History of the Knights of Columbus

Early years

Fr. Michael J. McGivney, an Irish-American Catholic priest, gathered a group of men from St. Mary’s Parish in New Haven, Connecticut 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.

A mutual benefit society

Fr. McGivney intended the Knights to be a mutual benefit society.  As a parish priest in an immigrant community, Fr. McGivney saw the devastation of families when a breadwinner became sick, disabled or died. There were virtually no insurance or government programs at that time. He wanted to provide 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.

Fighting discriminaion.

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

The original insurance system 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 insurance programs.

The war years

During World War I the Knights supported the war effort and the troops, which mitigated some of the Anti-Catholic sentiment in America. Supreme Knight James A. Flaherty proposed to President Woodrow Wilson that the Order establish soldiers’ welfare centers in the U.S. and abroad. With the slogan “Everyone Welcome, Everything Free,” the KofC “huts” became recreation and 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 generally men above the age of military service. The centers provided basic amenities not readily available, such as stationery, hot baths, and religious services.  After the war, the Knights became involved in education, occupational training, and employment programs for the returning troops.

Post-war discrimination.

After World War I, worries about the influence of “foreign” values spread and hindered the assimilation of immigrants.  Many Americans wanted public schools to teach children to be American, and 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. The Oregon law required all children between eight and sixteen years of age to attend public school.  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
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1. 268 U.S. 510 (1925),