BERNARD T. DAVIDOW, bdavidow@courant.comThe Hartford Courant

Connecticut has seen its share of certifiable sinners but, in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church, no officially recognized saint. At least, not yet.

However, the cause to canonize Knights of Columbus founder Father Michael J. McGivney is being actively pursued well over a century after he died and 16 years after he was put forward as a candidate for sainthood.

McGivney, a 19th-century parish priest, was born in Waterbury, ministered to the downtrodden and suffering in New Haven, and at age 29 founded — in a church basement — a group that now claims to be the largest Catholic lay organization in the world.

In 2008, nine years after the Archdiocese of Hartford opened McGivney’s cause for sainthood, Pope Benedict XVI declared the priest “venerable,” meaning he lived a life of heroic virtues and his cause was eligible to proceed. One accepted miracle would elevate McGivney to “blessed.” A second would lead to his being declared a saint.

Just recently, church officials say, a second possible miracle has been sent to Rome and is in the early stages of review by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. A first possible miracle was not accepted by the congregation.

The details of purported miracles are typically kept secret through the sainthood process unless they are accepted and cited publicly as the proof needed to move a cause to beatification or canonization.

Most miracles are physical cures that cannot be explained medically. So far, no such miracle has been established in McGivney’s case. But it’s not for lack of trying.

The Father Michael J. McGivney Guild, which celebrates the priest’s life and tracks his journey toward sainthood, includes a form on its website for devotees to report favors attributed to the priest’s intercession. (Go to for the form. To view completed forms, click on “View Favors Received.”)

People who have filled out the form credit the parish priest with medical favors — everything from relieving a toothache to surviving cancer to a deathbed recovery — but also with many other favors, including finding or keeping a job. One escaped serious injury in a highway accident.

McGivney’s cause is now in the hands of Andrea Ambrosi, the postulator — or chief promoter of the cause — in Rome. His firm represents many causes for sainthood worldwide.

The Catholic church has already designated roughly a dozen Americans as saints, but none is an American-born priest. Were he named a saint today, McGivney would be the first. But there are other American-born priests, like McGivney, who are being promoted for sainthood at one level or another.

A spokeswoman at the U.S. bishops conference said the Rev. Nelson Baker, a priest who served the Diocese of Buffalo, has also been declared venerable. U.S. priests whose causes are in the preliminary stages include the Rev. Vincent Robert Capodanno, a military chaplain killed in Vietnam, and the Rev. Augustus Tolton of Chicago, who was the son of slaves and is said to have been the first American diocesan priest of African descent.

As recounted in the 2006 book “Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism,” McGivney certainly led a saintly life. He grew up in Waterbury, one of 12 children of Irish-immigrant parents, and was heavily influenced by a dynamic priest there named Thomas Hendricken. McGivney studied to be a priest with the financial support of the Diocese (now Archdiocese) of Hartford.

After ordination in Baltimore in 1877, McGivney was assigned to the stately St. Mary’s Church near Yale University in New Haven to help an ailing pastor run a parish heavily in debt. Fortunately, he showed a talent for both fundraising and organizing. He was a friend to the poor and prisoners — most famously to James “Chip” Smith, sentenced to death for killing a police officer. He had a common touch, a love of baseball, good humor, and a strong will.

Driven in part by a desire to help widows and orphans in desperate straits, McGivney founded what would become the Knights of Columbus with a meeting in St. Mary’s basement on Oct. 2, 1881. His proposal was remarkable, in part, because the organization would be run by Catholic lay people, not clergy. The group would provide insurance to help families burdened by sickness, scraping to provide for a decent burial, and struggling to survive after the breadwinner was gone. It also offered an alternative to young Catholics who might otherwise might be tempted to join secret societies popular at the time.

(Today, the Knights — still based in New Haven — has more than 1.8 million members. The insurance branch has more than $19.8 billion in assets. In 2012, the organization says, it donated more than $167.5 million “and 70 million hours” to charity.)

In 1884, McGivney was named pastor at another parish heavy in debt — St. Thomas Church in Thomaston — where he served until he contracted pneumonia, and, after months of illness, died in 1890. He was only 38 years old. His body now rests in a sarcophagus in the New Haven church he once served.

Priests in the late 1800s had a short life expectancy. It was a hard, exhausting life, and in ministering to the sick and imprisoned, priests came in close contact with diseases.

“It was not a vocation that one chose [in order] to live long and retire,” said Andrew Walther, a Knights spokesman.

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