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Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism

Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism

4.3 9
by Douglas Brinkley, Julie M. Fenster

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"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


"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. From its uncertain beginnings, when Father McGivney was the only person willing to work toward its success, it has grown to an international membership of 1.7 million men.

At heart, though, Father McGivney was never anything more than an American parish priest, and nothing less than that, either—beloved by children, trusted by young adults, and regarded as a "positive saint" by the elderly in his New Haven parish.

In an incredible work of academic research, Douglas Brinkley (The Boys of Pointe Du Hoc, Tour of Duty) and Julie M. Fenster (Race of the Century, Ether Day) re-create the life of Father McGivney, a fiercely dynamic yet tenderhearted man. Though he was only thirty-eight when he died, Father McGivney has never been forgotten. He remains a true "people's priest," a genuinely holy man—and perhaps the most beloved parish priest in U.S. history. Moving and inspirational, Parish Priest chronicles the process of canonization that may well make Father McGivney the first American-born parish priest to be declared a saint by the Vatican.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
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.

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Parish Priest

Chapter One

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 forthe 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.

Mikey Downes started work in New Haven as a news hawk, selling one New Haven paper or another on the street. The work suited him and a short time later he was a full-time newsdealer—said to be the city's very first—stocking an array of New Haven and New York papers in a corner kiosk.5 It was a major accomplishment for him at the time, but he wasn't through. Like most of his countrymen, disenchanted with farming as they had known it in Ireland, he regarded storekeeping as the province of truly unlimited opportunity.

Only about 1 percent of first-generation Irish immigrants managed to fulfill the dream of opening a shop;6 Downes joined their ranks in the early 1840s, when he rented a space at the prime corner of Church and Chapel streets, on the Green looking diagonally across to Yale. Customers could buy papers or, for two cents, go in the back room and read as many of the New York papers as they wanted. Political debates with the proprietor were free of charge.

Mikey and Bridget also owned property—although by the time they bought a wood-frame house in 1843, the state legislature didn't have to know about it. The law requiring special dispensation for land ownership by Catholics had been lifted ten years before. The days of official antagonism toward Catholics were over. Unofficial anti-Catholic fervor was surging to new peaks, though. To combat the image of immigrant Catholics, especially Irish ones, as disloyal and shiftless, the Downes family was intent on showing that they belonged in America.

In 1845, with the store making the Downes name famous in New Haven, Mikey died suddenly. His second son Edward, only sixteen, took over the family store. With his help, and the encouragement of Bridget, the youngest of the three Downes boys, John, graduated from Yale Medical School in 1854. Immediately popular in his practice, he died of tuberculosis at the age of just twenty-six. The oldest son, William, later graduated from Yale Law School. Extremely successful in his own right, he was pointed out as "New Haven's only Catholic lawyer" until his own early death, also from tuberculosis.

Through the years, the store was left entirely to Edward, who continually expanded his small empire until, in the late 1860s, it was "Edward Downes, Stationer and Newsdealer, at Wholesale and Retail."7 From art supplies to comic magazines, he sold anything pertaining to paper goods and watched over one of New Haven's most thriving businesses.

Parish Priest. Copyright © by Douglas Brinkley. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Douglas Brinkley is a professor of history at Rice University, the CNN Presidential Historian, and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Audubon. The Chicago Tribune has dubbed him “America’s new past master.” His recent Cronkite won the Sperber Prize for Best Book in Journalism and was a Washington Post Notable Book of the Year. The Great Deluge won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. He is a member of the Society of American Historians and the Council on Foreign Relations. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and three children.

Julie M. Fenster is an award-winning author and historian, specializing in the American story. In 2006 her book Parish Priest, written with coauthor Douglas Brinkley, was a New York Times bestseller for seven weeks. She also wrote Ether Day: The Strange Tale of America's Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted Men Who Made It, which won the prestigious Anesthesia Foundation Award for Best Book. Fenster is the author of six other books, including Race of the Century: The Heroic True Story of the 1908 New York to Paris Auto Race and The Case of Abraham Lincoln: A Story of Adultery, Murder, and the Making of a Great President.

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Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Parish Priest is an inspirational story of a young priest in nineteenth century New England struggling to help his poor, immigrant community. In the face of many hardships, including religious prejudice, Fr. Michael McGivney helped the working families, widows and orphans that were paying a terrible burden during the Industrialization of the United States. The authors tell his story, especially how he founded the Knights of Columbus, in a very readable and enjoyable manner. While reading Parish Priest I kept remembering the film, Gangs of New York, and thinking, 'here's the rest of the story.' Father McGivney is remembered as one of America's great parish priests. It is clear from this book why the Vatican is now considering whether he should be declared a saint.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is an eye-opening look at the life of a parish priest -- ANY parish priest. As authors David Brinkley and Julie M. Fenster state in the book's preface, 'We hope an account of McGivney's life will help to instigate fresh thinking on the priesthood and its manifest potential.' This book is not so much a history of the Knights of Columbus as it is an affirmation of the maxim that 'One good priest can make a difference.' Members of the Knights of Columbus, as well as the general public (and seminarians in particular), will gain new insights into the life and times of the man who confronted bigotry, disease and unimaginable adversity -- with the weapons of charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism. The text is brilliantly written, easy to read, full of unexpectedly humorous sarcasm. It is hard to put down: How will it end? The indispensible epilogue is full of surprises. As Fr. McGivney once said, 'I promise you everything will come out satisfactorily.'
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An interesting biography for those fans of history: America in mid to late 1800s, ant-Catholicism, Irish migration, urban struggles in the US, the Catholic Church. Why the Knights of Columbus was formed by an Irish priest!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story of Fr. McGivney and his achievements, not only his success in founding the Knights of Columbus, but of his love and compassion fo others, while remaining a humble parish priest, truly inspires awe in the reader.The book itself is a rather quick and interesting read. It is a must read not only for my Brother Knights, but for all Catholics.
readnmachine More than 1 year ago
Well written with a good chronology. Provides insight not only to the founding of the Knights of Columbus, but also what life was like for a Catholic in late 1800's in North eastern US
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Finally, a story about a good priest, one who founded an organization to help people who were just short of persecution in the 1880s. I was totally engulfed with the writing and the journey on which it took me. I have made this book a must read in my family.++++++