John J. McKniff, O.S.A.
Augustinian Missionary and Pastor of the Poor
John J. McKniff, O.S.A. was a zealous Augustinian missionary in three countries. He was a man of deep spirituality. He is remembered particularly for his devoted pastoral ministry to the poor in Cuba and in Peru.
Father McKniff served most of his adult life 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 beatification of John J. McKniff, O.S.A. was formally made in 1999, five years after his death at age 88. The diocesan process, during which those who knew Father McKniff gave testimony, was solemnly closed in Chulucanas, Peru on the Feast of St. Augustine, August 28, 2002. All the documentation has been sent to the Congregation of Saints in Rome for further study and discernment. Josef Sciberras, O.S.A., the Augustinian Postulator of Causes, is working to ensure progress.
Born September 5, 1905 in Media, Pennsylvania, John McKniff entered the Augustinian Order and professed religious vows in 1924. He was ordained a priest in 1930.
Teaching in the Philippines
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.
Ministry in Cuba
The following year, 1939, he was sent to Cuba. After two years of teaching there, he was named pastor of El 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.
Father 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 foreign priests from Cuba. Only one foreign priest remained in Cuba -- Father 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,” Father 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 37 of his Augustinian brothers expelled from the country, he was deprived of the Augustinian community life that he loved so dearly.
In 1968, parishioners at El Cristo del Buen Viaje and friends persuaded Father McKniff to go 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.
Missionary to Northern Peru
Ministry in New York parishes filled the next three years. But the missionary call remained strong in Father 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 faithful lay men and women in working for Jesus through various kinds of ministries in the Church.
Father McKniff continued to share his deep spirituality with others. He would walk many hours to pray with the people of remote Peruvian villages.
By the end of 1993, weakened by a bout with typhoid fever, Father McKniff began to be afflicted by 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. 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 and with whom he 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.