Investors Business Daily
One Man's Vision For Change
BY CURT SCHLEIER
Father Michael McGivney was appalled at the widespread poverty he saw around him.
McGivney (1852-1890) was the pastor of a small parish in post-Civil War New Haven, Conn. It was a difficult period for Catholics, who because of broad-scale prejudice couldn't purchase land in the state without special permission. Also, they also had to pay taxes to support Connecticut's official religion, the Congregational Church.
Living conditions were so bad, many hard-working immigrants — most of them Catholic — died young of diseases they had no money to prevent or treat. Widows and children were left with no resources, and often whole families were wiped out.
Certainly, McGivney could've looked the other way — many, even among the clergy, did. After all, he was busy enough ministering to his congregation and trying to raise funds to eliminate the enormous debt incurred when his parish built their church.
But McGivney couldn't turn his back on suffering, whether the sufferers worshipped in his parish or passed him on the street.
It wasn't an easy task. He had to fight an entrenched bureaucracy that was leery of him and his motives. He knew he couldn't do it all alone. So McGivney founded a fraternal welfare society to provide sick benefits and low-cost life insurance for the Catholic poor.
Building on the principle that strong families were the foundation of the church, McGivney's organization spread across the nation to include millions and help millions more. It still exists. Today the Knights of Columbus number 1.7 million members who volunteer 61 million hours and raise $130 million in aid annually. The organization also insures 1.2 million people.
While it sounds logical in hindsight, the organization was a radical concept for a priest at that time.
According to David Brinkley and Julie Fenster in "Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism," McGivney served the church at a unique time — many immigrants had been farmers or independent tradesmen in the old country, but found themselves working in factories and facing an identity crisis.
To compensate, some joined one of the dozens of secret fraternal societies that sprang up at the time, such as the Elks and the Moose. But because these organizations had rituals that were seen as anti-Catholic, they conflicted with the church.
So when McGivney broached the idea of a fraternal society — although it was exclusively for Catholics and would focus on charity — the idea wasn't immediately well received by the church hierarchy.
Nevertheless, he refused to give up. While he hounded church leaders — in a gracious way, writing countless polite letters — he gave what he could to the poor in his parish. His reputation for devotion and steady service stood him in good stead. His stick-to-it, straightforward approach convinced church leaders "that any project he originated must be beneficial for Catholics or it could not have come from him," said Brinkley and Fenster.
Once he got the green light from the church, McGivney made sure he had a support structure. He formed a committee of prominent local leaders to oversee this new organization and give it stature.
Getting the committee's busy members to work together, and quickly, wasn't easy. To gain their cooperation, he tailored his work style to fit individuals.
"He knew when to be stern and when to ease off, when to press his own views and when to stand aside," wrote Brinkley and Fenster.
To increase their cohesion as a group, McGivney pitched right in to lead by example. "No chore was too much trouble, no reading too dull — and no acquaintance immune from his enthusiasm for the idea," Brinkley and Fenster wrote.
Before he made a new move, his first step was research. He checked to see what other societies were doing, because if there already was "a Catholic organization similar to the one he envisioned, then there would be no need to start from scratch."
There wasn't. He culled the good ideas from other organizations and fit them into his own. In early 1882, the committee voted to name the organization the Knights of Columbus — "Knights" to show their fealty to Roman Catholicism, and "Columbus" in honor of the European discoverer of the New World to show their American patriotism. Shortly thereafter, the group received a charter from Connecticut.
It was slow going early on, but McGivney kept going as confident as ever of success. He regularly did mailings to other churches in the diocese describing benefits of membership ($5 a week for up to 13 weeks, with possible additional payments if the member remained ill) and talked up the organization to nearly everyone he encountered.
While members of the founding committee got into arguments about picayune subjects — the colors of their uniforms, for example — McGivney kept himself focused on the organization's goal, working single-handedly when necessary. "Father McGivney's role was to keep the founders from losing sight of the horizon," Brinkley and Fenster wrote.
Focus On The Positive
No matter how slowly membership built, he kept an optimistic attitude and urged others to do the same. "Our beginning is extremely slow, but I think when our by-laws are distributed we will advance more rapidly," he wrote to a despairing founding committee member.
The idea eventually caught on. But McGivney refused to bask in his accomplishment. "In 1884, with the order flourishing and the opportunity for immense influence lying well within his grasp, Father McGivney declined to allow himself to be re-elected as secretary of the Supreme Council," the authors wrote. Instead, he re-devoted himself to parish duties, noting that he had much work to do there.
McGivney's ultimate success with the Knights was little surprise to those who knew him and his background. Following his ordination, McGivney became curate of St. Mary's, the first Catholic parish in New Haven. It was a difficult assignment. The parish pastor was ill, and his duties were often left to the new priest. The church was heavily in debt and was located in a Protestant area where it wasn't welcome. An article about St. Mary's in The New York Times in 1879 carried the headline, "How an Aristocratic Avenue Was Blemished by a Roman Catholic Edifice."
From the moment McGivney arrived, he demonstrated a can-do attitude. One of the biggest problems facing members of his church was high levels of alcoholism. Total Abstinence League groups already existed, but largely languished.
He soon became involved. The TAL sponsored a series of plays to raise money and attract new members. McGivney directed the productions and showed his willingness to try something new by casting women in the female roles. The production was a huge success — more than 1,800 people attended on opening night — and it raised big funds for the church.
No matter what he undertook, he gave it his all. Still, McGivney loved his work. "The only thing he liked better than working with them . . . was standing back and watching them work together."