Dr. Romeo A. Vidone, left, accepts the Connecticut State Council of Knights of Columbus’ Father Michael J. McGivney Award from State Deputy Ralph Grandpre on March 25 in Southington.(Photo submitted)
ORANGE – After Dr. Romeo A. Vidone completed his medical examination of the remains of the founder of the Knights of Columbus, Father Michael J. McGivney, in 1981, the then-bishop of the Diocese of Norwich asked if he could "take his hands."
Noticing his look of bewilderment, Bishop Daniel P. Reilly humbly explained to Dr. Vidone that he wanted to touch the hands of the doctor who touched the remains of a saint.
For his contributions to the fraternity and to the Catholic Church throughout his career as a pathologist, Dr. Vidone was recognized by Connecticut Knights of Columbus with their highest award; he was their honoree at the Venerable Father Michael J. McGivney Dinner March 25 at the Aqua Turf Club in Southington.
"I was flabbergasted when they called me and told me I was going to receive the award," Dr. Vidone told The Transcript. "When I saw the list of previous awardees, I was overwhelmed. It was as much of an honor and a privilege being named as it was being asked to examine Father McGivney’s body."
Dr. Vidone still vividly recalls being invited by the Supreme Council of the Knights of Columbus in 1981 to participate in the medical examination of the remains of Father McGivney, who died in 1890 at the age of 38. (Father McGivney was declared "venerable" by the Church in 2008, thus starting to pave the way for him to perhaps become the first American-born priest to be named a Catholic saint.)
After Dr. Vidone asked them, "Why me?" the Knights told him it was because he was held in high esteem by his colleagues, had an excellent reputation, was head of pathology at a Catholic hospital, would be objective because he was not a member of the Knights of Columbus, and was a pathologist who knew how to examine tissue of the deceased.
"The preparation was extensive," he said, recalling numerous meetings he participated in with then-Supreme Knight Virgil Dechant; W. Patrick Donlin, supreme advocate; and Dr. John H. Griffin, supreme physician, along with other Catholic leaders.
"I had several meetings with Pat [Donlin], who explained the requirements of canon law and the Vatican in examining the remains," said Dr. Vidone. One requirement is exhumation and examination of the body with a physician-pathologist in attendance.
Dr. Vidone said Father McGivney’s body was exhumed from his original burial site in Waterbury in 1981 and taken to a Waterbury funeral home, where it was examined in the presence of other officials. "I did the exam with John [Griffin], made my observations and they taped what I said," he said, explaining that he took tissue samples and other materials to examine microscopically.
"I wrote my report in a couple of weeks; and all of the materials and my notes had to be returned," said Dr. Vidone. "I also was sworn not to divulge anything and never to discuss any of my findings," he stated. He added that seven copies of his report were made and are now stored in seven sites around the world, including at the Vatican.
In addition to participating in the examination, he said that one of the highlights was attending meetings at the time with Mary Tracy, a beloved grade school teacher and principal in Orange, whose father was one of the laymen who worked with Father McGivney to create the Knights of Columbus.
According to Dr. Vidone, they would share a ride to related events and Mary would tell him stories of how Father McGivney made frequent visits to their home when she was a little girl.
"She would sit on the steps while Father McGivney and the laymen talked about their concerns," he said.
"It was a fascinating opportunity for me to learn all I could about him," said Dr. Vidone. "She described him as being a wonderful, compassionate, friendly and courteous person," he said. "It was wonderful being able to talk to someone who knew the man."
After the examination, Father McGivney’s body was re-interred in a sarcophagus at St. Mary Church in New Haven as part of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Knights of Columbus on March 29, 1982.
Dr. Vidone graduated from the Yale University School of Medicine and continued his residency in pathology at Yale-New Haven Hospital. After serving in the Navy, he joined the faculty at Yale University Medical School before chairing the department of pathology at Charlotte Hungerford Hospital in Torrington.
He returned to New Haven as chairman of the department of pathology at St. Raphael’s from 1977-2002, and continues to make frequent visits to his office.
In 2011, he and his family donated $1 million to the Dr. Romeo A. and Lena B. Vidone Birth Center at the Hospital of St. Raphael. The donation, which was used to fund a $2.2 million renovation and update of the hospital’s maternity unit into a family-centered birth center, was made in memory of his wife, Lena.
That donation was the subject of a story that appeared in the March 2011 issue of the Transcript.
Unable to conceive during the first nine years of their marriage, his wife became a patient of Yale fertility expert C. Lee Buxton in the 1960s, and went on to deliver three healthy children.
Later, Lena maintained a longstanding passion for St. Raphael’s newborn services, while her husband’s career as a pathologist included special interest in gynecology and screening for cervical cancer.