One of my strongest primal memories is of the Knights of Columbus. As far back as I can remember, they were as present and as taken-for-granted as the Austin Boulevard Bus, the Lake Street L and Pedersen’s Ice Cream Store. Commodore Barry Council, of which my father was a member and once Grand Knight, was a major reality throughout my youth and beyond.
My father and mother had met at the council’s “country club” (summer camp) in Twin Lakes, Wis. Our family spent summers there from the earliest years in my life—and glorious years they were, lasting well into my middle years of grammar school. I remember running down to the lake right away and have many photos that captured those times. (My sister argues that memories of those days at the lake permeate my novels.)
The council chaplain officiated at my parents’ wedding and later vetted (gently) my vocation to the priesthood, and he said my father’s funeral Mass. My father was the manager of Barry’s Indoor Baseball team (Chicago 16-inch softball played in cracker-box K of C gyms) and also right shortstop. That position was later called short center fielder when the game moved outside, and it became Chicago softball. He also edited an annual softball handbook (he wrote too much). George Halas, of Chicago Bear fame, was the pitcher of that championship team and later provided us with free passes to Bears games.
My father also spent many a night at the clubhouse at Washington Blvd. and Francisco, straightening out accounting messes. In addition, he was the council’s point man on helping priests who were inclined to take too much of the drink. I joined Barry after I was ordained but never made a meeting because my first assignment was on the far south side and the council had moved to the western suburbs.
The Knights, I would often hear, were a “conservative” group, news that would have surprised my New Deal Democrat dad—and the rest of us, even to the third generation. They were, it seemed to me, then and now, a Catholic fraternal organization. And like similar organizations across religious lines, they were not inclined to radicalism, though they included in my father’s time many dedicated union members. Today the Knights of Columbus is also a vast insurance network, using income from investments to do good works. This includes, for example, providing the hardware for Vatican television (which performed so brilliantly during the most recent conclave).
It is against such a background that I read Parish Priest, a well-researched and fascinating biography of the Rev. Michael McGivney, the Connecticut-born founder of the Knights of Columbus. I hoped that I could read the book without disillusion because it deals with something that was so important to my father and, through him, to me. And I did.
Michael McGivney (1852-90) was a popular, hard-working parish priest, typical of many parish priests who served immigrant populations in the United States in the second half of the 19th century. Full of energy and zeal, some of these men lived short lives. Only 38 at the time of his death, McGivney had worn himself out by his work and had little resistance to attacks of the flu and pneumonia. Such an end was not unusual for priests and religious in those days. All eight of the first Mercy Sisters in Chicago died within a decade of their arrival from Pittsburgh. The average age at death of 19th-century priests in Chicago was 36.
In the midst of his work in the Hartford Diocese as curate and then as pastor, paying off debt, organizing theatricals and sports, administering parish fairs, charming young and old alike, instructing youth, visiting the sick and burying the dead, McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus at the ripe old age of 29. He was so young that if he had been a parish priest in the Chicago of the 1950’s, he would have been forbidden to own a car, to drink alcohol or to stay out after 11 p.m. The Knights at their very beginning were little more than a burial society, committed to providing funeral benefits and some extra money for the family of the bereaved.
Father McGivney, troubled that many young families of immigrant workers were plunged into penury by the early death of the family’s wage earner, understood the temptation to join the Elks or the Odd Fellows or, much worse, the Masons to protect a family against sudden death. He asked a very simple question: Why could there not be a Catholic lay fraternal organization, with a touch of secrecy perhaps, but acceptable to the church?
Some of the priests in the Hartford Diocese complained, as priests do, that this young priest had a lot of nerve to make such an outrageous proposal. But the bishop supported him and the Knights were established, with only a handful of members. They grew rapidly, however, because they served a deeply felt need among immigrant families. Father McGivney withdrew from an active role (save as chaplain) when the organization was a success and devoted his time to the parish, a parish priest of whom all the rest of us have reason to be proud.
By 1922, when my father was at the peak of his activities in Barry Council, there were 800,000 Knights, one thousand of them in Barry. There are now over 1.7 million members and 1.3 million premium-paid insurance policies, as well as annuities and long-term care policies. Catholic men now have access to other insurance resources, and the Knights are no longer the only source of protection for poor families faced with sudden death. That they remain a popular source of insurance, though, bespeaks their continued influence.
The greatest achievement of the Knights, however, came in the years before the Great Depression and the rise of unions. During this time they offered working-class immigrant families a way to prepare themselves for the financial crisis after a death. Father McGivney’s courageous ingenuity, as Parish Priest amply demonstrates, made a huge contribution to the economic security of poor immigrants. Not until reading the book did I learn just how central was the insurance function of the Knights. That which was an important contribution to my family history—the social and athletic programs of this fraternal order—was, for me and my own life experience, a happy bonus.
There is a cause for McGivney’s canonization proceeding in Rome. He could be the first native-born American parish priest to be declared a saint. He deserves it for many reasons. Father Michael McGivney, briefly put, is indeed a model to all of us.