John McKniff, O.S.A.
Five years after his death at age 88, the cause has been opened for the canonization of an Augustinian missionary and apostle to the poor.
John J. McKniff, O.S.A. had served many years as a missionary in Peru, Cuba and the Philippines. A member of the Augustinian Villanova Province, he worked closely with Augustinians of the Midwest during his years in Peru. A petition to begin the process of beatificiation of John J. McKniff. O.S.A. was formally made in 1999.
Born Septemer 5, 1905 in Media, Pennsylvania, John McKniff entered the Augustinian Order and professed religious vows in 1924. He was ordained a priest in 1930.
After teaching at Villanova College and at the Augustinian Seminary, Staten Island, New York, for four years, he volunteered to go to the Philippines. After three years of teaching there, an accident in the school chemistry lab in 1938 damaged his lungs. He developed pneumonia and was hospitalized for 80 days. Suspecting the beginnings of tuberculosis, doctors advised him to return to the United States, where the more moderate climate would aid his recovery.
The following year, 1939, he was sent to Cuba. After two years of teaching there, he was named pastor of Cristo del Buen Viaje Parish in the old part of Havana, a post that he held from 1941 to 1968.
He was an extraordinary pastor. Everybody knew Father McKniff, as he walked all the streets of the parish. He organized many Catholic Action groups, such as Young Catholic Workers and Legion of Mary, to evangelize and give Christian service to others. He promoted prayer gatherings in parishioners’ homes. His preaching, example and leadership called people to a deep spirituality.
Fr. McKniff opened a free school where the poor children of the Havana parish were educated during the day and adults took courses at night. He inaugurated a medical and dental clinic next to the church which made quality health care available to all. He acquired shoes and food to distribute to the needy.
The revolution that put Fidel Castro in power made life difficult for the Church in Cuba. After the failed Bay of Pigs invasion Castro expelled all foreign priests but one from Cuba — John McKniff. He was preparing to leave the island when the phone rang. Monsignor Oddi, a Vatican official, was calling.
“I’ve heard that you are leaving Cuba. Why?” he asked.
“Orders of the Provincial,” Fr. McKniff replied.
“Are you willing to stay in Cuba?”
“Then, in the name of the Holy See, stay in Cuba.”
So he stayed, working tirelessly to support and nourish the Christian faith in an increasingly hostile environment. There were threats on his life. He was imprisoned. But the most difficult thing during this time was that with thirty-seven of his Augustinian brothers expelled from the country, he was deprived of the Augustinian community he loved so dearly.
In 1968 parishioners and friends persuaded Fr. McKniff to go to the United States for a vacation — his first in eight years. At the end of his visit the government of Cuba would not permit him to return to his people there.
Ministry in New York parishes filled the next three years. But the missionary call remained strong in Fr. McKniff. In 1972 he went to northern Peru. There he continued to bring the Word of God to the poor. He involved the people in the work of evangelization and service, organizing groups of Augustinian Seculars and Legionnaires of Mary. He helped implement the pastoral plan of the Chulucanas Diocese, called New Image of Parish, which involves large numbers of the faithful in working for Jesus and the Church.
By the end of 1993, weakened by a bout with typhoid fever, Father McKniff began to be afflicted with arthritis. He started to suffer a growing intolerance for the heat of the Peruvian desert. A problem with equilibrium made an assignment to the cooler climate of the Andes mountains with their rough walking trails and roads too dangerous for him. Father McKniff reluctantly left Peru for the United States.
In late February, 1994, while traveling back to Peru, he stopped to visit the Augustinian community in Miami, Florida. There he collapsed. He was taken to a hospital where he died March 24, 1994.
John McKniff is remembered for his missionary zeal, his care for the poor, and his intimate relationship with God. Those who knew him best — his fellow Augustinians and the people to whom to ministered in northern Peru — recognized that he was specially gifted by God. They petitioned that his cause for canonization be opened so that he might eventually be recognized as a hero and model for all of God’s people.
Midwest Augustinian Web Site
John J. McKniff, O.S.A.