October 2, 1881, a small group of men met in the basement of St. Mary's
Church on Hillhouse Avenue in New Haven, Connecticut, to discuss the formation
of a fraternal benefit society. Convened at the request of Father Michael
J. McGivney, a 29-year-old priest, this meeting marked the foundation of
what has become the world's largest Catholic family fraternal service organization.
Four months after this meeting, the group adopted the name "Knights of Columbus." Shortly after the turn of the century, Knights could be found in every state of the United States, in most of the provinces of Canada, in Mexico and the Philippines, and were prepared to enter Puerto Rico and Cuba.
Why Columbus? In choosing Christopher Columbus as their patron the first Knights demonstrated their pride in America's Catholic heritage. To the Irish-American Catholics who incorporated the organization, the name Knights of Columbus evoked allegiance to the Church and affirmed the discovery of America as a Catholic event.
The need to assert their pride in their faith, and to do so in such a demonstrable way, was a direct reaction to the socio-political movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries known as nativism. Thus, the Order sought to promote assimilation in the New World rather than to look backward to the European countries whence the first members came.
The state of Connecticut granted the Knights of Columbus status as a legal corporation on March 29, 1882. The anniversary is observed each year by the Knights as Founder's Day.
Almost immediately after the incorporation of the Knights of Columbus, Father McGivney wrote a letter to all the pastors of the then Diocese of Hartford, Connecticut, outlining the organization's aims. He wrote: "Our primary object is to prevent our people from entering secret societies by offering the same if not better advantages to our members. Secondly, our object is to unite the men of faith in the Diocese of Hartford, that we may thereby gain strength to aid each other in time of sickness; to provide for decent burial; and to render pecuniary assistance to families of deceased members." The founder's letter concluded with his hope that the Knights of Columbus would be represented in every parish in Connecticut. Today, the Order aims to have an active Knights of Columbus council in every Catholic parish in countries where it exists.
Though the concept of a Catholic fraternal order struck Father McGivney as a pastoral necessity in protecting the faith, "Unity and Charity" - the Order's motto until 1885 when "Fraternity" was added - were expressed through its sick-benefit and life insurance feature. Father McGivney strove not only to protect their faith, but also to protect their families.
|Although the Order's
constitution was frequently amended during its first 15 years, much of
the general authority structure of the Order has been preserved to the
present. The Supreme Council is composed of Supreme Officers, the state
and territorial deputies, the last living past state deputy of each jurisdiction,
and elected representatives from each state. It is the Order's highest
policy-making and legislative body and meets annually the first Tuesday-Thursday
The Supreme Officers are as follows: supreme knight, supreme chaplain, deputy supreme knight, supreme secretary, supreme treasurer, supreme advocate, supreme physician and supreme warden. The major duties of each correspond to the major duties of their counterparts in any corporation. For instance, the supreme knight is the chief executive officer of the organization; the supreme secretary is the corporate secretary, etc.
A 25-member board of directors is charged with overseeing the fraternal and insurance operations of the Order between meetings of the Supreme Council.
State council officers follow the same pattern. The state deputy and his team of officers are elected by delegates at the annual state conventions held each spring.
The subordinate councils' officers are: grand knight, chaplain, deputy grand knight, chancellor, recorder, financial secretary, treasurer, lecturer, advocate, warden, inside guard, outside guard and board of trustees. Subordinate councils elect their own leaders.
Currently, there are nearly 11,000 local Knights of Columbus councils. While most are based in a given Catholic parish, others draw their members from several Catholic parishes. Still others are based on college and university campuses and are comprised of Catholic students, faculty and staff. Each reflects the diversity of the Church.
This representative system of government clearly indicates the long-range intentions of Father McGivney and his founding Knights. Though based upon sound business practices, the Knights operate as a fraternal benefit society providing insurance benefits to its members while at the same time providing volunteer and charitable programs for them and the community at large.
James T. Mullen, a New Haven native and Civil War veteran, served the Order as its first supreme knight from 1882-1886. He presided over the institution of 22 of the Order's first 38 councils, and watched it grow beyond Connecticut into Rhode Island (1885). The emblem of the Order dates from the second Supreme Council meeting, May 12, 1883. It was designed by Supreme Knight Mullen.
|The emblem incorporates
a shield mounted upon a formée cross. The shield is associated with
a medieval knight, and the formée cross is an artistic representation
of the cross of Christ.
Mounted on the shield are three objects: a fasces standing vertically and, crossed behind it, an anchor and a dagger or short sword. The fasces from Roman days is symbolic of authority. The anchor is the mariner's symbol for Columbus. The short sword is the weapon of the knight when engaged in an errand of mercy.
John J. Phelan was elected supreme knight in 1886. He was not a founding member of the Order, having joined in 1885. When Phelan became supreme knight, there were 38 councils with 2,700 members. By the time he left office in 1897, the figures had risen to 210 councils and nearly 17,000 members located in 10 states.
James E. Hayes of Massachusetts (1897-98) and John J. Cone of New Jersey (1898-99) steered the Order to the start of the 20th century. Hayes succumbed to complications from peritonitis and Cone was elected his successor. During the two years of the Hayes-Cone administration, the Knights reached as far west as Minnesota and into Canada.
Though regional variations gradually developed in accord with the variety of cultures within the Order, the unifying force throughout was Columbian fraternalism, with which Catholics of all regions could identify.There were many causes for this rapid growth. The Knights' ceremonial character instilled a sense of pride in the Catholic roots of the New World. The insurance feature provided the Order with financial solvency and the ability to undertake a strong expansionist policy. Its social-club dimension - fraternity - appealed to those men who sought a Catholic milieu for their leisure, recreation and intellectual stimulation, while expressions of anti-Catholicism led many to join an organization dedicated to defending the faith.
Currently there are four degrees or ceremonials in the Knights of Columbus. The Fourth Degree, based on patriotism, had been under discussion since 1886 and was approved in 1899. More than 1,100 Knights became Fourth Degree members at the first exemplification on Feb. 22, 1900, in New York City. The following May 8, another 750 Knights received the Fourth Degree in Boston. From its beginnings, the Fourth Degree provided honor guards for religious and civic ceremonies.
|A member is considered
a Knight after receiving the First Degree, and is eligible for all benefits
of membership, including availing himself of the Order's insurance program.
The degree ceremonials exemplify, in turn, the Order's lessons of Charity,
Unity, Fraternity and Patriotism.
Father Michael J. McGivney died on August 14, 1890, from complications of pneumonia. He was interred at St. Joseph's Cemetery in Waterbury, Connecticut, in the family plot.
In 1982, on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Knights of Columbus, Father McGivney was re-interred in a granite tomb at the rear of the nave of St. Mary's Church in New Haven, where he founded the Order. In April 1996, with the approval of Archbishop Daniel A. Cronin of Hartford, Dominican Father Gabriel B. O'Donnell was named to study the potential cause for sainthood of the founder. Ongoing research into Father McGivney's life is underway at the Supreme Council office.
|Edward L. Hearn's 10-year tenure as supreme knight (1899-1909) left a deep mark upon the Order. Councils were established in every province in Canada, in Mexico, in Cuba and in the Philippines.|
|Shortly after the United
States entered World War I in April 1917, Supreme Knight James A. Flaherty
(1909-1927) wrote President Woodrow Wilson a letter in which he reported
that the Order proposed to "establish centers for the large body of
men who will be concentrated in training and mobilization camps."
By that summer, the K of C War Activities Committee was established. The
Knights established service centers or K of C Huts in training camps in
the United States; rest and recovery hostels in England and Ireland; huts
behind the lines; and, after the war, in allied occupied areas in France,
Germany, Italy and even Siberia. Under the banner "Everyone Welcome,
Everything Free," the Knights provided the servicemen with a wide
range of social programs including sports, music and drama, while the K
of C chaplains ministered to their spiritual needs. The Order raised more
than $14 million on its own and was allocated nearly $30 million from a
national combined fund drive. After the war, unused funds were expended
on a variety of K of C educational, vocational, occupational and employment
programs for veterans while its evening school program enrolled more than
50,000 students in its 100 schools in 1920. Its correspondence school,
administered by the Supreme Council office, enrolled 25,000 students and
the Order awarded more than 400 college scholarships to veterans. As a
result of this work, nearly 400,000 men joined the Order between 1917 and
In response to a plea from Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922), who assumed personal charge of Vatican relief efforts during the war, the Knights established five playgrounds in Rome, still operated by the Order today at no charge to the participants. These youth recreation and education centers stimulated a growing interest in youth work at home.
Though K of C councils were involved in the Boy Scouts and other youth programs, it was decided to establish a youth section within the Order. Under the guidance of Christian Brother Barnabas McDonald (1865-1929) the first Columbian Squires circle was instituted in 1925. As of July 1, 1996, there were approximately 1,082 circles and 23,165 Squires. Membership in the Squires is for Catholic boys between the ages of 12 and 18.
|The Great Depression
caused a decline in Knights of Columbus membership and also hindered the
growth of the Columbian Squires since money for initiation fees and membership
dues was difficult to come by.
In 1931 religious tensions in Mexico, which had been in check for several years, resurfaced. So, too, did the Knights of Columbus' support of the Church and clergy in Mexico, which were being suppressed by the government. The persecution of the Church in Mexico continued until the late 1930s. Several priest-members of the Knights of Columbus were martyred during this time. Six of them were beatified in 1992.
Supreme Knight Francis P. Matthews (1939-1945) led the Order as it passed out of the Great Depression and into World War II. The National Catholic Welfare Conference and its National Catholic Community Service branch formulated most programs of support for servicemen during World War II. The Knights were active in these programs and also spearheaded war bond drives, blood donor programs and similar efforts.
With the end of World War II came the Cold War and the expansion of communist power in Europe and Asia. Supreme Knight John E. Swift (1945-1953) oversaw the Order's varied responses to the communist threat, including speakers' bureaus, advertisements, pamphlets and radio addresses. In the late 1940s the Order sponsored 1,300 educational discussion groups in the crusade against communism. President Harry Truman acknowledged the Order's efforts.
Luke E. Hart served as supreme knight from 1953-1964, having previously held the office of supreme advocate since 1922. He worked to maintain the Order's traditional anti-defamation character, along with its patriotism and its general promotion of Catholic interests. He also modernized the governing structure of the Order. Long associated with the Order's insurance program, he introduced innovations eventually leading to insurance plans for families of members. The return of prosperity at home and the revival of the Order's idealism in the postwar period engendered a rise in membership. Several ambitious programs to promote Catholic interests were launched. An important initiative was the launching in 1947, under Hart's advocacy, of the Order's Catholic Advertising Program, which grew into the present-day Catholic Information Service. The advertisements then and now are highlighted by a bold-print headline posing a thematic question, below which is an illustration and editorial copy on some aspect of Church teaching or practice. Readers are encouraged to send away for additional information on the Catholic Church.
|In 1957 the Order's
board of directors agreed to finance the campanile, or bell tower, at the
National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. The $1-million,
329-foot bell tower attached to the largest Catholic church in the United
States, now a basilica, is known as the "Knights' Tower." The
Order also provided a 56-bell carillon in 1963 and, in 1988, renovated
its operating system. Earnings on the $500,000 Luke E. Hart Fund, established
in 1979, go to the maintenance and operations of the National Shrine.
The Order also led the effort to amend the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag to include "under God" after the phrase "one nation." President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the revised pledge into law in 1954.
John W. McDevitt served as supreme knight during the turbulent 1960s and '70s. McDevitt (1964-77) vigorously responded to the crises in society and dissension from Church teaching by reiterating the Order's support for the hierarchy of the Church and championing Church teaching on divorce, birth control, abortion and pornography.
|During McDevitt's administration
the present 23-story international headquarters of the Knights of Columbus
was built. The glass-faced building is a notable feature of the New Haven
skyline and is set off by four 320-foot towers that symbolize the Order's
four ideals of Charity, Unity, Fraternity and Patriotism. Currently, more
than 500 people work at the Supreme Council office handling the fraternal
and insurance business of the Order.
Virgil C. Dechant is the Order's current supreme knight, appointed in 1977 upon McDevitt's retirement. His administration has been marked with record-breaking growth in all areas of the Order's operations: membership, new council development, insurance sales and volunteerism. Support of the Church has grown more visible through multimillion-dollar programs of vocations support, and collaboration in the various programs of the Holy See and the bishops' conferences in countries where the Order is found. The Order's involvement in family and pro-life activities, Catholic education and evangelization efforts has also increased during his administration.
|In 1981 at the 99th
Supreme Council meeting, as the first act of the Order's centennial year,
delegates voted to establish an irrevocable $10 million endowment whose
annual earnings would support the Holy Father's personal charities. At
the centennial convention in 1982, Supreme Knight Dechant presented Cardinal
Agostino Casaroli, then papal secretary of state, with the initial gift
of $1.2 million from the Knights of Columbus Vicarius Christi (Vicar of
Christ) Fund. In 1988 the fund was doubled to $20 million. More than $24.2
million has been given to the Holy Father from this fund, and the corpus
In the early 1980s the Knights were privileged to undertake the costs of a new chapel in the grottoes of St. Peter's Basilica dedicated to SS. Benedict, Cyril and Methodius and enlarging to one and one-half its original size a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Czestochowa
|The Order's historic
involvement with the Vatican was greatly expanded in 1985 when the Order's
Board of Directors responded favorably to a request from the Vatican to
fund the renovation of the facade of St. Peter's Basilica. The project
entailed cleaning the entire 65,000-square-foot facade, installation of
stainless steel supports for the 13 statues on the top of the facade and
repair of cracks in the travertine stone.
Under Dechant's tenure the Order established a series of funds to assist seminarians and/or priest-scholars from countries where the Order is established in pursuing theological studies in pontifical universities in Rome and in Louvain, Belgium. In 1991 the Order doubled to $6 million the Knights of Columbus Vocations Scholarship Fund. Earnings subsidize Supreme Council rebates to councils that provide financial and moral support to a seminarian or postulant. It also funds a number of need-based scholarships to seminarians in theology.
Also established under Dechant's administration was the $1 million Father Michael J. McGivney Fund for New Initiatives in Catholic Education, which underwrites research and other programs to enhance Catholic education.
In 1988, the Order launched the North American campus of the Pope John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C., a branch of the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome, offering graduate-level pontifical degrees. The Order has also committed $5 million to the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center to be built in Washington, D.C.
During Dechant's term, the Order expanded its collaboration with the Pontifical Council for Social Communication in funding the Vatican's satellite uplink, which brings papal ceremonies to a worldwide audience at least three times a year. Additionally, the Order purchased a mobile television production unit for the use of the Vatican Television Center in covering papal audiences and other special events in Rome and elsewhere, and in 1995 provided additional funds for the purchase of a new van and updated equipment.
Since Supreme Knight Dechant took office, membership has climbed to nearly 1.6 million, and the number of active councils has jumped to almost 11,000. Similar growth is evident in the insurance and investment facets of the Order's operation.
The Order's history was researched and written
by noted American historian Dr. Christopher J. Kauffman, and published
in 1982 by Harper & Row. Titled Faith and Fraternalism, the
500-plus page volume is available in many public libraries. A revised edition
was published in 1992 by Simon & Schuster. A popular history of the
Order, richly illustrated, was published by Simon & Schuster in 1992
to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage of discovery.
It is entitled Columbianism and the Knights of Columbus and was
written by Dr. Kauffman. Both titles are available from the Knights of
Columbus Promotional and Gift Department.