Who are the Knights of Columbus?

The Knights of Columbus is the world’s largest Catholic fraternal service organization.

Founded in 1882.

Father Michael J. McGivney founded the Knights in New Haven, Connecticut in 1882. He named the order in honor of the explorer Christopher Columbus, who brought Christianity to North America. It was originally formed to provide death benefits and financial relief to working class and immigrant Catholic families.  Later, it grew to provide volunteer support to Catholic churches, charitable service to members of local communities of all faiths, war and disaster relief, and to promote Catholic education.

Membership and philosophy.

Today there are nearly 2 million members in more than 15,000 local councils, including 302 councils on college campuses. Membership is open to practicing Catholic men aged 18 or older.  The Order consists of four degrees, each exemplifying a different principle of the Order:  Charity, Unity, Fraternity and Patriotism.  The Order is part of the International Alliance of Catholic Knights.  Councils are chartered in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and around the world.

Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson

Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson

The current Supreme Knight is Carl A. Anderson.

Pope John Paul II called the Order the “strong right arm of the Church” for its support of Church communities, as well as for its philanthropic and charitable efforts.  In 2015, the Order gave over $175 million directly to charity and performed over 73.5 million man-hours of voluntary service. The Knight’s insurance division has more than 2 million insurance contracts, totaling more than $100 billion of life insurance in force, backed by $21 billion in assets placing it on the Forbes 1000 list.

History of the Knights of Columbus

Early years

Fr. Michael J. McGivney was an Irish-American Catholic priest in a largely Irish immigrant community in New Haven, Connecticut.  Dangerous working conditions in factories left many families fatherless.  Fr. McGivney saw first hand the devastation to families when a breadwinner became sick, disabled or died. There were virtually no insurance or government programs at that time. He wanted to provide support for the widows and orphans left behind. Fr. McGivney himself had been forced to withdraw from the seminary to care for his mother and siblings after his own father died.  He was able to return to the seminary only through the charitable support of the Bishop of Hartford who financed the remainder of his education.

A mutual benefit society

Fr. McGivney gathered a group of men from St. Mary’s Parish in New Haven for an organizational meeting on October 2, 1881 and founded the Knights of Columbus.  Several months later, the Order was incorporated under the laws of the state of Connecticut. The Order spread rapidly in Connecticut, and then throughout New England and the United States.

The mutual benefit system originally devised by Fr. McGivney gave a deceased Knight’s widow a $1,000 death benefit. Members were assessed $1 upon the death of a brother Knight, until the membership grew beyond 1,000.  There was also a Sick Benefit for members who fell ill and could not work. Originally, each sick Knight was entitled to draw up to $5 a week for 13 weeks.  Eventually, these fraternal benefits grew into one of the country’s largest and strongest insurance programs.

Fighting discrimination.

Because of religious and ethnic discrimination, Roman Catholics in the late 19th century were excluded from labor unions, fraternal organizations, and other organized groups that provided insurance, fraternal benefits and other social services. Fr. McGivney sought to create an alternative organization to encourage men to be proud of their American-Catholic heritage.

The war years

During World War I the Knights supported the war effort and provided services to soldiers of all faiths, which helped to mitigate some of the Anti-Catholic hostility in America. Supreme Knight James A. Flaherty proposed to President Woodrow Wilson that the Order establish welfare centers for soldiers in the U.S. and abroad.  President Wilson accepted, and the Order proceeded to raise over 30 Million dollars to finance the centers.  With the slogan “Everyone Welcome, Everything Free,” the K of C “huts” became rest and recreation and social service centers for doughboys regardless of race or religion.  

They were staffed by “secretaries,” who became known as “Caseys” (for the red “K.C.” patches they wore on their sleeves) and were often men above the age of military service.  The centers provided basic amenities not readily available, such as stationery, hot baths, and religious services to Allied servicemen of all faiths.  Historians praised the K of C’s activities in WWI because “unlike the other social welfare organizations operating in the war, it never drew the color line.”  After the war, the Knights became involved in education, occupational training, and employment programs for the returning troops.   From 1918 to 1920 more than 50,000 students enrolled in K of C sponsored evening school programs across the U.S. and Canada, and the Order even started a correspondence school to reach rural areas.  As a result of the Order’s wartime work, nearly 400,000 men joined the Knights between 1917 and 1923.

Post-war discrimination.

Early on, the Knights of Columbus became the subject of attacks by malicious groups. Tens of thousands of copies of a “bogus oath” were circulated to defame the Knights of Columbus. In response, the Knights created a lecture series and educational programs to combat the anti-Catholic hostility.  By the end of the war, the number of anti-Catholic publications had dropped from 60 to fewer than five.

After World War I, worries about the spread of “foreign” values hindered the assimilation of immigrants.  Incited by the Ku Klux Klan and other “nativist” and anti-Catholic groups, campaigns were launched to force students attend public schools where they would be taught to be American.  Many states passed laws designed to use schools to promote American culture, such as the Oregon Compulsory Education Act in 1922.  Beneath the surface, however, these laws were aimed at eliminating parochial schools, including Catholic schools.  In 1923 the Knights of Columbus joined forces with the ACLU to fight the law, and the Knights contributed $10,000 to finance the legal challenge.  The case resulted in the famous U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Pierce v. Society of Sisters1 and in a unanimous decision, the Court held that the act was unconstitutional and that parents, not the state, had the authority to educate children as they thought best.

Postwar social unrest was also marked by the difficulties many veterans encountered assimilating back into the job market. Competition among groups for work heightened the tensions. In the 1920s, anti-Semitism grew in the United States related to economic competition, the fears of social change from decades of changed immigration, a lingering anti-German sentiment after World War I, and anti-black violence which erupted in numerous locations as well. To combat this emerging culture of discrimination targeted at racial and religious minorities, including Catholics, the Order formed a historical commission which published a series of books on the contributions of immigrants and minorities: The Gift of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois, The Jews in the Making of America by George Cohen, and The Germans in the Making of America by Frederick Schrader.

Recent history

As the Order and its charitable works grew, so did its prominence within the Church.  The Supreme Board of Directors was invited to hold their April meeting at the Vatican in 1978, and the Board and their wives were received by Pope Paul VI.  Pope John Paul I’s first audience with a layman was with Supreme Knight Virgil Dechant.

Pope John Paul II traveled to the Dominican Republic and Mexico in 1978, and Dechant was invited to attend and welcome the Pope to the Americas.  During the pope’s 1979 visit to the United States, the Supreme Officers and Board were the only lay organization to receive an audience.

In 1997, the cause for Fr. McGivney’s canonization was opened in the Archdiocese of Hartford. It was placed before the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in 2000. The Father Michael J. McGivney Guild was formed in 1997 to promote his cause, and it currently has more than 140,000 members.  On March 15, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI approved a decree recognizing McGivney’s “heroic virtue,” significantly advancing his progress toward sainthood, and Fr. McGivney is thus now referred to as the “Venerable” Michael McGivney. If the cause is successful, he will be the first priest born in the United States to be canonized as a saint.

Notable Knights
A photograph of President John F. Kennedy

Fourth Degree Knight John F. Kennedy

President John F. Kennedy was a Fourth Degree Knight at Bunker Hill Council No. 62. Many other notable Catholic men have been Knights of Columbus, including Sen. Ted Kennedy,  Al Smith, Sargent Shriver, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, Speaker John Boehner, former Boston Mayor and Vatican Ambassador Ray Flynn, Gov. Jeb Bush, Fox news anchor Steve Doocy; actor Jerry Orbach, and Sergeant Major Daniel Daly, a two-time Medal of Honor recipient.

Many notable clerics have also been Knights, including Cardinal William Joseph Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston; and Cardinal Jaime Sin, former Archbishop of Manila. In the world of sports, Vince Lombardi, the famed former coach of the Green Bay Packers; wrestler Lou Albano; Mike Ditka, James Connolly, the first Olympic gold-medal champion in modern times; Floyd Patterson, former heavyweight boxing champion; and baseball legend Babe Ruth were all knights.

On October 15, 2006, Bishop Rafael Guizar Valencia (1878–1938) was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. In 2000, six other Knights, known as the Mexican martyrs who were killed during the repression following the 1920s revolution, were declared saints by Pope John Paul II.

Knights Today

Click here to learn more on the global mission of the Knights of Columbus today.
1. 268 U.S. 510 (1925),