Knights of Columbus

Sunday, January 22, 2006

He lived to be only 38, his highest title was "pastor," and he was no martyr; but Fr. Michael McGivney is now a candidate for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church. If his cause succeeds, he will be the first American priest to be so honored. What makes him such a noteworthy figure -- and the subject of Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism (Morrow, $24.95), by Douglas Brinkley and Julie M. Fenster? McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus, the benevolent association that provided what might be called pensions of last resort, at a time when insurance was "typically designed for people with substantial assets." When the Knights came along, working-class Catholics were second-class citizens in the United States, looked down upon and often discriminated against by the Protestant majority. By providing a safety net between Catholics and destitution, the Knights helped initiate a political and cultural transformation that culminated in the presidency of John F. Kennedy.

A resident of Connecticut, McGivney was "mild-mannered," even "lamblike," but he knew how to get his way, as when he persuaded a founding committee made up of Irish-Americans only to name the new organization after the Italian Columbus: The idea was to affirm American Catholics' loyalty to their country, which some critics had called into question. Early in the Knights' existence, a membership drive lagged so badly that the ability to promise benefits hung in the balance; today the organization, now international, weighs in at 1.7 million strong.

-- Dennis Drabelle

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