In Ages Past
Father McGivney and the Knights of Columbus
Father McGivney at St. Mary's Church in New Haven set out to meet this need. He aimed to help workers and their families, provide an authentically Catholic gathering place for Catholic men, and to defend and strengthen the Church. In the words of McGivney's biographers Douglas Brinkley and Julie Fenster, the Knights of Columbus were to be "benevolent, fraternal, and soundly religious."
Nearly anyone could afford the coverage it provided. Members got a sickness benefit of five dollars a week. A death level payout of fifteen hundred dollars was given to widows, the equivalent of four years' earnings. The first members had names like Driscoll, Geary, Healy, McMahon, Mullen, and O'Connor. These Irish-Americans chose to name their group for the Genoa-born explorer. "Christopher Columbus" was at once a name thoroughly American and thoroughly Catholic.
The Knights weren't the only Catholic fraternal organization, but they soon became the largest and most significant. From St. Mary's basement, they spread rapidly throughout the state of Connecticut. While overseeing the growth of the Knights, Father McGivney continued as a hard-working parish priest. On August 14, 1890, he died of pneumonia contracted from illness and overwork. By then, there were six thousand Knights. Within a few years, they would be an international organization.
The Knights of Columbus put the lie to the charge that Catholics weren't good Americans (President John F. Kennedy was a member). They fought anti-Catholicism while promoting religious freedom for all Americans, ministered to troops during wartime, and donated heavily to religious and patriotic causes. Today the Knights continue to promote Christian service and fraternity, while defending the Church in a rapidly secularizing era.
Our recent celebration of Columbus Day offers a good opportunity to reflect on the life and legacy of Venerable Michael J. McGivney, who may one day be the first American parish priest raised to the honors of the altar. The day also challenges us to consider what it really means to be fully Catholic and fully American.
Venerable Michael McGivney, pray for us!
Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.