Remarks of Professor Kevin Coyne

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Remarks of Professor Kevin Coyne
Book Launch of
Il Parroco (Parish Priest)
Augustinianum, Rome
June 25, 2014

In 1881, Father Michael McGivney was a young curate at St. Mary’s parish in New Haven, Connecticut. It was a big, gray stone church, still unfinished, in a wealthy Protestant neighborhood that didn’t want it there, crowded each Sunday with mostly Irish immigrants who worked in factories all over the city. “It invaded the most exclusive home of wealth and culture,” the New York Times had reported, and “blemished…an aristocratic avenue.” There were lots of Catholic immigrants in Connecticut, and throughout the United States, and their numbers kept growing, in a Protestant nation that was suspicious of, and sometimes violently opposed to, them and their faith. It was only recently that Catholics had finally been granted permission to even purchase land in Connecticut.

Until just a few decades earlier, America had been just a missionary outpost for the Catholic Church. The whole nation had fewer Catholics than a small diocese in France or Italy. But then the potato famine in Ireland quickly and dramatically changed the religious demographics of the United States. Waves of Irish immigrants swelled the Catholic population in northeastern cities like New Haven, and waves of anti-Catholic sentiment greeted them. Convents were burned in some places, priests attacked, and political parties formed with the aim of barring the doors of America to Catholics.

Among those fleeing the potato famine were Father McGivney’s parents, who sent him, the eldest of their 12 children, to a school in the basement of their church.
Churches for the new immigrants, schools for their children – that was something American Catholics learned quickly: There were no centuries-old institutions to serve them here; they would have to build what they needed themselves. They would have to take care of each other.

The young Michael McGivney scored so high on the school’s entrance test that he started in the third grade, and he moved so swiftly through his lessons that he was finished with all the grades available to him by the time he was 13, when he announced his desire to become a priest. His father disapproved. Michael went to work instead, making spoons in a factory for three years before he finally won his father over.

But when he was at the end of his first year at a Jesuit seminary in Montreal, his father died, at the age of 48. It was great loss for the young seminarian, and also a powerful lesson. How would he afford the $300 for another year at the seminary?

It might have been the end of his vocation, but he was such a promising student, and priests were in such short supply, that his local bishop offered to pay for the rest of his education – not with the Jesuits, who might have taken him far from his home state, but at a seminary where he would become the kind of parish priest the diocese needed.

And that’s exactly what he became. He was not the kind of priest who believed his ministry ended with Sunday Mass. He organized amateur theatricals and church picnics, featuring horse races and baseball games. (He was particularly fond of America’s national pastime; he had been a leftfielder himself on the seminary baseball team.) He visited prisoners, and prayed alongside one repentant murder all the way to the gallows. When one father in his parish died too young, seemingly ending the college dreams of his talented sons, Father McGivney made sure their education continued – and both went on to Yale Law School. One of them later went on to the seminary, too, and became a priest himself.

At St. Mary’s, Father McGivney saw many other families who suffered losses like that – breadwinner fathers dying too soon, leaving behind widows and children to fend for themselves in a harsh world. He also saw men drifting away from the church, lured by the various non-Catholic and even anti-Catholic societies that were flourishing in America in the years after the Civil War. He was not the kind of priest who believed his ministry ended with Mass. So on a Sunday afternoon in the autumn of 1881, he convened a meeting in the church basement to discuss an idea he had for an organization that would address those problems. 80 men showed up. They kept meeting on Sunday afternoons through the fall and the winter until the snowy February day when they formally organized themselves into the Order they called the Knights of Columbus. To affirm their claim as devoted citizens of America, they took their name from the Italian explorer who was one of the few Catholic historical figures celebrated by America’s Protestant majority.

“The object of this association is to promote the principles of unity and charity, so that the members may gain strength to bestow charity on each other,” Father McGivney wrote.

They were a brotherhood formed as a mutual benefit society to aid members and their families in the event of illness or death, and to serve a larger mission, too – to act as a charitable force in their communities, and to support their Church, something they did so well that they were later described, as the “strong right arm” of the Church in America.

It started slowly. It was a new way for Catholic laymen to find a place for themselves in a new world, and it raised suspicions in some quarters – including among some priests and bishops. But it kept growing, spreading out from Connecticut into the rest of New England, and then through the Northeastern United States, and finally across the country and overseas, too.

Father McGivney only saw the raw beginnings of the Order he founded. He died young, like many overworked priests of his era – of pneumonia, just two days past his 38th birthday. There were 6,000 Knights then, at 56 councils. By 1905 there were Knights’ councils in every state. The profile and influence of the Knights surged during the First World War, when they opened their much-beloved hospitality centers – including one here in Rome – for all soldiers, not just Catholics, where, true to their principle of charity, the motto was “Everybody Welcome, Everything Free.” The Navy even christened a ship n their honor: the USS Casey, which carried the familiar nickname they had earned in the war.

The most famous American athlete was a Knight, Babe Ruth, and so was the first Catholic presidential candidate, Al Smith. He lost, in 1928, but when a Catholic finally did win the presidency, John F. Kennedy in 1960, he was a Knight, too. And today too, as throughout its history, the famous and the unknown come together as Knights in service to their church, their neighbors and their families. The widows and children of firefighters who died in the September 11th terrorist attacks; children who lost their limbs in the Haiti earthquake – they and many others have felt the generous hand of the Knights.

The Venerable Father McGivney, a candidate for sainthood, is buried in the Connecticut church where he founded the Knights of Columbus, who now number 1.8 million members in 15,000 councils in the United States, Canada, Central America, the Caribbean and the Philippines. Their most recent expansion was into Eastern Europe – Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania – a long way from that church basement in New Haven, but still on the same path.