A Priest to Remember
Tuesday January 10, 2006
Julie M. Fenster
Separation of church and state is admirable, but separation of church and history is downright lamentable. Very little about America’s roiling religious evolution ever finds its way into general-interest books. In fact American history is often treated solely as political history. Sometimes, though, an obscure priest can leave as much influence as a President. Father Michael McGivney did so, with the two characteristics that give dimension to any historical figure: He understood his own times with special clarity, and he looked at the future with the same calm objectivity. In hopes of seeing his world the way he saw it, Douglas Brinkley and I have collaborated on a new book called Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism. It is just out today from William Morrow.
McGivney was born in Connecticut in 1852, at the height of the anti-Catholic movement in this country. To be against “papists” was an acceptable form of patriotism in the mid-1800s, inasmuch as Catholics were presumed to be more loyal to the pope than to anyone or anything in the United States. Besides, they were flooding into the country from Ireland, a place despised by our own mother country, Great Britain. A Catholic knew that he or she was going to encounter prejudice and just hoped it wouldn’t turn to violence. In any case, they had to be aware, as each day started, that there was already a strike against them. And for priests, it was two strikes.
When Michael McGivney was growing up, priests kept to their churches and did not circulate much in general society. They were targets of particular suspicion, and in their black cassocks they were easily spotted. To be a priest in America in the mid-nineteenth century was only for the strongest. And the smartest, to boot. The educational requirements were rigorous, and so were the character evaluations.
Michael McGivney had wanted to be a priest since childhood. It was a spiritual calling first, of course, but also a job for a man who wanted to take on a challenge, as Catholics tried to find a solid place in American society—to erase that strike against them. It was also a physical challenge. When McGivney entered the Hartford diocese, which then covered all of Connecticut and Rhode Island, the oldest priest was 57; the next-oldest was in his thirties. The work was physically exhausting, largely because of the shortage of priests (due to the tremendous influx of Catholic immigrants). It also exposed priests to diseases such as tuberculosis. It must have been draining emotionally too. While Protestant ministers at the time, by comparison, lived longer than the average, priests died at 30 or 35, and that was no surprise to anyone.
McGivney wanted to take on that daunting mantle and everything else that went with being a priest. He was ordained in 1877 and assigned to St. Mary’s Church in New Haven. He had been shy and rather awkward as a seminary student, but as an assistant curate he was drawn into the lives of his parishioners and drawn out of his shell by them. Naturally humorous, he became known as an easy man to talk to. Elderly shut-ins called him a “positive saint,” and children followed him around when they could. He was a good friend to have. Trying to keep the teenagers on a right path, he organized games (he had been a fine baseball player at seminary) and learned theater craft, directing ambitious musical productions in downtown New Haven theaters, featuring young people from all the New Haven parishes. The greater community was not off-limits in his view; he was part of a generation of priests with a new attitude about that. Activity-minded at first, he would become activist later.
It isn’t always easy to understand the priesthood, an ancient notion that has lasted into our modern days. I am no theologian, but I could always see that priests were at once slightly apart from others and yet extra accessible to them. People I knew would hone in on the issue of celibacy when the subject of priests came up, but that didn’t seem so extraordinary to me. I could easily see setting aside certain emotions or impulses while directing all of one’s energy into something worthwhile. Of course, having volunteered that opinion, I set myself up for suspicion that there was something wrong with me (too), which indicates what a complicated status the priest occupies—and how worth, therefore, looking into.
When the molestation scandals shook through the Church in the past decade or so, I was outraged for the expected reasons and moreover incensed that those rotten priests, however many there were in actuality, had smudged the reputation of every priest. My good friend Doug Brinkley—a great historian and best-selling author—had the same response, and we talked about it often.
When we read in The New York Times that this fellow, this Father McGivney of Connecticut, was being considered for sainthood, we became curious about him. In the midst of our scandal-ridden time he seemed to represent the truly sublime potential of the priesthood. Judging by what we could find out about him, we took a real interest in him. Well, that is no surprise. Everybody else did; why shouldn’t we?
Doug and I wanted to write a biography of McGivney and his times. To us he was an overlooked character, representing both his era and ours. Fortunately, Claire Wachtel, senior vice-president and executive editor at William Morrow, understood that Father McGivney occupied a critical place in American history and deserved a biography. She took a risk and let us go ahead. There was, however, one more thing about Father McGivney, the ordinary parish priest, that made him quite extraordinary.
In 1877 the rage among American men of McGivney’s age group was the secret society—the Masons, the Elks, the Woodmen, and so forth. At that juncture in industrialization, men were losing some of the former characteristics of manhood. They were not out hunting dinner; they were just a conduit by which a paycheck put dinner on the table. That is a simplification, but there was a tremendous yearning on the part of many men to redefine themselves somehow. The secret society, with its costumes, passwords, and ceremonies, apparently did the job. However, the American Catholic Church considered all such societies sacrilegious and forbade Catholics from joining any of them. Many Catholic men did anyway.
Father McGivney, assistant curate in New Haven, made a brilliant realization: A secret society could help join men to the Church rather than divide them from it. It could give them a new self-image, judging their own success by the spiritual and material happiness of their wives and children. A secret society could, through an insurance benefit, offer security to those very families that McGivney knew so well. And, finally, it could draw Catholics into the solid center of American life—hence the name he chose, Knights of Columbus. In terms of secrecy, the new order was and it wasn’t. Outsiders couldn’t attend meetings or know the secret rites, but any Catholic priest could attend and be privy to everything that happened within the Knights of Columbus.
With the Knights of Columbus, Father McGivney helped others see Catholic values as inherently American ones. Only a few years after founding the wildly successful group, he withdrew and left it to others. When he died, in the town of Thomaston, Connecticut, at the age of 38, he was in the only role he had ever wanted: a parish priest, plain and simple. Well, not simple at all.
—Julie M. Fenster is a frequent contributor to American Heritage. Her previous book is Race of the Century: The Heroic True Story of the 1908 New York to Paris Auto Race (Crown, $25).