Knights of Columbus

At any Catholic ceremony of note, the Knights of Columbus are hard to miss. Lining the nave of the church or cathedral, swords drawn, plumed admiral’s hats much in evidence, they lend a touch of exotic splendor to any occasion. In many parishes they are known also for their charitable works on a local level, from fundraising for the parish or various worthy causes, to balls and bingo nights. But behind them is an impressive history, for all that the Order has been around for less than a century and a half.

Knights of Columbus Crest

The United States in the late 19th century was not an easy place to be a Catholic. Socially, the America of that time was filled with fraternal bodies such as the various branches of Masonry, the Oddfellows, the Knights of Pythias and the like, in whom membership was forbidden to members of the Church — and yet who often dominated things on a local level. There were (and are) Catholic ethnic fraternal groups such as the Catholic Central Verein, Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Association Canado-Americaine, and the Sons of Italy who gave their members many of the same benefits as the forbidden groups. But their very nature reinforced the view of non-Catholic Americans that the Faith was foreign — silly at best, dangerous at worst. What was lacking was a Catholic fraternal organization that would cut across ethnic lines, allow Catholics to reinforce their national institutions without surrendering their religion, and give them a strong social and political voice. In 1882, a young Irish-American priest — only four years out of seminary and merely a curate at St. Mary’s Church, New Haven — attempted to fill that gap. His name was Ven. Fr. Michael McGivney , and in that year he founded the Knights of Columbus.

Father Michael J. McGivney

Michael McGivney was born on August 12, 1852 in Waterbury, Connecticut.  At the age of 16 he enrolled in the Seminaire St. Hyacinthe, a minor seminary in Quebec (secularized in 1970, it is now called the Collège Antoine-Girouard). Passing successive through Niagara University and St. Mary’s Seminary (and after a break of a few years occasioned by the needs of his family after his father’s death), he was ordained by Archbishop Gibbons of Baltimore in 1877. He was assigned to the parish of St. Mary’s New Haven.

At that time, the parishioners were mostly Irish and working class. Subject to severe discrimination, alcoholism was rife among them. In addition to his normal duties, the new curate was given the task of prison chaplain, which brought him into direct contact with many of the social ills facing his flock. He was also active with the young people of the parish, organizing catechism classes and a total abstinence society. Fr. McGivney, realizing the place that fraternalism held in American life, conceived the idea of forming a Catholic mutual benefit society that would both aid its members when in financial distress (especially after the death of a loved one) and give them an alternative to joining the existing non- and anti-Catholic ones. In 1881, he received permission from the Bishop of Hartford to explore erecting such a society.

Fr. McGivney's note to William M. Greary (1886)

Others had had the same idea elsewhere. In Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1879, members of the local St. Vincent de Paul Society, concerned by the same evils Fr. McGivney was facing in New Haven, cast about for a method of dealing with them. The pattern they found most appealing was that of the Independent Order of Foresters, itself a descendant of several English groups, ultimately originating in the 18th century among the poor working men of the rapidly industrializing Midlands. Bereft of any kind of social aid from their employers or the government, they banded together, taking inspiration from Robin Hood’s Merry Men — who had taken to the forest to provide mutual support. The English Foresters had invented a Medieval origin and involved ritual for themselves on the pattern of (and in rivalry with) the Freemasons, who at that time appealed exclusively to the better off. The result of the St. Vincent de Paul members’ efforts was the Catholic Order of Foresters in Massachusetts. This would inspire other groups, and in 1883 a national organization would be formed, which endures to the preset day as a life insurance company.

The same year Fr. McGivney turned his attention to the idea, a similar group in Brooklyn, the Catholic Benevolent Legion was founded. Fr. McGivney visited both Worcester and Brooklyn for inspiration, and on the night of February 7, 1882 gathered 24 men for the first meeting of the Knights of Columbus (ironically, while the Catholic Foresters remains, the Catholic Legion would merge with the Knights in 1969). Fr. McGivney wanted to call the new group the “Sons of Columbus,” invoking the name of the Catholic discoverer of the New World to show that Catholicism and American Patriotism could march hand-in-hand. Those members of the organization who had served in the Civil War suggested “Knights,” suggesting that the spirit and rituals of chivalry could help mobilize the membership not only in mutual support but in the higher goal of securing more civil liberty for Catholics and benefiting the nation as a whole thereby. On March 29, the Connecticut State legislature chartered the group.

Initially, the Knight’s principles were “Union” and “Charity;” “Fraternity” and “Patriotism” were added later. Each of them were (and are) the dominant themes in the Order’s ritual. In April he secured the Bishop’s support, and urged each pastor to install a council in their parish in order to prevent their flocks from joining secret societies which offered benefits at the price of faith. By 1885, there were 31 councils in the state.

St. Thomas Church, Thomaston, Connecticut (1890)

The previous year, Fr. McGivney had been assigned as pastor to the debt-ridden, rundown parish of St. Thomas, Thomaston. Pursing his new position with same energy he had shown as a curate, he pulled the church out of the red while continuing to work on expanding the Order. As Supreme Chaplain, he personally oversaw the Knights’ expansion into Rhode Island. All of this exertion took its toll, and the frail young priest died of pneumonia in 1890. Due to his heroic virtue, his cause for canonization was opened, and Fr. McGivney was named “Venerable” in 2008.

The organization survived him, however. Its unique life insurance plan and other benefits, as well as it providing its members a source of civic pride, led to phenomenal growth in a relatively short period of time. By 1912, 20,000 knights were able to come to Washington to participate in the dedication of the Columbus Memorial.  So fearful did this growth make some members of the Protestant establishment that in 1912 a phony “Knights of Columbus Oath,” describing in lurid terms each 4th degree knight’s supposed obligation to “exterminate heretics and Freemasons.” In response a congressman read the real oath into the Congressional Record. The knights mounted an education campaign, sending lecturers around the United States to inform the public as to the Church and the Order’s authentic stand on the issues.

Funeral Card for Fr. McGivney's Funeral Mass

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the Knights rallied behind the war effort, opening up recreation centers, welcome huts, and information centers free of charge to the soldiers who used them. The result was the entrance of 400,000 returning soldiers; famous Dodger Babe Ruth joined in 1920. During the racial unrest of the 1920s, the Order at the national level issued the “Racial Contribution” series, amongst other things publishing the work of W.E.B. Dubois. A number of local councils, however, maintained an unofficial policy of segregation: at the time the Knights operated under the “blackball” system, whereby any single member could block the entrance of a candidate into a council for any reason whatsoever.

During the 1920s also, the anti-Catholic policies of the anti-Catholic Mexican government — heavily dependent on U.S. aid — led to a revolt of the nation’s faithful called the Cristero rebellion. The Order had spread to Mexico by that time. Six of its members were martyred by the government and later canonized; a seventh, Bishop Rafael Guízar Valencia, was driven out of his diocese, and forced to spend the conflict hiding out in Mexico City. Renowned for his work at that time among the downtrodden, he earned the nickname of “Bishop of the Poor,” and was made a saint in 2006. But the knights’ efforts to prevail upon Washington to moderate its support of the regime or use its influence to end the persecution met with little success. At last, the United States did manage to force its allies in Mexico to the peace table, but did nothing to make them abide by the agreement with the Cristeros when it was reached. The result was the slaughter of many of them afterwards.

McGivney Guild Emblem

On the internal front during that period, the Order scored innumerable successes in its campaign to defeat the widespread movement to ban parochial schools; this came closest t success with the passage of the Oregon School Bill in 1922. But thanks in great part to the Order’s educational work, the law was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1925, and the Catholic Schools reopened.

Three years later, though, the bogus oath resurfaced during the 1928 Presidential campaign as part of the successful effort to defeat Al Smith. Again, the knights swung into action — this time unsuccessfully. But the boom of the 1920s was succeeded by the Great Depression. Despite the fall off in membership, the insurance program weathered the storm where many similar programs failed. Local Councils were active in Church relief efforts as well. The knights successfully lobbied many States to declare Columbus Day a holiday, culminating in President Roosevelt’s extending it to the entire nation in 1937.

World War II saw the Order reprise its role in the first conflict. In addition to seconding the efforts of the National Catholic Welfare Conference for servicemen, the Order supported blood drives, war bond sales, and the like. The return of peace, however, brought a whole new set of challenges.

The onset of the Cold War following the fall of large stretches of Europe and Asia to Communism saw the Order mount large-scale educational programs in anti-Communism and Patriotism. In 1954, the knights’ lobbying was instrumental in Congress adding “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, an effort for which they were officially thanked by President Eisenhower. By the end of the decade, Supreme Knight Luke Hart was urging councils that did not do so to accept black members. In 1964, the Supreme Convention abolished the blackball, requiring a third of council members to reject a candidate; in 1972 the rule was revised further — henceforth a majority of the membership would have to vote against a candidacy. In the election of 1960, although the Order did not endorse JFK, they did campaign against the anti-Catholicism that accompanied the campaign. With Kennedy’s victory, the old anti-Catholicism was spent as an open political force.

Members of the Knights of Columbus Fourth Degree Color Guard preparing for the Queen of Angels Foundation's First Annual Grand Marion Procession on September 3, 2011

But the 1960s and 70s saw the beginning of a new kind. Up until this period, the vast majority of Americans of whatever religion possessed a common set of values. But beginning with the legalization of artificial birth control by the Supreme Court in 1965, that moral consensus shattered. As the years wore on, and successive judicial and legislative actions took the nation and its states ever further away from Church teaching and the natural law, the Catholic Church emerged (alongside such ever more marginalized groups as Evangelicals, Mormons, Orthodox Jews) as one of the few defenders of what had been the universally recognized standards of civilized life. A new anti-Catholicism arose on the ruins of the old — smoother and more “enlightened,” but as nasty as its predecessor. This process continues today.

In that struggle, alongside its still-continuing fraternal, educational, and charitable endeavors, the Order has remained in the first rank. Although continuing to avoid advocating or opposing particular candidates, they have struggled to keep before the public eye the Church’s teaching on everything from moral issues to (as the seasonal billboards say) “keeping Christ in Christmas” — not only in the United States, but in all the countries to which they have spread: Mexico, Canada, the Bahamas, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere. Moreover, the success of the Knights inspired similar although independent organizations in the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, and other places — all of which are members of the International Alliance of Catholic Knights, an NGO numbering 36 similar bodies, and headquartered in Rome’s Palace of San Callisto.

Members of the Knights of Columbus Fourth Degree Color Guard Marching in the Queen of Angels Foundation's First Annual Grand Marion Procession

Regarding strictly religious affairs, the Knights have raised millions for domestic churches, the Holy See, seminary scholarships, and many other such efforts. In 2009, the Order gave 151 million dollars, and members spent 69 million man hours on charitable causes. Membership has blossomed to over a million and a half, and innumerable Catholic and other causes have benefited from their assistance. Booth the Daughters of Isabella and the Catholic Daughters of the Americas owe their origins to women’s auxiliaries of K of C councils.

The Knights of Columbus and its brother organizations around the world, despite their names, are not knightly orders in the sense that the Order of Malta is, and make no claim to be. But in their devotion to the Church and their fellow man, each incarnates in its own way the spirit of Chivalry. Something to reflect on, when looking at their uniforms.


Knights of Columbus (Wikipedia)

Knights of Columbus Supreme Website

Fr. Michael J. McGivney Guild

Knights of Columbus Museum, New Haven

Knights of Columbus Building, New Haven

St. Mary’s Church, New Haven

Knights of Columbus Activities

United in Charity

Culture of Life Fund


Knights of Columbus Insurance

Catholic Information Service

Public Policy Issues

Knights in Action

Catholic Daughters of the Americas

Daughters of Isabella



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