Healing the American Family: Blessed Michael McGivney and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

At a time when America needs faithful fathers and devoted mothers, these two saintly Americans provide the models we need.

Blessed Michael McGivney (1852-1890) and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821) were certainly the saints the world needed in their times. The founder of the Knights of Columbus gave American Catholics a profound experience of fraternity and Elizabeth Ann Seton brought her motherly virtues to children, the poor and the sick.

But the 21st century might have an even greater need for their charisms.

Today, America faces a crisis of community, with an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation. It also faces a crisis of the family — with an increasing number of single mothers, who as a group face poverty at five times the rate of married women.

Enter Father Michael McGivney, the parish priest.

When the Knights of Columbus got serious about pursuing the canonization of Father Michael McGivney in the early 2000s, they commissioned research by historian Douglas Brinkley to track down details about his life. Surprisingly little had been recorded about the life of the priest who died at the age of 38 after founding an organization that would grow rapidly after his death.

The research resulted in a book Brinkley co-authored with Julie M. Fenster. Its title summed up the man in two words: Parish Priest.

McGivney was born August 11, 1852, in Waterbury, Connecticut, the oldest of 13 siblings in an Irish immigrant working-class family (though only seven survived into adulthood). He attended school until he was old enough to work in a brass factory at the age of 13. When he was 16, however, he left for seminary education in Quebec and then in Niagara Falls, New York.

His studies ended abruptly when his father died and he returned home to look after his family. The Hartford bishop saw his promise, though, and when the family was back on its feet, sent him to St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore.

As a new priest in 1877, he became the assistant pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in New Haven, Connecticut, where he proved to be an imaginative community-builder, putting on plays for parishioners and devoting himself to works of mercy, including visiting prisoners. He visited the death-row prisoner James Smith daily as he awaited execution for first-degree murder, helping him “face death without a tremor,” according to the convict.

Father McGivney got his first pastorship in Thomaston, Connecticut, north of his hometown — but then died six years later at age 38 during an influenza epidemic.

His experience with his own family’s hardships gave him a heart for families in need.

Blessed Michael McGivney’s greatest legacy is the Knights of Columbus, which he founded in 1882. It used the pomp-and-swords trappings of the secret societies for men that were popular then, but directed towards a very practical purpose: To not only build fraternity, but to provide financial security for widows and orphans. Today it remains both a Fraternal Organization and an insurance company.

An early member of the Knights, Edward Downes, said that McGivney had his own way of finding out who was in trouble. “His close friendship with Michael Curran, the undertaker, brought him the first-hand stories of the poverty and heartache which plagued so many,” he said. “He wanted some kind of adequate financial protection for the young families whose bread-winners were stricken by death.”

Today, as then, fatherlessness is a major cause of poverty.

Single mothers face a hard road, whether their husbands have died or simply abandoned the home. In addition to plunging women and children into poverty, fatherlessness today is associated with higher teen pregnancy rates, dropping out of school, incarceration, and high suicide rates for children. McGivney’s Knights are still providing materially and spiritually for families, including new programs such as Fathers for Good, which forms fatherly virtues in dads.

From the maternal perspective, we have saints like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who became a single mother herself when she was widowed with five children to support in 1803 at the age of 29.

Soon after she lost her husband to sickness during a trip to Italy, Elizabeth was introduced to the Catholic Church by the Filicchi family. In an 1804 letter to her friend Amabilia Filicchi, she shared the difficulties of life as a single mother: “There is a sad weariness now over life I never before was tired with.” But, “my lovely children round their writing table or round our evening fire make me forget a little this unworthy dejection which rises.”

It was her children who connected her motherhood to the Lord’s mother, she added. “Anna coaxes me when we are at our evening prayers to say Hail Mary and all say, ‘Oh do Ma teach it to us!’ Even little Bec tries to lisp it though she can scarcely speak.”

“And I ask my Savior, why should we not say it? If anyone is in heaven, his Mother must be there … So I kiss her picture you gave me, and beg her to be a Mother to us.”

In fact, she goes one step further. Reflecting on death, she sees motherhood as a metaphor for God’s welcome. As a soul dies, the “Father of your Soul attends and watches it in the weakness and trials of parting nature, with the same care you and I watch our little infant’s body in its first struggles and waits on its entrance into life.”

The tenderness of Mother Seton and the protective care of Father Michael McGivney are the complementary virtues that build families.

Father W.J. Slocum’s 1905 testimonial pointed to the fatherly virtues of the young parish priest.

“Father McGivney, though a man of unassuming character, was possessed of an indomitable will, by which, aided by the grace of God, he was able to face unkind and unjust criticism from all directions in his great effort to found a society for the benefit of young men and the glory of the church,” he said.

Likewise, Elizabeth Ann Seton’s spiritual director praised her motherly virtues.

“Her distinguishing characteristic was compassion and indulgence for poor sinners. Her charity made her watchful never to speak evil of others, always to find excuses, or to keep silence,” he said in the 1936 book The Soul of Elizabeth Seton. “Her heart was compassionate, religious, lavish of every good in her possession, disinterested in regard to all things. O Mother, excellent Mother!”

At a time when America needs faithful fathers and devoted mothers, these two saintly Americans provide the models we need.

The feast day of Blessed Michael McGivney is August 13. 

TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.

Image: Painting of Father Michael J. McGivney by Antonella Cappuccio at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven. CC BY-ND 2.0
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