Book Review: Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism

Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism by Douglas Brinkley and Julie M. Fenster (New York: William Morrow, 2006) tells the story of the founder of the Knights of Columbus, one of the largest charitable organizations in the Church. The Knights help to raise money for handicapped organizations, to create and support scholarships for college students, and to support the Pope’s charitable activities and other needs of the Church. They helped to clean and restore St. Peter’s Basilica’s façade and that of St. John Lateran. They have helped other churches too. They also help their members through insurance policies. The Knights of Columbus are also a large and active group of supporters of pro-life activities.

In 1997 the process for the canonization of the founder of the Knights of Columbus, Fr. Michael McGivney was started by the Archbishop of Hartford, Connecticut, Daniel A. Cronin. Fr. Gabriel O’Donnell is the archdiocesan postulator, or advocate, for Fr. McGivney’s cause. He has put together a 700-page document on McGivney which he completed in 2000. This document has been presented to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and they appointed a Vatican postulator to look into Fr. McGivney’s cause. Fr. McGivney’s cause will need one miracle for him to be declared blessed and then another miracle is needed to advance his cause to canonization and of him being declared a saint. This book says that no miracle has been accredited to him yet.

Brinkley and Fenster’s book is not part of the official document of the cause for canonization for Fr. McGivney although it may help with that. It can popularize Fr. McGivney to the rest of the world who do not know him. Most people not connected with the Knights of Columbus would not know who he was. The most they may know is that he was their founder. He had a life before he founded the Knights. This book tells that story and the story after the founding of the Knights. The book starts in a somewhat odd way by telling the story of the Downes family and the history of the Irish Catholics in New Haven, Connecticut. The Catholic Church was small and poor in this New England city. The story of the Downeses is similar to McGivney’s and other Irish living at that time. Poverty and early death was a common occurrence. This is what prompted McGivney to found the Knights of Columbus to help provide life insurance and other aid to those in need. This new organization did not have the support of all of the clergy in Connecticut or of other places. Once it received the support of the Bishop of Hartford the group could recruit more members.

Fr. McGivney did not keep letters or other items; therefore, much of this book is based on others’ letters and histories of the time period. Brinkley and Fenster relate how intelligent McGivney was. He did very well in school and in seminary. If he had lived longer he may have become a bishop since he was only 38 when he died. His death at an early age was not unusual for Catholic clergy of the day as the book informs the reader. Many clergy and religious were overworked and had not the time to take care of themselves. They usually died as they say “with their boots on.” They also died from diseases they caught when they were ministering to the sick and dying. They spent themselves for Christ.

Fr. McGivney was concerned about the needs of young adults and children. He organized activities like plays and baseball games to keep the young men from drinking and getting into trouble. He tried to help others when they were in need like acting as a guardian for Alfred Downes and ministering to a convicted killer.

Brinkley and Fenster provide a popular biography of Fr. Michael McGivney and provide an early history of the Knights of Columbus. Those interested or curious about the Knights will enjoy this book. It also provides a history of the Catholic Church in New Haven, Connecticut.

Douglas Brinkley is a professor of history at Tulane University. He is the author of the forth-coming book McCarthyism in America (Feb. 2007), Boys of Pointe du Hoc (2006), The Great Deluge, the World War II Memorial (2006), Rosa Parks (2005), Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War (2004), Wheels for the World (2004), World War II Desk Reference (2004), New York Public Library American History Desk Reference (2003) and other books and articles. Julie M. Fenster is the editor of the Forbes Collection Presidential Book Series. She is the author of Race of the Century (2006), Mavericks, Miracles, Medicine (2004), Open Road’s Boston Guide (1997) and other articles.

Br. Benet Exton, O.S.B., writes from St. Gregory’s University, Shawnee, Oklahoma.

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