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Connecticut Catholic priests take pride 'one of our own' about to be beatified

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WATERBURY, Conn. -- Msgr. John J. Bevins has been praying a long time that a miracle would be attributed to the intercession of Father Michael J. McGivney and move him one step closer to sainthood.

"I've been praying I would live long enough to see it," he said. "I was elated. We are praying harder now for the second miracle of canonization."

The miracle needed for Father McGivney's beatification was approved by the Vatican last May. The founder of the Knights of Columbus will be beatified Oct. 31 during a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, N.J., at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford, Conn.

He will be the first U.S. parish priest to be beatified and will be given the title "Blessed."

Msgr. Bevins, who served as pastor of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Waterbury from 1991 to 2014, said he holds "great pride" that a man considered for sainthood walked the streets of Waterbury. "I have great pride in the city," he said. "Here, one of our own was raised."

Waterbury was once a city of parishes where hundreds of thousands of Catholics attended church and were educated in the teachings of the church — and where many vocations are said to have originated.

One of those vocations was for Father McGivney, the son of Irish immigrants, who was born in Waterbury. He attended local schools and developed his faith at Immaculate Conception Church, now the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, where he was baptized, received the sacraments and said his first Mass as an ordained priest.

In the basilica office, Msgr. Bevins proudly showed a copy of Father McGivney's baptismal record that hangs on a wall and a statue of Father McGivney that used to be located in the now-closed St. Mary School, which merged in 2018 with another Catholic school to form the Catholic Academy of Waterbury.

"Father McGivney was baptized here, which shows that anyone can be a saint too. ... This is great for the people of Waterbury," the monsignor told the Catholic Transcript, the monthly magazine of the Archdiocese of Hartford.

Father McGivney was ordained Dec. 22, 1877, and a few days later, he said his first Mass at Immaculate Conception Church. His first assignment was as assistant pastor of St. Mary's Parish in New Haven. Established in 1832, St. Mary's Parish is the oldest Catholic church in New Haven and the second oldest in Connecticut.

Father McGivney served at St. Mary's from 1877 to 1884, and it was there he founded the Knights as a service organization to help widows and orphans.

When they heard the news that the pope had approved this first miracle in his cause, Dominican friars from St. Mary's Parish gathered at the rear of the church to pray around Father McGivney's bronze coffin, which is inside a polished granite sarcophagus.

On March 29, 1982, 100 years after Father McGivney founded the Knights and 92 years after he was buried in the McGivney family plot at Old St. Joseph Cemetery in Waterbury, his remains were reentombed at St. Mary's Church.

The McGivney family gave permission for his reentombment, because that March, during the centennial observance of the official founding of the Knights of Columbus, early plans were made to consider opening his sainthood cause. In December 1997, Archbishop Daniel A. Cronin, then head of the Hartford Archdiocese, officially opened his cause.

The Vatican made its announcement about the miracle attributed to Father McGivney's intercession at 6 a.m. (Eastern Time) May 27, and by 6:45 a.m., Father John Paul Walker, pastor, received a call from Rome for an interview.

"It was elation, many of us had been hoping for this moment and praying for it," Father Walker told the Catholic Transcript. "There is a sense of confidence now, to have that personal sense given a definitive approval by the church."

The approved miracle involved the cure five years earlier of a U.S. baby, still in utero, with a life-threatening condition that, under most circumstances, could have led to an abortion. In general, a second verified miracle attributed to the sainthood candidate's intercession is needed for canonization.

During Mass at St. Mary's, parishioners have been reciting the "Prayer for the Canonization of Father McGivney" for several years.

"People are thrilled," Father Walker said. "People are super excited."

Father Walker said he prays to Father McGivney for the parish and that he himself may be a good shepherd to the people he serves. "This is a reinforcement of this sense we've had that we are living in the presence of a saint," he added. "He poured himself out for the people he was serving."

After St. Mary's Parish, Father McGivney's next appointment was as the second resident pastor of St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, Conn., now part of St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish. His assignment included a mission church, Immaculate Conception Church in Terryville, that opened for Mass Nov. 5, 1882.

"The legacy he leaves behind is something you keep building on," said Father Joseph Crowley, pastor of St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish. "The shoes are very big to fill. Personal holiness is something you have to work at every day."

Father McGivney's presence is not forgotten at St. Thomas or at Immaculate Conception: Both churches are adorned with paintings of him. The churches also each have several registers of baptismal and marriage records signed by Father McGivney that bring him closer to the parishioners.

"I preach about him," Father Crowley said of Father McGivney, adding the parish is in a unique situation given one of its former pastors is being beatified. "What a great foundation for the church and the Archdiocese of Hartford."

Father McGivney fell ill with tuberculosis and was later stricken with pneumonia. He was eventually confined to a bed in the Thomaston rectory where he died Aug. 14, 1890, two days past his 38th birthday.

"Standing in the same church he was in is rather exciting," said Father Gerald Dziedzic, former pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Terryville.

Originally from Terryville, Father Dziedzic said he often wondered how Father McGivney used to travel in a horse and buggy the 3.5 miles up a hill from St. Thomas to Immaculate Conception.

"The fact he had gone up the Terryville mountain, I can relate," he added.

Currently pastor of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in New Milford, Conn., Father Dziedzic remembers praying to Father McGivney often during his time at Immaculate Conception Church about 13 years ago.

"A number of times I've asked for his intercession for people who have been sick," he said.

Father Dziedzic, himself a member of the Knights of Columbus, calls him a "great parish priest" and said he is not surprised he is on his way to sainthood.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020