One of the highest honors the Vatican City State can bestow is the conferral of knighthood in the Order of the Knights of St. Gregory the Great. Some of the recipients of this honor are Bob Hope, entertainer, Roy Disney ( Walt’s brother) businessman, Ricardo Montalban (actor), Oskar Schindler (yes, that Schindler) and my grandfather, a carpenter.
My grandfather was “Mike Gilboy” or to me, “Grampa Gilboy.” To better share his story, let me back up a bit:
When Benedict XVI was pope, I was one of a great number of priests who were concelebrating with the pope at Midnight Mass on Easter in Rome at St. Peter’s Basilica. The church was full, with over 6000 people in the nave and with many cardinals, bishops, and dignitaries in the sanctuary. I was among the concelebrating priests seated near the main altar. Behind us, the Sistine Choir stood close to the great organ of St. Peter’s.
The entire basilica was radiant for Easter. Every candle that could be lit was lit. Every electric light was on, too. The Sistine Chapel choir was belting out “Alleluias” in four-part harmony. I was overwhelmed by this celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
At Communion time, my attendant, carrying a lit candle led me –to my surprise– to a communion post at the section where special guests were sitting, close to the papal altar. Ambassadors, celebrities, and politicos were there in their finest attire, some wearing medals and colorful sashes representing their countries. Along with these honored guests were religious authorities in their distinctive habits. Soon, they formed a line to receive Holy Communion.
One man in a dark suit had a single medal pinned in his left jacket pocket which identified him as a knight of the Vatican City State, a Knight of St. Gregory the Great. I got a good look at that medal as the man stood in front of me with his hands presented to receive the Holy Eucharist. This Knight’s medal featured an eight-pointed star suspended from a ribbon which formed an elegant representation of a cross.
At that moment I remembered the only other time I had seen this medal on anyone. In a photo album that my mother kept, an old black and white photo shows her father, my grandfather, wearing this medal on the day when Bishop Treacy of La Crosse, Wisconsin pinned it to his chest.
Since the early nineteenth century, the Order of St, Gregory the Great has been bestowed by popes to honor those whose lives were deeply Christian and in gratitude for an individual’s special service to the Church. My grandfather was given this formal recognition by Pope Pius XII for his selfless work in the construction of St. James the Greater Church in Eau Claire.
I doubt whether my grandfather ever wore the medal again. He was unaware of any self-importance. His life was lived for his wife and family and his service to the Church was just part of who he was.
Grampa was raised on a farm in a small town in South-Central Illinois. He was seventeen when his father died and his mother was aged and ailing. At twenty-one years old, he married Clara Pieper and continued to manage the family farm until one year later, when his mother died.
Soon afterward with two children in tow, my grandparents sold the Gilboy farm and moved North to start a new life. They eventually settled in Eau Claire, Wisconsin where Grampa gave up farming and took jobs as a carpenter. Eau Claire was a growing town with lots of work for a carpenter. The Gilboy family also grew steadily over the next fifteen years. Then, the Great Depression descended on the nation like a relentless, gloomy specter.
During those tough years, Gramma and Grampa Gilboy managed to feed, clothe, and otherwise care for twelve children. Gramma Gilboy prepared twelve lunches per school day, plus breakfast and supper with fourteen at the table twice a day! Clothing those children and taking care of their health and behavioral needs must have been a constant concern for my grandparents.
People had no money to build or remodel so grampa was often out of work. My mother and her sister worked as teenagers at a local hospital and brought in some funds. Some of the boys did odd jobs. Grampa had to rely on occasional jobs. Gramma took in the wash at 50 cents a load. This was at a time when every piece of laundry had to be scrubbed by hand, The wet wash was picked up by the owners and dried at home –no washing machines or dryers in those days.
My grandparents lived their Faith through their belief and trust in God’s blessings and the kindness of others. The Catholic Church was their path to holiness and their children were raised to know that prayer is not only important, it’s integral to life. The family prayed grace before their meals. The children began their school days with morning Mass. On the Lord’s Day, the entire family went to Mass.
Few photographs of grampa survive, though I think some cousin has an 8 mm film of him on the day of his knighthood conferral. All his children are deceased now but their grandchildren have fragments of memories of him and Gramma Gilboy.
My earliest memory of my grandfather was at a family celebration in Eau Claire, Wisconsin when I was very small. It was likely the joyous family reunion held in 1946 in honor of the five Gilboy sons who returned from serving our country in WWII. It was held in a local hall. I remember watching my grandfather play the fiddle while he led family members in a kind of jovial Irish-inspired line dance, smiling all the while. I had never seen anything like it. But, I was only six. (By the way, his fiddle is still lovingly preserved by a family member.)
Later, when I was about nine years old and visiting my grandparents at 141 Pitt Street in Eau Claire, my grandfather asked me if I wanted to go to St. Patrick’s Church for morning Mass with him, He attended Mass every day, not just on Sundays.
We got into an old stick-shift, boxy, black car that could have been a Model-A Ford. He drove s-l-o-w-l-y and stopped at every street crossing — not just the ones with stop signs, I was at that age where senior adults could be so embarrassing.
In Chicago where I lived, you’d be honked at for driving that slowly. City people have things to do, and people to see. I understand now why he was driving so slowly. He was looking for people that he saw every day. He slowed down and greeted each person with a wave and a smile as he saw them picking up the newspaper in front of their houses, waiting for a bus on street corners, or walking to work. They waved back. It was a way he had of acknowledging people in small ways. It was the Catholic thing to do. He had a joyful and peaceful heart.
Grandma Gilboy had a similar peacefulness about her and an easy smile, I can see her now at the oven pulling out bread pans with piping hot bread, and huge loaves which she then brushed with egg white and then placed back in the oven for five more minutes. The aroma was mouth-watering and the loaves came out golden brown and crispy. Her name was Clara but we never called her Gramma Clara, it was always Gramma Gilboy. Her children called her “mother,” not “mom” or worse, “ma.” And he was never “pa,” always “dad.”
One cousin remembers grampa inviting her as a young child to kneel and pray the rosary with him in the house where my grandparents lived for over forty years. There was a kind of prayer- nook where he prayed the rosary daily and, that day, his granddaughter prayed it with him.
Later on in his life, grampa did carpentry with my father and uncle in Chicago. He stayed with us in our home.
One morning, he sat at the breakfast table watching the pattern of morning life where my mother was getting five children prepared for school and my father was getting ready to go to work. We, kids, slid into our chairs for breakfast and chattered away like kids do. I sat next to grampa, a slender man who with his wispy white hair looked old, just like I thought a grampa should look.
As he was eating his oatmeal he leaned over to me and said quietly with a smile “This is the first time in eight years that I have missed Mass.” He wasn’t referring to a Sunday Mass but a daily Mass.
I can still see him sitting on the couch in our front room praying the daily prayers of the Church which he was required to recite as an Oblate of St. Benedict. I must have been ten or eleven years old.
In 1948, Grampa Gilboy was responsible for spearheading the transitional or temporary church which shared the school cafeteria of the new St. James the Greater parish in Eau Claire. He built the altar and communion railing in that transitional church. He also figured out how, just by moving a few things, the school cafeteria could be transformed each Sunday into a beautiful worship space.
At the banquet held at St. James Church on the occasion of the conferral of the knighthood, Father Frank Brikl who had been pastor when grampa was the contractor for St. James, said: “The universality of the Catholic Church was demonstrated when an ordinary man in the ranks of the workers is accorded the same honors as great educators and financiers.” He described my grandfather as a “quiet, unassuming man who went about his work as a carpenter always giving more than full measure — conscientious, loyal and humble in his work… (and) “always working for the honor and glory of God, never to gain any glory for himself.”
Gramma and Grandpa Gilboy led by their example and taught their children to always look to the guidance of the Church to enlighten their lives. They passed this faith on to their children.
When Grampa Mike died he had the right to have been buried in the dress uniform of the Knights of St. Gregory or the simple brown robe of a Benedictine Oblate. Instead, he was buried in a nice suit donated by a local dentist.
A word about the St. Gregory the Great medal: The decoration is an eight-pointed star that forms a distinctive cross. The cross of Christ was the star that guided my grandfather through the joyous and difficult times in his life.
Some of you reading this are descendants of my grandparents. You are an important part of the continuing Gilboy family history. And, if you are not related to the family, I hope something in this story will inspire you, too.
(My grandfather was born Henry Michael Gilboy in 1886 in Nokomis, IL His father, of the same name (b. 1820), had emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland as a boy and worked as an inland sailor on the Great Lakes until he moved to Illinois to farm. He was a widower with no living children when he married Margaret Hines, a widow. Great-grampa was 64 y/o when his only child “Mike” was born.
Grampa Gilboy died on April 21, 1955, and Gramma died a few years later.)
[My thanks to the following members of the Gilboy family who contributed to this story: Karen Riggs, Michael J. Fiddick, Nancy Raby, Dianne Timirian, Sharon Scesniak, and Donna Fleming.]