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The Irish Roots of the Knights of Columbus


By Andrew Butler

An Irish-American priest envisioned an Order for all Catholic men

Father Michael J. McGivney

Father Michael J. McGivney

St. Patrick’s Day reminds us that Knights of Columbus founder Father Michael J. McGivney was the son of Irish immigrants and that he lived among and was inspired by his mostly Irish parishioners.

Every founding member of the Knights was of Irish ancestry and while the faith and culture of the Irish formed the group, it never limited their vision for who the Knights of Columbus would be and who they would serve.

Father McGivney would later write that he wanted the K of C “to unite the men of our faith throughout the Diocese of Hartford [which at that time included all of Connecticut, Rhode Island and a portion of Massachusetts], that we may thereby gain strength to aid each other in time of sickness; to provide for decent burial, and to render pecuniary assistance to the families of deceased members.”

Why did Father McGivney choose Christopher Columbus as the Knights’ patron? The choice would eventually prompt some to think the Knights was an Italian organization given that the explorer’s reverence by Italian-Americans.

He chose Columbus because the explorer was a Catholic loved and respected by the wider American public which, at the time, was known for a general antipathy toward Catholics. Columbus would represent the idea that Catholics had a place in the new world.

Both the original K of C incorporators and historians point out that the Knights had an early Irish influence and flavor, but its identity quickly transcended identification with any one particular group.

This did not mean that the founders were not proud of their Irish roots. Father Michael McGivney loved the annual celebration of St. Patrick's Day. In 1880, for example, he even directed the St. Patrick’s Day play put on at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn., where he served as parochial vicar.

St. Patrick and Seven Other Irish Saints You Should Know

One parishioner who, no doubt, took pride in his Irish heritage was Cornelius Driscoll. Born in Ireland’s County Kerry, Ireland, Driscoll came to America as a young boy. And, although Catholics were largely unwelcome at American colleges, he earned both his bachelor’s and law degrees at Yale — he was the only Catholic in his class. Eventually he would become the first Irish Catholic and first immigrant to be elected as mayor of New Haven.

Driscoll introduced Father McGivney to another Irish-Catholic, James T. Mullen. Mullen who had served in the Union army during the Civil War, later becoming a policeman and, finally, a business owner in New Haven.

It was fitting that Driscoll and Mullen supported Father McGivney’s dream to form a fraternal organization for Catholics and they were present for the first meeting of what would become the Knights of Columbus in the basement of St. Mary’s Church.

At a time when working conditions for Catholics were often dangerous, the organization would provide the opportunity for Catholic men to join together in faith and to help provide for widows and orphans.

Poverty was another experience shared by almost all of the new arrivals from Ireland and their children. McGivney himself understood what it was like trying to make ends meet.

Father McGivney was born in 1852 in Waterbury, Conn., the first son of Patrick and Mary (Lynch) McGivney. Due to the potato famine, Patrick and Mary had immigrated to the United States from County Cavan, Ireland. Years later, they watched their son discern the priesthood — which also makes sense: Irish immigrant families of the mid-19th century wove a reverence for religious vocations into the fabric of their daily life.

After his ordination, young McGivney was assigned to St. Mary’s Church in the shadow of Yale University and the surrounding Anglo-Saxon, Protestant world of New England, he served Irish immigrants whose church was otherwise regarded as a blemish upon the aristocratic community.

Anti-Catholic sentiment in New Haven didn’t stop Father McGivney and his parishioners from celebrating their culture, whether it was through honoring St. Patrick or founding the Knights of Columbus.

Today, the Knights of Columbus has grown into the largest fraternal Catholic organization in the world, with nearly 2 million members in Ukraine, Canada, Poland, France, the Philippines, South Korea and more. Last year alone, Knights put their faith into action by donating $185 million to charity and volunteering over 75 million hours.

This Saint Patrick’s Day, let us thank God for the foresight of Father McGivney, the humble Irish-American priest from Connecticut. Let us also seek the protection of the Holy Trinity in praying the Prayer of St. Patrick:

Prayer of St. Patrick

I bind unto myself today the power of God to hold
And lead, his eye to watch, his might to stay,
His ear to hearken to my need; the wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, his shield to ward; the word of God
to give me speech, his heav’nly host to be my guard.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort me and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in the hearts of all who love me,
Christ in the mouth of friend and stranger,

I bind unto myself the Name, the strong Name of the Trinity,
by invocation of the same, the Three in One, and One in Three,
of whom all nature hath creation; Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
praise to the Lord of my salvation, salvation is of Christ the Lord.

Want to learn more about Father McGivney? Click here to order your copy of Parish Priest: Father McGivney and American Catholicism by Douglas Brinkley Julie M. Fenster, which was very helpful in gathering the details for this article.

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