St. Mary's Seminary & University

Blessed Michael J. McGivney and St. Mary’s Seminary & University

Blessed Michael J. McGivney
Ordination Photograph, c. 1877

About the Exhibit

This exhibit was created to celebrate the beatification in October 2020 of Rev. Michael J. McGivney, a Roman Catholic priest ordained for the Archdiocese of Hartford, founder of the Knights of Columbus, and alumnus of St. Mary’s Seminary & University.

Items Highlighted in Exhibit

Many of the items included in this exhibit are found in the archives represented in our holdings: St. Mary’s Seminary & University, Associated Sulpicians of the United States, and Archdiocese of Baltimore. As an alumnus of St. Mary’s, there are items both by and regarding Fr. McGivney in its archives related to his time as a student at the seminary. Other items were included to provide information on the curriculum and daily schedule of a seminarian at a Sulpician institution in the second half of the nineteenth century and to help viewers visualize where he lived and the people he interacted with during his time in Baltimore. Several names have been hyperlinked to allow viewers to learn more.

Brief Biography

Blessed Michael J. McGivney was the first of seven surviving children born to Patrick McGivney and Mary Lynch. His parents had both emigrated from Ireland to the United States in 1849, refugees of the Great Famine. Each had made their way to Waterbury, Connecticut, most likely in search of employment, where they met and married in 1850. Waterbury at that time was a thriving industrial center, claiming the title of Brass Capital of the World. Here Patrick found employment as an iron molder, earning enough to provide for the needs of his growing family. They joined a small number of Catholics who had just constructed the city’s first Catholic church, St. Peter (now the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception), followed by a school. In time, Waterbury’s Catholic community grew and diversified as immigrants from across Europe and French Canada arrived to work in its factories. Their presence dramatically altered the makeup of this once rural and solidly Yankee population of the Naugatuck Valley. Such change did not come without problems and the McGivney family experienced firsthand the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic prejudice that was so prevalent in the state at that time.

The McGivney family were active members of Immaculate Conception Church and sent their children to the parish school. The eldest son, Michael, was so proficient at his studies that he graduated at age 13, three years early. Despite having discerned a vocation to the priesthood, he put his desires aside to help support the family financially and worked in a factory that produced spoons for the next three years. Resolute in his intention to become a priest, he received permission from his parents in 1868 to enter the seminary. At that time, the preparation for ordination to the priesthood was comprised of three educational components that took nearly eight years to complete: classical languages (Latin and Greek); philosophy; and theology. He received his classical languages and philosophy at the Seminary of St.-Hyacinthe near Montreal, Canada, and Our Lady of Angels Seminary in Niagara Falls, New York. He had selected Montreal’s Ste.-Marie College run by the Jesuit Fathers for theology, with the intention of entering this order of religious men renowned for their educational ministry. His life took an unexpected turn at the end of his first year of studies, however, when he received word that his father had died in June of 1873. Michael left Montreal immediately to be with his grieving family never to return. Although the financial needs of his mother and younger siblings could be met by the contributions of the older McGivney children, there was no extra money to pay the cost of tuition at Ste.-Marie College. The completion of Michael’s seminary education remained in doubt until the bishop of Hartford, Francis McFarland, learned of his plight. Not wanting to lose such a promising young candidate to the priesthood, Bp. McFarland extended the offer to adopt him as a student for the diocese and pay the cost of his schooling. The two conditions were that he was complete his training at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, Maryland, and return to the Diocese of Hartford to engage in pastoral ministry.

Entry for Fr. McGivney in the seminary’s student register.

In the fall of 1873, the twenty-one year old Michael J. McGivney arrived in Baltimore to enroll at St. Mary’s Seminary, the country’s first Roman Catholic seminary, which had opened in 1791 by the French Sulpician Fathers (org. 1641), a community of diocesan priests dedicated to the education and formation of priests. As an early and important center of U.S. Catholicism, Baltimore was home to a thriving Catholic community that had built and supported numerous churches, institutions, and lay organizations, including the Catholic knighthoods, which at that time operated as parish organizations dedicated to caring for the spiritual, social, and physical needs of its members and community. Just as importantly, Baltimore was a city where members of the Catholic community had made significant contributions to its founding and development, played a visible role in its political and civic leadership, and had a history of ecumenical relations with other religious denominations. It was a very different environment from that of Waterbury. His experience in Baltimore undoubtedly influenced how he saw the place and role of Catholics in the larger community back home.

St. Mary’s Seminary & University in the 1870s

The campus of St. Mary’s Seminary & University as depicted in E. Sachse & Co.’s Bird’s Eye View of the City of Baltimore, 1869. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. The Seminary chapel can be identified by its steeple. The campus is encircled by trees.

When St. Mary’s was founded in 1791, it was located on the outskirts of Baltimore in an area known as French Town (today known as the Seton Hill Neighborhood). The campus was comprised of one building that stood on four acres of land surrounded by open fields. The 1869 Bird’s Eye View Map of the City reveals how much both the campus and the neighborhood around it had developed in the ensuing years. The campus continued to change during Fr. McGivney’s time as a student. During his last year, ground was broken for a new and grander seminary building that was completed in 1878.

The students at St. Mary’s in the 1870s reflected the diversity of the larger Catholic community, which was experiencing unprecedented growth and change as immigrants from around the world were making their way to the shores of America. Over half of the 300+ students enrolled during this period were foreign-born, with those from Ireland vastly outnumbering others from countries that included Germany, France, and Canada. Native-born students came from across the country, representing over thirty dioceses, ranging in age from 21 to 41. Four students were converts to the faith, one of whom was a former Baptist preacher ordained with Fr. McGivney for the Diocese of Hartford.

Priestly Formation

The school year began at St. Mary’s in September with an eight-day retreat to prepare seminarians for the coming term. Afterwards, their routine was structured by a rule of life that centered on prayer and study. The day began at 5:30AM when students and faculty members (called directors at St. Mary’s) assembled in the Prayer Hall for early matins and lauds followed by prayer and meditation according to the Sulpician method. Mass was celebrated in the Seminary chapel at 7:00AM. After a simple breakfast, classes were held until midday when the community again gathered in the Prayer Hall for examen particulier, an exercise consisting of a short reading from the Christian Bible, followed by a reading on a specific virtue. After lunch, classroom instruction, study and recreation periods filled the rest of the day, which concluded with the chanting of vespers and compline before the evening meal. Prayers and examen of conscience were performed before lights went out at 9:00PM.

St. Mary’s Seminary Chapel (1808), c. 1890. Fr. McGivney attended daily Mass and served as a sacristan in this chapel. His appointment as a sacristan, where he was responsible for preparation of liturgical services, was a sign of the trust and respect the Sulpician Fathers had for him.

Hallmarks of a Sulpician program of priestly formation include the fostering of a spirituality for diocesan priests and the communate educatrice (the notion that the students and faculty together constitute a formative community that provides an environment devoted to the task of discerning, developing, and fostering priestly vocations), at the heart of which is the Sulpician tradition of formation by example on a one-to-one basis. Each seminarian chooses a confessor from the directors, with whom he meets weekly to make his confession, receive spiritual direction, and seek counsel and advice. The confessor-penitent relationship is among the most important during his years in the seminary. It was under the guidance and example of the Sulpician Fathers that a commitment to pastoral ministry was cultivated in Fr. McGivney, helping to persuade him that his vocation as a priest was in parish work and not academia.


As St. Mary’s was a major seminary, students would have completed their classical course (Latin and Greek languages) and philosophy before entering. The curriculum at St. Mary’s was a five-year program comprised of two years of philosophy and natural sciences and three years of theology. Textbooks and lectures were in Latin. As Fr. McGivney was sent to St. Mary’s to complete his theological training, the courses he would have taken were moral, dogmatic, and pastoral theology, sacred scripture, canon law, Exegesis, liturgy, homiletics, Hebrew, and Gregorian chant.  Once again, he showed himself to be a most capable student and excelled at his studies.

This is the earliest surviving group photograph of directors who taught St. Mary’s Seminary & University. It was taken in 1891, when the seminary observed its centennial anniversary. List of directors  for the 1891-1892 academic year: Rev. Alphonse Magnien, PSS (superior), Rev. Leo Besnard, PSS, Rev. Arsenius Boyer, PSS, Rev. Auguste Cheneau, PSS, Rev. Paulinus Dissez, PSS, Rev. Edward Dyer, PSS, Rev. Eugene Forest, PSS, Rev. Hippolyte Pluchon, PSS, Rev. Mathurin Rothureau, PSS,  Rev. Adolphe Tanguerey, PSS, and Rev. Joseph Tracy. 

Recreation periods could be spent out-of-doors walking the grounds of the campus, which was enclosed by a wall. Earlier innovations, such as the introduction of sports and activities popular with Americans, had been eliminated from the program some years before Fr. McGivney entered, not allowing him to show off his skills with a baseball bat and glove. Once a week students were taken on a promenade around the city, walking two-by-two in black frock coats and stovetop hats.

Code of Conduct

The code of conduct for seminarians was strict. Required dress was a cassock and biretta. The drinking of alcohol and smoking of tobacco were forbidden. Students were not allowed to visit each other’s rooms and could leave the grounds only after receiving permission. Silence was observed outside of scheduled activities and meals. It is hoped that in spite of the rules, Fr. McGivney was able to delight his classmates with the sense of humor for which he was so noted.

Rev. Paul Dubreul, PSS, was superior of St. Mary’s Seminary & University, 1860-1878, and professor of pastoral theology and canon law. The French-born  priest was noted for his authoritarian manner and rigid interpretation of the rule of life during a period when St. Mary’s closely followed the traditions of the Sulpicians’ French seminaries.

The Path to Priesthood

Seminary training culminates in ordination to the priesthood. Until Vatican II, there were seven steps, or orders, on this path: the four minor orders of porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte and the three major orders of sub-diaconate, diaconate, and presbyterate. (Tonsure, a sacred rite to mark the reception of a seminarian into the clerical state, was held before ordination to the minor orders. It involved the ceremonial clipping of hair and vesting with a surplice, a white outer vestment worn by clergy over a cassock.) Ordinations at this time were held during Ember Days (quarterly periods of prayer, fasting, and abstinence observed by Catholics), the principal one being in December just before Christmas.

Entry in the seminary’s ordination register for December 15, 1875, when Fr. McGivney received the four minor orders of priesthood.

Fr. McGivney received tonsure during his second year at St. Mary’s on December 16, 1874, and the four minor orders of priesthood on December 15, 1875. Both ceremonies were held in the Seminary chapel with Abp. James R. Bayley of Baltimore as the principal celebrant. The major orders of sub-diaconate and diaconate were conferred the following year on December 23 at the Cathedral (now Basilica) of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  The final major order of the presbyterate was celebrated at the Basilica on December 22, 1877. According to contemporary accounts, the ceremony began at 7:00AM and lasted nearly 3.5 hours. Archbishop James Gibbons of Baltimore was the principal celebrant. In attendance were members of the seminary community, clergy from the city’s parishes, and family members of the ordinands. Fr. McGivney was one of 11 ordained to the priesthood that day, including three others for the Diocese of Hartford.

Depiction of the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, c. 1870, where Fr. McGivney received the major orders of the priesthood (sub-diaconate, diaconate, and presbyterate). As a seminarian, Fr. McGivney would have assisted at the Basilica, serving Mass and singing in the choir.

Entry from the Superior’s Diary on the day of Fr. McGivney’s ordination.

Abp. James Gibbons of Baltimore (1834-1921) was the ninth archbishop of Baltimore, 1877-1921, and the principal celebrant at Fr. McGivney’s ordination to the priesthood on December 22, 1877. He was named a cardinal in 1886 and was recognized as leader of the U.S. Catholic Church until his death in 1921.

Acting on the request of the new bishop of Hartford, Thomas Galberry, Fr. McGivney and his three fellow ordinands packed their belongings upon returning to the seminary and left for Connecticut. Their assistance was needed in parishes for the upcoming holiday. The hasty departure from Baltimore meant that Fr. McGivney was able to celebrate his first solemn Mass before family and friends at his home parish of Immaculate Conception in Waterbury on Christmas day. Not long after, he assumed his duties as assistant at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, where he founded the Knights of Columbus four years later in 1882. 

A Fond and Loving Son

         Rev. Alphonse Magnien, PSS

Fr. McGivney was an alumnus who remained devoted to St. Mary’s. In a letter written to a former director, Rev. Alphonse Magnien, PSS, on the occasion of his appointment as superior of the Seminary, he concluded it by stating: “I remain as ever a fond and loving son of my alma mater.”

Rev. Michael J. McGivney to Rev. Alphonse Magnien, PSS, 1878, p. 1

Rev. Michael J. McGivney to Rev. Alphonse Magnien, PSS, 1878, p. 2.


Further Reading

Douglas Brinkley and Julie M. Fenster. Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism. New York: William Morris, 2006.

Christopher J. Kauffman. Faith and Fraternalism: The History of the Knights of Columbus, 1882-1982. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.

Christopher J. Kauffman. Tradition and Transformation in Catholic Culture: The Priests of Saint Sulpice in the United States from 1791 to the present. New York: Macmillan, 1988.

Joseph M. White. The Diocesan Seminary in the United States: A History from the 1780s to the present. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1989.