"Father McGivney's vision remains as relevant as ever in the changed circumstances of today's church and society." -- Pope John Paul II Is now the time for an American parish priest to be declared a Catholic saint In Father Michael McGivney (1852-1890), born and raised in a Connecticut factory town, the modern era's ideal of the priesthood hit its zenith. The son of Irish immigrants, he was a man to whom "family values" represented more than mere rhetoric. And he left a legacy of hope still celebrated around the world. In the late 1800s, discrimination against American Catholics was widespread. Many Catholics struggled to find work and ended up in infernolike mills. An injury or the death of the wage earner would leave a family penniless. The grim threat of chronic homelessness and even starvation could fast become realities. Called to action in 1882 by his sympathy for these suffering people, Father McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus, an organization that has helped to save countless families from the indignity of destitution.
This is an articulate and sensitively written biography about Father Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus. In a time when the secular press is inundated with horrific accounts of abusive priests, McGivney's biography reflects the ideal standard of the holy parish priest. Fifteen chapters chronicle the astounding 38 years of his life and the legacy he bequeathed to American Catholicism. Born in 1852 to Irish immigrants who faced terrible poverty in an environment of emerging anti-Catholic rhetoric, McGivney eventually established an association of men who inured themselves against desperate situations and simultaneously pledged a fierce allegiance to patriotic ideals. The Knights of Columbus today claim an international membership of 1.7 million men. Parish Priest is thoroughly researched by historians Brinkley (Tour of Duty) and Fenster, who incorporated information from Acts, a comprehensive document used by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to advance the life of a holy person toward canonization. This first full-length biography of McGivney, which contains eight pages of black-and-white photos, is recommended for all public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/05.]-John-Leonard Berg, Univ. of Wisconsin-Platteville Lib. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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December 31, 2005
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Excerpt from Parish Priest by Douglas Brinkley
A Friend of the Family
Not that the state of Connecticut had anything against Catholics in the early 1800s -- but they weren't allowed to purchase land. If the issue was pressed, then special dispensation might be granted, but only through an act of the legislature. All the while, Catholics were expected to join with most of the rest of the populace in paying a tax for the support of the Congregational Church, the state's official religion at the time.1 Episcopals, Baptists, and Quakers were all exempted, but not Catholics. It was no wonder that Connecticut, with almost 300,000 residents, counted its Catholic population in the dozens. Yet none of that stopped Michael and Bridget Downes from moving there.
Their previous homeland was far worse for Catholics, and little better for Protestants. Ireland in the early nineteenth century was a land of enforced poverty, where few farmers owned their own acreage and the landlords, most of them living in England or on the European continent, choked out all hope of improvement by charging unreasonably high rents. The Times of London, a conservative newspaper that traditionally spared little sympathy for the Irish, sent a correspondent to County Donegal and received a description of a typical rural landscape: "From one end of [the landlord's] estate here to the other nothing is to be found but poverty, misery, wretched cultivation and infinite subdivision of land. There are no gentry, no middle class, all are poor, wretchedly poor. Every shilling the tenants can raise from their half-cultivated land is paid in rent, whilst the people subsist for the most part on potatoes and water."2
Even before the potato blight of 1845 led to the Great Famine, alert Irishmen were facing such facts and the sad impossibility of being Irish. "The conviction that the country held no future existed as early as 1815," William Forbes Adams wrote in his classic history Ireland and Irish Emigration to the New World.3 The Downes family escaped early on, sailing for America with their young son in 1827.4 Their specific destination was the state of Connecticut, where a few of their old neighbors had settled already.
For more than a dozen years, Michael Downes, known as Mikey, was a common laborer, probably finding work building canals or railroads, as did most of his countrymen. In 1832, he and Bridget moved to New Haven. By no coincidence, the city's first Roman Catholic congregation was established there the same year, serving about three hundred people. It would be in keeping with the devout Downes family to settle within the embrace of a parish, once that option was available.
In another respect, too, New Haven was ripe territory for people such as the Downeses. Mikey and Bridget were dedicated to reading and education. New Haven, a manufacturing town and an active port, was influenced most of all by Yale University. Founded in 1701 as a rather rigid Puritan institution, Yale would loosen up considerably in the nineteenth century, combining high academic standards with a rebellious spirit. The campus took up one whole side of the flat, grassy Green that formed the hub of New Haven life. Rising tall, like a citadel in fieldstone, Yale took little notice of New Haven's latest family of Irish immigrants. The Downeses were just a working-class couple trailing three young sons, William, Edward, and John, as they walked along the Green and looked up at the great university.