Who is Father Michael J. McGivney? For most, this question might be met with an emphatic, “Who?” Some may know, at most, that he is the founder of the Knights of Columbus. Few, however, would be able to give a comprehensive overview of Fr. McGivney’s life and his impact on Catholicism in America.
Douglas Brinkley and Julie M. Feenster, however, attempt to do just that in their book, Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism. Brinkley and Feenster follow the life of Fr. McGivney, focusing primarily on his vocation to the diocesan priesthood and how the creation of the Knights of Columbus came out of Fr. McGivney’s pastoral love for his congregation.
In doing so, Parish Priest crafts a picture of Catholic parish life in the mid-nineteenth century. It explores the difficulties faced by Catholic citizens and immigrants alike, forced to take low-paying, highly dangerous jobs due to widespread anti-Catholic sentiment. It explores the nineteenth century phenomenon of men leaving the Catholic Church for a variety of secret societies. It expresses the financial difficulties faced by seminarians and their families, and the very real possibility that a death in the family could keep a young man from answering God’s call to the priesthood.
As such, though Parish Priest is marketed as a biography, it is better described as a multi-faceted history. It is, of course, a biographical history, chronicling the life of Fr. Michael McGivney from New Haven, Connecticut. But it is also a sociological history, depicting the ills met by American Catholics and Catholic immigrants in the nineteenth century. It is a corporate history, expressing the foundational story and ideals behind the Knights of Columbus, which has since become the largest Catholic fraternal organization in the world and a Fortune 1000 company (the Knights of Columbus offers life-insurance policies to its members and their families, in connection with Fr. McGivney’s founding vision to help support widowed women and orphaned children).
It is because of this range in content that Parish Priest is most praiseworthy. One does not have to be connected to the Knights of Columbus to find the book enjoyable—one could be interested in American Catholicism, immigration, nineteenth century secret societies, vocational stories, or myriad other topics and find himself fascinated with the book. It will even interest that (presumably small) audience interested in the development of the life insurance industry!
In short, Parish Priest offers to the reader a complex but highly enjoyable and equally readable depiction of American society through the lense of Father McGivney and his incredible dedication to his vocation as a priest. In doing so, it also portrays an inspiring biography of a man who, out of simple and total devotion to his pastoral duties, has greatly impacted the Catholic Church both in the United States and abroad.
Evan Holguin is a senior in the Program of Liberal Studies and a proud member of the Knights of Columbus. You could make his day by praying for the canonization of Father Michael J. McGivney, or sending him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.