WATERBURY—Twelve years ago on October 29, Sister Veronica and Sister Rita both woke up in the middle of night with the premonition that somebody needed prayers … so they prayed. Sister Veronica didn’t realize that “somebody” was her brother.
Pictured: Brian Caulfield, vice postulator for the cause of Venerable Father Michael McGivney at his office in the Knights of Columbus headquarters in New Haven.
At the same time, Dennis Sullivan, 41, had a massive heart attack and drove himself to Waterbury Hospital, where he went into cardiac arrest as soon as he walked into the emergency department. For 26 minutes, his heart stopped beating and the staff performed CPR on him. For 26 minutes, they struggled against odds to revive him. One technician was so exhausted, he sat on Dennis’ chest, prepared to give up until the cardiologist said, “He’s so young. Let’s go five more minutes.” In those five minutes, they got a response.
When family members started to arrive, they learned the grim news. Dennis was alive, but barely. Eighty percent of his heart had been damaged, and the doctor told them, “There are no guarantees.”
Sister Veronica Mary Sullivan had been a cardiac care nurse at St. Raphael Hospital in New Haven before entering the Sisters of Life. When she got to the ICU and saw her brother’s body swollen to three times its normal size and the doctor kneeling to explain his condition to her mother, she knew the situation bordered on hopeless. Her mother had already lost her husband and her oldest son.
She looked out the window and said to God, “You can’t do this. This can’t happen,” and at that moment, the thought came to her that she should pray to Father Michael McGivney, the priest who founded the Knights of Columbus and whose cause for sainthood is being considered by the Vatican.
She knew a little about the life of this parish priest, whose family lived near hers in Waterbury on the banks of the Naugatuck River … a century earlier.
“I went to my mother and told her, “Mom, we really need to go to the tomb of Father McGivney and pray for a miracle.” Mrs. Phyllis Sullivan looked up and nodded. “Go,” she said.
Sister Veronica, her brothers John and Jim, who is a priest in the Archdiocese of Hartford, drove to the Church of St. Mary in New Haven and gathered around the sarcophagus of Father McGivney to pray.
“We begged him to help us,” Sister Veronica said.
They stayed for noon Mass and when it ended, she was alone in the pew. “I prayed like I never prayed before,” she recalled. “And then I heard it.” It was a clear, distinct, unmistakeable voice that said simply, “Tell me what I need to do.”
She knew immediately it was Father McGivney, and if he needed directions, Sister Veronica would give them. As a nurse, she understood exactly what was necessary for her brother to live. So she said, “Here’s what you have to do” and proceeded to give him specific instructions about the medication, the insulin drip, the stents, his kidneys and sugar levels. When she finished, she sensed the priest had left, and an amazing peace came over her.
“I sat up and thought, ‘Dennis is going to be all right.’” Her brothers felt the same peace.
As they returned to the hospital, John received a call from his friend, who said, “You got your miracle. There’s no brain damage—he’s going to be OK.”
The Sullivan family has no doubt Father Michael McGivney interceded for them and they were granted a miracle. In the years that followed, Mrs. Sullivan regularly visited the McGivney family grave at St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Waterbury, where his parents and two brothers, who were pastors at St. Charles in Bridgeport, are buried. She planted flowers, she cared for the grave, she prayed, and she thanked Patrick and Mary McGivney, whose son had saved her son.
The cause for sainthood
Brian Caulfield of the Knights of Columbus has been vice postulator for Father McGivney’s cause for sainthood since January 2012, and during that time he has examined many cases in which the founder of the Knights has touched people’s lives. Since the priest’s cause for sainthood began in 1997, Caulfield estimates there have been more than 1000 favors granted to individuals who prayed for Father McGivney’s intercession before the Throne of God — an alcoholic enters recovery, a marriage that seemed destined for divorce is saved, a woman whose cancer was considered terminal goes into remission, a man who was unemployed for years finds work.
After reviewing the reports of answered prayers from the last decade, Caulfield says there are four categories that predominate: recovery from addictions, family reconciliations, employment and a return to the Church.
“These are four things that were so important to him while he was a priest on Earth,” Caulfield says. “We can believe that from his place in eternity, Father McGivney is answering the prayers of the faithful.”
Many cases involve what he calls “moral miracles” in which a person’s moral, psychological or spiritual lifestyle is significantly changed. The accounts are recorded on the website of the Father McGivney Guild, which has 170,000 members and oversees the cause for canonization.
“Father McGivney is at a stage of the canonization process in which a miracle attributed to his intercession is needed for him to be beatified, and another one to be canonized a saint,” Caulfield said. “The Vatican has very high standards for declaring some events miraculous and others not. What the Vatican is looking for in most cases is a physical healing that cannot be explained by medical science.” He stresses that only God can perform a miracle, which is described as a suspension of the created natural order.
As part of the process, a proposed miracle is brought to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which “considers almost exclusively extraordinary physical healings and recoveries since those incidents usually have verifiable facts such as medical tests and records as well as objective and widely accepted measurements for diagnosing a serious condition and declaring a person healed,” Caulfield said.
In addition, there must be evidence that people prayed exclusively to Father McGivney, although additional prayers to the Blessed Mother are allowed. When a case is reported to the Guild, Caulfield conducts an initial investigation and interviews the people involved.
“If there is a general sense that there is no apparent medical explanation for the healing and that Father McGivney was exclusively invoked, then the evidence will go to the cause’s postulator in Rome,” he said. If the case is strong, a diocesan tribunal is formed where the miracle occurred to gather testimony and documentation before deciding whether to refer the case to the Vatican, whose experts review the material and then determine whether to send it to a board of cardinals and the Pope for final approval. Two possible miracles that had been investigated by the Vatican were not approved.
The process is long and meticulous, Caulfield says, because “the Church does not want to declare any event miraculous that may later be called into question.” He encourages Catholics to join the Guild and pray for Father McGivney’s canonization and to report any extraordinary healings or favors.
When Caulfield receives a report of a favor, he calls to follow up. A recent case involved a New Jersey grandmother of four children who was declared cancer free after a member of the Knights of Columbus told her about Father McGivney, and she and others started praying to him for a cure.
“She had an overwhelming sense of gratitude to God,” Caulfield said. However, she had received medical treatment, and for a miracle to be accepted by the Vatican, it must be medically inexplicable, such as a spontaneous cure of a birth defect, injury or disease.
“I’m encouraged by people who have found favors from Father McGivney in their lives,” Caulfield says. “I visit his tomb at least once a week and often see people praying there. In my own life, I have come to see him as a real friend, one who walks with me.”
(For more information about Father McGivney or to become a member of the Guild, which is free, go to fathermcgivney.org )
“Father McGivney was a priest ahead of his time, totally devoted to the good of his people,” Caulfield says.
In declaring him “Venerable,” on March 15, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI said that his life displayed evidence of “heroic virtue.”
The Congregation for the Causes of Saints in its decree wrote: “Concerning the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Love both toward God and neighbor, as well as the cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude, and those others joined to them, they existed to a heroic degree in the Servant of God Michael McGivney, Diocesan priest and founder of the Fraternal Order the Knights of Columbus.”
Born August 12, 1852 in Waterbury, he was ordained in 1877 and assigned to the Church of St. Mary in New Haven, where he was committed to helping families and the poor. He was especially concerned about the plight of children and widows at a time when the death of the provider often meant dissolution and disaster for a family.
His vision of a Catholic men’s fraternal benefit society eventually led to the formation of the Knights of Columbus in the St. Mary’s church basement in 1882 to ensure the survival of families afflicted with financial hardship and to provide a faith-filled fraternal organization for Catholic men.
In 1884, Father McGivney was appointed pastor of St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, a working class parish that was overwhelmed by debt. He also oversaw Immaculate Conception Church in Terryville. For six years he ministered to his parishes with the same charitable care that had endeared him to St. Mary’s congregation and served as supreme chaplain of the Knights, which had extended into Rhode Island. In January 1890, he contracted pneumonia and despite treatment, he died on August 14, 1890 at 38.
From his place in eternity …
Twelve years after his life was miraculously saved through the intercession of Father Michael McGivney, Dennis Sullivan died this year on July 1. At his funeral Mass, his brother Father James Sullivan said, “Dennis’ life was completed in a beautiful way with those additional 12 years.”
During those 12 years, he watched his daughter grow up, get accepted to college, pursue a career, and give Dennis a grandson. He went skydiving, he played pool, he received many regional and national awards for horseshoeing in his work as a master horse farrier. The week before he died, he had dinner with his daughter and told her how proud he was and how much he loved her. He lived those 12 years to the fullest, in hope and in gratitude for the gift God had given him, Father Sullivan said.
His mother, Phyllis Sullivan, died October 3, 2016. For many years, she regularly traveled across town to care for the McGivney family grave in Waterbury.
Three years before she died, her daughter Moira Sullivan Shapland took her to St. Thomas Church in Thomaston on August 14, the anniversary of Father McGivney’s death.
Moira, her daughters Erin, Hannah and Margaret, and Mrs. Sullivan walked into the empty church lit only by the light from the stained glass windows. They entered a pew near the altar, knelt and prayed.
“Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my mother turn her head toward the aisle,” Moira recalls. “She kept looking and then nodded and turned to me and said, ‘He seems so nice.’” The rest of them saw no one, but Mrs. Sullivan was smiling and staring at the altar.
A few moments later, she turned to Moira and repeated, “He seems so nice.” And then she told them about the young dark-haired priest who walked to the altar and genuflected, and as he was leaving, stopped at their pew and smiled at the women.
When they got to the car, Moira reached for her copy of “Parish Priest,” the biography of Father McGivney, and showed her his picture and asked, “Is this who you saw?”
Mrs. Sullivan tapped the picture with her finger and said, “Yes, that’s him!”
By Joe Pisani
MASS PLANNED FOR AUGUST 11
Archbishop Leonard P. Blair will celebrate Mass on top of Holy Land USA on August 11 in an event being planned in collaboration with the Knights of Columbus and the organization that owns the park.
Several thousand people are expected to attend from across the state. They believe it will increase devotion to Father McGivney, whose cause for sainthood is being considered by the Vatican, in addition to calling attention to Holy Land, a religious theme park which during the 1960s and 1970s attracted more than 40,000 visitors annually and was known for its 56-foot illuminated cross that could be seen from the highway.
The park, which is on an 18-acre site, once included biblical scenes from the life of Jesus and recreations of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Holy Land was developed by John Baptist Greco, a Waterbury attorney, who began a volunteer organization called Companions of Christ, whose purpose was to create and oversee the religious park, which opened in 1955.
The gates will open at 2 p.m. on August 11. The rosary will begin at 4 p.m., followed by praise and worship by the Christian group Hands and Feet. Mass will start at 5:30. There is no public parking at Holy Land at 90 Slocum Street. Free parking and shuttle service is available from St. Mary’s Hospital parking garage on South Elm Street beginning at 2 p.m. Bus groups should email email@example.com for instructions. People are encouraged to bring lawn chairs and umbrellas and ponchos in case of rain. There will be food concessions at the park. For further information, visit HolyLandWaterbury.org