The History and Growth of the Knights of Columbus

How the Knights Began

FOUNDED by Father Michael J. McGivney, curate at St. Mary’s parish in New Haven, Conn., the Knights of Columbus was chartered on March 29,1882, in the State of Connecticut.

As the priest explained to a small group of men at a meeting in the basement of St. Mary’s Church in October 1881, his purpose in calling them together was manifold: to help Catholic men remain steadfast in their faith through mutual encouragement; to promote closer ties of fraternity among them; and to set up an elementary system of insurance so that the widows and children of members in the group who might die would not find themselves in dire financial straits.

The founders and first officers of the fledgling organization chose the name “Knights of Columbus” because they felt that, as a Catholic group, it should relate to Christopher Columbus, the Catholic discoverer of America. This would emphasize that it was Catholics who discovered, explored and colonized the North American continent. At the same time “Knights” would signify that the membership embodied knightly ideals of spirituality and service to Church, country and fellowman.

By the end of 1897 the Order was thoroughly rooted in New England, along the upper Atlantic seaboard and into Canada. Within the next eight years it branched out from Quebec to California, and from Florida to Washington.

From such promising beginnings Father McGivney’s original group has blossomed into an international society of more than 1.3 million Catholic men in some 7,000 councils who have dedicated themselves to the ideals of Columbianism: Charity, Unity, Fraternity and Patriotism.

Today members of the Order are found in the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Panama, Cuba, Guam and the Virgin Islands. They belong to many races and speak many different languages. They are diverse yet they are one. Their diversity spells creativity; their unity spells strength.

The Knights’ creativity is manifested in numerous programs and projects directed to the benefit of their fellowman. Their strength assures that these programs are operated effectively and brought to positive conclusions.

Since assuming leadership of the Order in January 1977, Supreme Knight Virgil C. Dechant has embarked on a series of significant projects designed to strengthen Columbianism, the Church, the family and each individual Knight.

One of his first moves was to place his stewardship under the patronage and protection of Our Lady, and he formalized this dedication during a pilgrimage to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., soon after he took office. As a further concrete sign of his devotion to the Blessed Virgin under her title, “Our Lady of the Rosary,” he implemented a plan to present a special “K. of C. Rosary” to each new member enrolled in the society. These have been distributed at the rate of 10,000 per month over the last several years. A subsequent program – ‘The Pilgrim Virgin-Marian Hour of Prayer” – attracted almost one million participants to almost 5,000 prayer services Orderwide in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas.

His other initiatives have gone far toward strengthening the Order as it confronts the egoism, hedonism and increasing secularism of our modern, atheistic age. He has renewed the knights’ pledge of loyalty and fidelity to the magisterium and to the hierarchy of the Church in the countries where the Order exists. He also has renewed the society’s commitment to the pro-life activities of the U.S. and Canadian bishops through periodic grants of $50,000 and $10,000 respectively made by the Order to support the bishops’ pro-life programs.

Among other thrusts, the Supreme Knight formulated a program to maintain the involvement of the widows and children of deceased members in the activities of the Order. A resolution passed at the 95th annual meeting of the Supreme Council in August 1977 calls for the establishment of a committee in every unit of the Order which shall be responsible for keeping contact with widows and dependent children of deceased members. These children will remain eligible for all educational benefits, such as student loans and all the society’s fellowships and trusts.

Upon receipt of notice that a member has died, the Supreme Knight sends a letter of condolence to the widow or next of kin, informing them first of all that their loved one has been enrolled in a Mass offered at St. Mary’s Church, birthplace of the Order, on every day throughout the year. Upon request, the widow’s name is added to the mailing list for COLUMBIA magazine. State and local councils are encouraged to do the same for their publications. They also are called on to extend to widows and their families any scholarship or loan programs they may conduct.

A renewed emphasis on family life seeks to involve the member’s wife and children in his commitment to the life of Catholic knighthood. Their participation in his promise to be a staunch Catholic layman is essential if it is to be effective and long-lasting. The Order’s Service Program has been revised to permit more participation by the wives and children of members and also to enable greater identification on their part with the Order. The wives now can wear the Order’s emblem in the form of jewelry and children can wear it in badge form.

A separate family-life director has been added to the “Surge with Service” program. His responsibility is to assure that a number of activities and projects is directed specifically to the family and that families are encouraged to take part in them.

Cooperating with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Order began a three-year project in 1980 by underwriting an educational media campaign designed to strengthen family life. Titled “Growth in Faith – In and through the Family,” the multi-phase program has the full support of the CCCB.

A major sign of the Order’s active concern for the future of the Church and the spread of the Gospel is the establishment of the Supreme Council Vocations Program, now operating in all jurisdictions and already showing promise of success in turning around the decline in the number of candidates to the priestly and religious life. But more will be said of this in subsequent pages.

One of Father McGivney’s initial objectives in founding the Order, that of providing security for the widows and children of deceased members, has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. The Knights of Columbus insurance program offers its certificate holders a versatile portfolio of protection – all done “for Brother Knights by Brother Knights.”

The Knights of Columbus have a long and enviable tradition of aid to Catholic education. As early as 1904 the Order endowed a chair in American history at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., and later provided an endowment of $500,000 for graduate fellowships there which still reaps its benefits today. The million-dollar “Father Michael J. McGivney Memorial Fund for New Initiatives in Catholic Education” established in 1980 is devoted to fostering improvements through research and development. Programs offering scholarships and student loans are described further on in this booklet.

“Don’t keep the Faith – spread it!” long has been a guiding principle of the Knights of Columbus. Almost $1 million are budgeted annually by the Order for various projects of the Catholic Advertising Program.

The Knights of Columbus funded the construction of the companile or Knight’s Tower at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. The bells for the tower were donated by the Order as well. In keeping with this commitment to Our Lady’s Shrine the Order established the “Luke E. Hart Memorial Fund” in 1979 in the amount of $500,000. Earnings are used to promote Marian devotion and to preserve the beauty of the Shrine in perpetuity.

And it was the leadership of the Knights which finally succeeded in having the words “under God” inserted in the Pledge of Allegiance to the American Flag.

Faith in the future is a distinctive mark of a vital organization. The Knights traditionally have manifested such a faith by trying to help mold and serve tomorrow’s leaders.

“Esto Dignus,” “Be Worthy,” is the motto of the Columbian Squires, official organization of the Knights of Columbus for young men between the ages of 12-18. The goals of the Squires are the spiritual, cultural, civic, social and physical improvement of its members and the development of leadership qualities. Each Squire is enjoined to take an active part in the administration and planning of his circle.

The Order also has had a long-term interest in the scouting movement. The Knights’ backing of Boy Scout troops dates back to 1923. Today more than a thousand Boy Scout units are sponsored by local councils.

Knights also sponsor, support and give time to Little League baseball and football teams, the Catholic Youth Organization in various dioceses, Girl Scouts, Girl Guides, 4-H Clubs, Big Brothers, Babe Ruth or Pony League, Junior Soccer and Junior Hockey.

Each year reports of the annual survey of fraternal activity conducted for the National Fraternal Congress of America reveal an impressive Knights of Columbus donation of time, money and energy.

In the category of charitable or benevolent disbursements, including assistance to the sick, handicapped, disaster victims, hospitals and other institutions, civic and community projects, schools and libraries, the Knights contribute in the area of $30 million, including substantial amounts from the Supreme Council. Another $14 million is spent on activities, including some $2 million for work with young people.

The Knights also average 650,000 visits to the sick, give 150,000 donations of blood, contribute 8 million man-hours of community service and 700,000 hours of labor for the sick or disabled.

In a world where the golden rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – sometimes becomes “Do unto others before they do unto you,” the Knights of Columbus stands out as an organization that takes fraternity seriously.

The dictionary defines fraternity as “the state or quality of being brothers.” It also describes it as a “group of men joined together by common interests” or “a group of people with the same beliefs, interest, work.”

The Knights of Columbus form real fraternity in all three senses. As practical Catholics, Knights carry fraternity to the limits of love: unselfish service to their Church, country, community and council.

Faith, fellowship, philanthropy. These are the distinguishing marks of the Knights. This brief record of some of their achievements shows that they have remained true to their heritage and that they have continued to build on it for future generations. If you are a practical Catholic man, 18 years of age or older, you can become a vital part of the Knights of Columbus and make your own unique contributions to the dream of Father McGivney.