Parish Priest

Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism

by Douglas Brinkley and Julie M. Fenster
New York: HarperCollins, 2006

Reviewed by Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur

Fr. Michael McGivney lived for a mere 38 years during the latter half of the nineteenth century, yet he left an indelible mark on American Catholicism through his founding of the Knights of Columbus. He is being considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church,but that is not the reason that Douglas Brinkley and Julie Finster chose to write about him. Instead, they chose McGivney as a study of what it meant to be a parish priest during the difficult years when anti-Catholic sentiment was rampant and the immigrant church was struggling to get a foothold in America.

“Parish Priest” is a biography rooted in history. McGivney is the central character but the book also explores life for the immigrant Irish in New Haven, CT. It explores social issues and the development of “secret” fraternal organizations. It also examines the need for life insurance which was one of the reasons the “Knights of Columbus” was founded. “Parish Priest” also describes the hard life for priests of that era.

Catholics were fighting for their place in American society. In order to earn others' respect, they had to be “above reproach – and the priests, in particular, had to be perfect. They weren't perfect, of course. But through the years they did not sully the ideal.” Standards for entering the seminary were strict, the courses hard, and the candidate's personal character had to be outstanding. There were too few priests for too many parishioners. They were overworked and died young.

“Parish Priest” studies the establishment of the “Knights of Columbus.” While today it is a powerful organization of over 1.7 million men in several countries, it got off to a very rocky beginning. The first meeting was held October 2, 1881 with two stated aims for the organization. The primary object was “to prevent people from entering Secret Societies [which was frowned upon by the Church], by offering the same, if not better, advantages to our members. Secondly, to unite the men of our Faith throughout the Diocese of Hartford, 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.” Twelve men formed the initial committee. On March 29, 1882, the state of Connecticut recognized the Knights of Columbus with a charter and three days later the first members were inducted. All was not smooth sailing however as personalities clashed and recruitment slowed. It wasn't until 1883 when the second council formed in Meriden that the organization really began to blossom.

One of the most interesting things in reading “Parish Priest” is how many issues that existed over 100 years ago are still with us today. While the government umbrella is definitely better, the issues of poverty, men deserting their families, and the struggle to integrate faith and secular life still exist. In addition, the way McGivney was able to change how the priesthood functioned in order to meet the needs of a new time is inspiring. The Church, throughout the centuries, has had to meet the needs of its people in different ways depending on what the world required. The same holds true today as the Church reaches out to people through modern technology.

Fr. Michael McGivney was ultimately a “Parish Priest.” That was all he desired to be. His creation of the “Knights of Columbus” was a way to help his parishioners and others like him. He cared deeply about the people under his spiritual care. He serves as a role model for all priests. The book “Parish Priest” is interesting reading, providing a window into American Catholic social history in the late 1800s as well as being an inspiring tale of a priest.

Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur is editor of "Spiritual Woman. Visit her blog at

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