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The Man Behind the Knights

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By Marc Massery

On Oct. 31, Fr. Michael McGivney, the founder of the Knights of Columbus, became the first native of Connecticut to be beatified by the Roman Catholic Church. The ceremony took place at St. Joseph's Cathedral in Hartford, Connecticut, the diocese in which Fr. McGivney served as a priest until his death in 1890.

The Vatican decree was read by Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark with Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the Supreme Chaplain of the Knights of Columbus, providing a translation. In the decree, Pope Francis said that Fr. McGivney had a "zeal for the proclamation of the Gospel and generous concern for his brothers and sisters," which "made him an outstanding witness of Christian solidarity and fraternal assistance."

The beatification Mass was announced in May, after the Vatican approved a miracle attributed to the intercession of Fr. McGivney. The miracle involved the healing of a child, Michael "Mikey" Schachle, who was suffering from fetal hydrops, a fatal accumulation of fluids throughout the body of an unborn child. Mikey's father, who works for the Knights of Columbus, told Catholic News Agency, "The doctor that ran the neonatal high risk clinic at Vanderbilt University told us that she had been doing this for 30 years, and she had never seen a child survive the diagnosis." After the Schachles rallied hundreds of friends to pray to Fr. McGivney for healing, the next ultrasound revealed that Mikey's condition had resolved.

Blessed McGivney was born in 1852 in Waterbury, Connecticut, to Irish immigrants. In 1868, at just 16 years old, he entered seminary, where he excelled academically. When he was about 20 years old, his father passed away, and Fr. Michael thought he might have to leave seminary. But seeing Blessed McGivney's great priestly potential, the bishop of Hartford intervened with financial support. After Fr. Michael's ordination in 1877, he said his first public Mass at Immaculate Conception Church in Waterbury.

Father Michael's first assignment sent him to St. Mary's Church in New Haven, where he spent seven years revitalizing the parish through his hard work and attunement to the needs of his parishioners. Despite being a priest during a time of heightened anti-Catholic sentiment, Fr. McGivney handled relationships with non-Catholics gracefully, and also managed to convert many souls to Catholicism, including a convicted murderer on death row. Seeing that many young men were neglecting their faith and turning to alcohol abuse, Fr. Michael founded St. Joseph's Total Abstinence and Literary Society, which helped young men stay faithful and active in their communities.

One parishioner said of Fr. Michael, "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."

When Fr. McGivney was transferred to pastor St. Thomas Parish in Thomaston in 1884, his parishioners grieved the loss. A local journalist covering his last Mass at St. Mary's said:

Never, it seemed, was a congregation so affected by the parting address of a clergyman as the great audience which filled St. Mary's yesterday. Some of those present wept aloud and others sobbed audibly.

In 1882, expanding on his outreach to lay men, Fr. McGivney established the Knights of Columbus, which has since become the world's largest fraternal organization for Catholic men, boasting 2 million members worldwide. Father Michael's hope was to help strengthen the faith of Catholic men and provide financial resources for families suffering the loss of a breadwinner. He also hoped to provide an alternative to anti-Catholic secret societies, which were popular at the time and frequently drew Catholic men away from their faith. Today, the Knights of Columbus is known for advocating for the right to life of unborn children and spreading devotion to the Holy Rosary.

Father McGivney passed away on Aug. 14, 1890, after falling ill with tuberculosis and severe pneumonia. He died just a couple of days after his 38th birthday. His earthly remains are interred at St. Mary's Church in New Haven, where he founded the Knights of Columbus, through whom his work of keeping Catholic men close to our Lord and Our Lady lives on.

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