Born and raised in a Connecticut factory town, the son of Irish immigrants, Father Michael McGivney's (1852-1890) legacy of hope is still celebrated around the world. At a time when discrimination against American Catholics, homelessness, and starvation were widespread, Father McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus, an organization that has helped save countless families from the indignity of destitution.
In this moving and inspirational work, Douglas Brinkley, the New York Times bestselling author of The Great Deluge and The Boys of Pointe du Hoc, and award-winning author Julie M. Fenster re-create the all-too-brief life of perhaps the most beloved parish priest in U.S. history and chronicle the process of canonization that may well make this fiercely dynamic yet tenderhearted man the first American-born priest to be declared a saint by the Vatican.
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About the Author
Julie M. Fenster is an award-winning author and historian, specializing in the American story. In 2006 her book Parish Priest, written with coauthor Douglas Brinkley, was a New York Times bestseller for seven weeks. She also wrote Ether Day: The Strange Tale of America's Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted Men Who Made It, which won the prestigious Anesthesia Foundation Award for Best Book. Fenster is the author of six other books, including Race of the Century: The Heroic True Story of the 1908 New York to Paris Auto Race and The Case of Abraham Lincoln: A Story of Adultery, Murder, and the Making of a Great President.
Read an Excerpt
Parish Priest LPFather Michael McGivney and American Catholicism
By Douglas Brinkley
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Douglas Brinkley
All right reserved.
A Friend of the Family
Not that the state of Connecticut had anything against Catholics in the early 1800s -- but they weren't allowed to purchase land. If the issue was pressed, then special dispensation might be granted, but only through an act of the legislature. All the while, Catholics were expected to join with most of the rest of the populace in paying a tax for the support of the Congregational Church, the state's official religion at the time.1 Episcopals, Baptists, and Quakers were all exempted, but not Catholics. It was no wonder that Connecticut, with almost 300,000 residents, counted its Catholic population in the dozens. Yet none of that stopped Michael and Bridget Downes from moving there.
Their previous homeland was far worse for Catholics, and little better for Protestants. Ireland in the early nineteenth century was a land of enforced poverty, where few farmers owned their own acreage and the landlords, most of them living in England or on the European continent, choked out all hope of improvement by charging unreasonably high rents. The Times of London, a conservative newspaper that traditionally spared little sympathy for the Irish, sent a correspondent to County Donegal and received a description of a typical rural landscape: "From one end of [the landlord's] estate here to the other nothing is to be found but poverty, misery, wretched cultivation and infinite subdivision of land. There are no gentry, no middle class, all are poor, wretchedly poor. Every shilling the tenants can raise from their half-cultivated land is paid in rent, whilst the people subsist for the most part on potatoes and water."2
Even before the potato blight of 1845 led to the Great Famine, alert Irishmen were facing such facts and the sad impossibility of being Irish. "The conviction that the country held no future existed as early as 1815," William Forbes Adams wrote in his classic history Ireland and Irish Emigration to the New World.3 The Downes family escaped early on, sailing for America with their young son in 1827.4 Their specific destination was the state of Connecticut, where a few of their old neighbors had settled already.
For more than a dozen years, Michael Downes, known as Mikey, was a common laborer, probably finding work building canals or railroads, as did most of his countrymen. In 1832, he and Bridget moved to New Haven. By no coincidence, the city's first Roman Catholic congregation was established there the same year, serving about three hundred people. It would be in keeping with the devout Downes family to settle within the embrace of a parish, once that option was available.
In another respect, too, New Haven was ripe territory for people such as the Downeses. Mikey and Bridget were dedicated to reading and education. New Haven, a manufacturing town and an active port, was influenced most of all by Yale University. Founded in 1701 as a rather rigid Puritan institution, Yale would loosen up considerably in the nineteenth century, combining high academic standards with a rebellious spirit. The campus took up one whole side of the flat, grassy Green that formed the hub of New Haven life. Rising tall, like a citadel in fieldstone, Yale took little notice of New Haven's latest family of Irish immigrants. The Downeses were just a working-class couple trailing three young sons, William, Edward, and John, as they walked along the Green and looked up at the great university.
Mikey Downes started work in New Haven as a news hawk, selling one New Haven paper or another on the street. The work suited him and a short time later he was a full-time newsdealer -- said to be the city's very first -- stocking an array of New Haven and New York papers in a corner kiosk.5 It was a major accomplishment for him at the time, but he wasn't through. Like most of his countrymen, disenchanted with farming as they had known it in Ireland, he regarded storekeeping as the province of truly unlimited opportunity.
Only about 1 percent of first-generation Irish immigrants managed to fulfill the dream of opening a shop;6 Downes joined their ranks in the early 1840s, when he rented a space at the prime corner of Church and Chapel streets, on the Green looking diagonally across to Yale. Customers could buy papers or, for two cents, go in the back room and read as many of the New York papers as they wanted. Political debates with the proprietor were free of charge.
Mikey and Bridget also owned property -- although by the time they bought a wood-frame house in 1843, the state legislature didn't have to know about it. The law requiring special dispensation for land ownership by Catholics had been lifted ten years before. The days of official antagonism toward Catholics were over. Unofficial anti-Catholic fervor was surging to new peaks, though. To combat the image of immigrant Catholics, especially Irish ones, as disloyal and shiftless, the Downes family was intent on showing that they belonged in America.
In 1845, with the store making the Downes name famous in New Haven, Mikey died suddenly. His second son Edward, only sixteen, took over the family store. With his help, and the encouragement of Bridget, the youngest of the three Downes boys, John, graduated from Yale Medical School in 1854. Immediately popular in his practice, he died of tuberculosis at the age of just twenty-six. The oldest son, William, later graduated from Yale Law School. Extremely successful in his own right, he was pointed out as "New Haven's only Catholic lawyer" until his own early death, also from tuberculosis.
Through the years, the store was left entirely to Edward, who continually expanded his small empire until, in the late 1860s, it was "Edward Downes, Stationer and Newsdealer, at Wholesale and Retail."7 From art supplies to comic magazines, he sold anything pertaining to paper goods and watched over one of New Haven's most thriving businesses.
Excerpted from Parish Priest LP by Douglas Brinkley Copyright © 2006 by Douglas Brinkley. Excerpted by permission.
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