organization — a “cooperative benefit order” to be called the Knights of Columbus.
The choice of that name was significant. “Columbus” was a response to bigots who sought to deny Catholics a place in America — a verbal reminder that it was a Catholic, Christopher Columbus, who had discovered America in the first place. “Knights” was an affirmation of members’ chivalrous loyalty to the Church in the face of anti-Catholic, anti-Irish sentiment.
The young priest accepted the office of secretary in the new group, though later he took the less time-consuming post of Supreme Chaplain. In his book “Faith and Fraternalism: The History of the Knights of Columbus,” Church historian Christopher J. Kauffman notes in the early days the Knights’ leaders “confronted severe criticism, experienced deep disillusionment and seriously doubted the value of their efforts.” He credits the group’s survival to Father McGivney’s “persistence and optimism.”
Two years after the founding, Father McGivney was named pastor of St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, Conn. Responsibility for a second parish also came with the job. Working alone, he carried a backbreaking pastoral load while managing to stay active in defending and promoting the Knights. Never physically robust, in January 1890 he contracted pneumonia. His health declined during the following months, and on Aug. 14 he died. He was only 38. His funeral and the burial in his hometown of Waterbury were major public events.
The process that could one day lead the Church to recognize Father McGivney as a saint was formally opened in 1996. At present he has the title “Venerable.” Last August, Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson reported to the group’s annual convention that a possible miracle worked through his intercession is now being studied by the Vatican’s congregation for saints.
And little short of miraculous has been the growth of the Knights of Columbus itself. Overwhelmingly Irish in the early days, the nearly 2 million Knights today are an ethnically and racially diverse body, with members in the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Philippines, the Caribbean, Central America and lately Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania.
As of last year, besides its $20 billion in assets, the K of C boasted $4.86 billion of insurance in force on members and members’ families under its top-rated insurance program. The Knights ranked 929th in Fortune magazine’s most recent list of America’s 1,000 largest companies.
This material success fuels an impressive program of charity and good works. At the national and international levels, the group gives away millions of dollars every year, including several million annually to the pope and the Holy See. But the record is even more remarkable at the grassroots. In the 2012-2013 fraternal year, members gave nearly $1.7 million besides contributing more than 70 million hours in volunteer time. At all levels, the Knights of Columbus is a major source of financial and human support for countless good causes.
From the start, patriotism has been a major part of the K of C program. In fact, it’s the special theme of the group’s Fourth Degree — those men in capes and plumed hats who are a highly visible presence at numerous Church events. According to Kauffman, this emphasis on patriotism is a reminder that the group in its early days “provided first- and second-generation immigrants a ‘rite of passage’ into American society” and is “a classic instance of a minority’s drive to assimilate.”
Undoubtedly true. Yet in recent years people familiar with the group have sensed a change, with fidelity to Catholic beliefs and values increasingly causing the Knights of Columbus to take a countercultural stance toward secular culture. This is especially true on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, where their strongly held commitment to human life makes the Knights an important part of the pro-life movement and their support for traditional marriage places them in opposition to other versions.
It seems likely Father McGivney would have expected no less of his Knights.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.