At 8:15 on Tuesday morning, three parishioners sat after mass in the pews at Saint Mary’s Church on Hillhouse Ave. One man stood and headed toward the door. On his way out, the man — wearing jeans, work boots and a black leather jacket — gave an amiable pat to the serpentine marble sarcophagus of Father Michael McGivney.

“Father McGivney’s legacy was reaching out and helping people at every level,” said St. Mary’s pastor and prior Joseph Allen, standing over the casket, arms folded underneath his white robes, as the other man left the church. “He was the protector of the disenfranchised in society.”

[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”12428″ ]

That devotion to care for others is the basis of an effort by the Knights of Columbus and local churches to convince the Vatican to make McGivney — the New Haven priest who in 1882 founded the Knights of Columbus, the largest international Catholic lay organization — a saint. That effort took an important step forward March 15 when Pope Benedict XVI officially titled McGivney a “Venerable Servant of God,” but now the candidate’s backers must prove that miracles have been granted by God through McGivney — one of the last steps toward sainthood.

If McGivney is canonized by the pope, he will become the first American-born parish priest to attain sainthood. Fewer than a dozen others born in the United States have become saints, none of them priests.

‘A good thing for New Haven’

McGivney’s recognition as a saint would bring increased numbers of pilgrims to the city to view and pray before McGivney’s tomb, religious experts and local leaders said.

“Father McGivney’s beatification and possible canonization would be a powerful and good thing for New Haven and the Knights of Columbus,” said Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who attends both Saint Mary’s Church and Saint Thomas More Chapel at Yale.

Although Saint Mary’s church welcomes 125 parishioners each weekday for mass and 825 on weekends, Allen said only a small percentage of these visitors come specifically to see McGivney’s casket. Groups of 40 to 50 pilgrims — usually members of the Knights of Columbus and their families — visit the church a few times per month to see McGivney, Allen said, but McGivney’s potential canonization might change that.

Right now, McGivney’s sarcophagus — draped in red carnations — is tucked into the rear corner of the church, adjacent to the entrance. But if McGivney is canonized, Allen said, the casket will most likely be moved to a more prominent position within the chapel, although he said it is much too early for church administrators to make any definite plans concerning McGivney’s possible canonization.

Word of the canonization effort has begun to spread among Catholic students at Yale, some of whom heard about the veneration at mass last week. Jacob Garza ’09 said he had found out about McGivney’s possible canonization at Saint Mary’s Church and that McGivney’s potential sainthood would be “something for New Haven to be extremely proud about.”

As for the Catholic community at Yale, Garza said he suspects few students would notice or care about McGivney’s canonization.

“There just isn’t a humongous interest in religion at our school,” Garza said.

McGivney, born in Waterbury, Conn. in 1852, was a parish priest at Saint Mary’s Church until his death in 1890. While ministering to working-class families in New Haven, he founded a Catholic fraternity to provide financial support for the widows and children of local men killed by disease or work-related accidents — a precursor to modern-day life insurance.

Today, the Knights of Columbus is still headquartered in New Haven and is now the world’s largest Catholic fraternal organization, with 1.7 million members worldwide. It continues to function as a life-insurance program while also organizing volunteer efforts within local communities. The New Haven chapter, for example, maintains a museum with an exhibit about McGivney’s life and has donated funds for disaster relief after Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina.

The spiritual impact McGivney’s canonization would have on the organization is significant, Allen said.

“Father McGivney’s canonization would be an outstanding moment for the Knights of Columbus,” he said. “It would fulfill our wishes, and it would establish a significant claim on the work that McGivney did.”

Waiting for a miracle

But becoming a saint is not easy.

The process entails four steps: the appointment of a postulator, recognition of “heroic virtue,” beatification and, finally, canonization.

After the death of a notable or exemplary Catholic, a bishop may recognize that person’s virtue and determine that person to be worthy of being called a saint. The bishop then appoints a postulator who works as an advocate for the legacy of the potential saint.

After researching and compiling factual evidence and records left by or about the person, the postulator sends the information to the Vatican, where the Congregation for the Causes of Saints examines the evidence, submitting a recommendation to the pope on whether or not the individual should be recognized as a “Venerable Servant of God” — indicating that the person has exhibited “heroic virtue.” If the pope chooses to identify this person as “venerable,” the postulator moves onto the next step: finding two miracles.

Postulators look for documents or accounts that describe miracles performed by the potential saints. Miracles must be instantaneous, unexplainable and unaided by any medical or scientific procedure. If one true miracle is found, the pope can beatify that person, giving him or her the title “Blessed.” A second miracle must be discovered before the pope can canonize the individual.

McGivney has just passed the second step of four, but McGivney’s postulator, Gabriel O’Donnell, who is also a professor of spiritual theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington D.C., said he has already found documentation for one miracle he thinks may be legitimate.

The process the Congregation for the Causes of Saints uses to verify the miracle is an exhaustive one, he said.

“It’s not a situation where you can just call up the Vatican,” said Peter Sonski, director of public relations at the Knights of Columbus. “There’s no definite amount of time. It’s all in God’s time, if you will.”

Currently, more than 1,000 individuals are somewhere in the process towards canonization, although most will not eventually achieve recognition as a saint. Both Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II are now being considered for sainthood.

O’Donnell, who has been working on the Irish-American priest’s case since he was appointed to it by the Vatican 10 years ago, said he does not expect the process to end anytime soon. Sometimes canonization takes hundreds of years, he said.

O’Donnell’s work as a postulator began when he participated in a postulating course in Rome 10 years ago.

His first year in Rome, he said, was wonderful, although his job as a postulator has become more difficult since then, as he has had to work harder to uncover the secrets of McGivney’s obscure history. Ultimately, he compiled over 2,000 pages of documentation about McGivney, at which point the Congregation for the Causes of Saints reviewed the report, which paved the way for McGivney’s veneration.

But, he said, the work of stringing together sparse records from McGivney’s past is worth the prospect of McGivney’s becoming a saint, given the joy and vitality his canonization would bring to the Catholic community at Saint Mary’s church and in New Haven.

“Father McGivney lived an ordinary life in the most extraordinary ways,” O’Donnell said. “He was a great gift to the city of New Haven.”