Knights of Columbus
KNIGHTS OF COLUMBUS
A fraternal benefit society of Catholic men chartered by the state of Connecticut in 1882. For over its 115 years the Order has responded to the myriad needs of the local churches in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. This article traces the origins of Columbianism as a force in the Church and society with particular focus on its character as a Catholic anti-defamation society.
History. Michael J. McGivney was the New Haven priest who founded the Knights of Columbus in 1882. He was an unassuming pious priest who easily elicited the trust of the laity. Concerned with the strong appeal of the prohibited secret societies among Catholic youth and with the plight of the widows and children suffering the loss of the breadwinner, he was eager to form a fraternal insurance society imbued with deep loyalties to Catholicism and to the American experience.
In October of 1881 McGivney and a small group of laymen decided to establish an independent society rather than become a branch of one of two existing Catholic benefit societies. In early February 1882 they placed their order under the patronage of Christopher Columbus. According to the few surviving documents, the Columbian motif represented the group's Catholic consciousness. Columbus was the symbol. By portraying the navigator's landing at San Salvador as the Catholic baptism of the nation,
the Knights were asserting religious legitimacy. Just as the heirs of the Pilgrims invoked the Mayflower as the Protestant symbol of their identity as early Americans, so the Knights invoked the Santa Maria as the symbol of their self-understanding as Catholic citizens. On March 29, 1882 the Order was incorporated in the State of Connecticut. One of the charter members invoked the cause of Catholic civil liberty when he asserted that the order's patron signified that, as Catholic descendants of Columbus "[we] were entitled to all rights and privileges due to such a discovery by one of our faith."
For the first ten years insurance was a mandatory feature of membership in the order. In 1892 non-insurance or associate membership was established, which meant that candidates for knighthood could be drawn to the order unfettered by economic ties. When the order expanded into Massachusetts in 1892, Columbianism became more explicit. The quadricentennial of Columbus's landfall, the rise of another wave of anti-Catholicism in the form of the American Protective Association and the expansionist policies of the leadership fostered the development of Columbianism. The general spirit of patriotism, culminating in the Spanish American War, also animated the order's character. From New England the order expanded throughout the nation. By 1905 the Knights were in every state in the Union, five provinces of Canada, Mexico, the Philippines, and were poised to enter Cuba and Puerto Rico. The causation for this enormously successful period of expansion is primarily due to the way in which the Knights conveyed through their ceremonials their strong sense of American Catholic identity. In a sense, the ceremonials provided the candidates for knighthood with a rite of passage from old world ties to loyalty to the new republic. Basic to their ethos was the prevailing notion of manliness, that gender construction manifested in fraternal sentiments and muscular Christianity.
The Knights extolled Catholic unity and struggled against the divisive character of ethnic particularism. Though the leaders were all second-generation Irish-Americans, they were realists on the ethnic issue. Hence, they allowed the establishment of the Teutonic Council for German-American Knights and of the Italian-American Ansonia Council, both of which were instituted in Boston during the 1890s.
Activities. In accord with the order's anti-defamation character, it instituted in 1914 the Knights of Columbus Commission on Religious Prejudices. The latter was mandated "to study the causes, investigate conditions and suggest remedies for the religious prejudice that has been manifest through the press and rostrum." Under the chairmanship of Patrick Henry Callahan, then K. of C. state deputy of Kentucky and a wealthy industrialist known for his capital-labor profit-sharing plan, the commission followed its mandate to the letter. As an antidote to prejudices Callahan especially promoted the papal encyclical of 1891, Rerum Novarum.
Columbian lay activism manifested itself in a new field of work in 1916 when U.S. troops were stationed along the Mexican border. After learning of the needs for recreational and religious centers, the order established sixteen buildings from the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of California for the social needs of all soldiers and for the religious needs of Catholics.
As a result of this experience, the Knights offered such services to the U.S. government when it entered World War I in April 1917. American and Canadian K. of C. "Huts" with signs saying, "Everyone Welcome, Everything Free," were established in the training camps and eventually in Europe and Asia, even to the remote area of Siberia. The order raised one million dollars during the first year. As a result of a joint drive with the Y.M.C.A., the Jewish Welfare Board, the Salvation Army, and others, the order received over thirty million dollars for its War Camp Fund.
After the war, the Knights established employment bureaus throughout the country to find jobs for veterans. They also provided college scholarships for returning servicemen and set up evening schools for veterans and all others interested in academic and vocational advancement. In January 1924 there were sixty-nine evening schools with an enrollment of more than 30,000 students. The Knights received numerous commendations for war and reconstruction work, but the greatest tribute was demonstrated by the more than 450,000 men who joined the order between 1917 and 1923.
During the 1920s Columbianism expressed itself in a variety of new programs. In response to those historians who stressed an economic interpretation of American history, who disregarded the idealism of the revolutionary period, and who ignored the contributions of the various non-Anglo-Saxon immigrant groups, the order established the K. of C. Historical Commission. The commission was charged with the responsibility "to investigate the facts of history, to correct historical errors and omissions, to amplify and preserve our national history to exalt and perpetuate American ideals and to combat anti-American propaganda by means of pamphlets … and by other proper means and methods as shall be approved by the Supreme Assembly." Under the direction of Edward McSweeney, a former trade unionist and immigration officer on Ellis Island, the commission awarded prizes for the best historical monographs. Works of such scholars who later earned national reputations, as Samuel Flagg Bemis and Allan Nevins, were published by Macmillan in the Knights of Columbus Historical Series.
In the autumn of 1922, McSweeney designed a unique set of historical studies entitled, "The Knights of Columbus Racial Contribution Series." Three monographs were published in this ambitious series: The Gift of Black Folk by W. E. B. DuBois; The Jews in the Making of America by George Cohen; and The Germans in the Making of America by Frederick Franklin Schrader. In his introduction to each of these books, McSweeney summarized the history of immigration to America, the waves of nativism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, and the persistence of racial prejudice in the life of the nation.
In 1921 Pope Benedict XV called upon Columbianism's Catholic anti-defamation character to respond to religious prejudice in Rome. The pope elaborated on how anti-Catholic propaganda was a strong factor in the Protestant evangelization of Rome and the degree to which it threatened to break down Roman youth's loyalties to the Church.
Within a year after this historic audience, the order had appointed a commission for the order's Roman project, had established a one-million-dollar Italian Welfare Fund through a per capita tax on the membership, had received permission to construct recreation centers from Benedict's successor, Pope Pius XI, and had contracted the services of a Roman engineer and architect, Enrico Galeazzi. Between 1924 and 1927 the order opened five recreation centers, the most significant of which was St. Peter's Oratory, adjacent to Vatican City. In the 1930s this program was absorbed into the Catholic Action movement.
During the Great Depression the Knights revived their antisocialism, a crusade that included a social justice component. At the Supreme Council meeting in August 1937, held in San Antonio, the crusade was unanimously endorsed by the delegates. Supreme Knight Martin Carmody reported that the Daily Worker, the official voice of the American Communist Party, had frequently vented "its wrath against the Knights of Columbus." Shortly after the convention, the Supreme Board of Directors approved Carmody's proposal to hire an anti-Communist lecturer, George Hermann Derry, who had been a member of the K. of C.'s Historical Commission and who had recently resigned as president of Marygrove College in Detroit. Derry's lecture program, which was subject to the prior approval of the hierarchy, included a general public address sponsored by local Knights and an address to the clergy of the diocese on anti-Communist leadership.
The administration of Luke E. Hart (1953–64), John K. McDevitt (1964–1977), and Virgil C. Dechant, are identified with the modernization of the order within the context of its traditional loyalty to Church and country. Hart laid the basis for the modern insurance program that was later greatly refined by Virgil Dechant. Hart's conservatism on racial and labor issues alienated many members of the order and the hierarchy. McDevitt led a movement to reform the policy governing admissions to local councils, thereby engendering racial integration. By this policy and by cosponsoring a Human Rights Congress at Yale and fostering other programs related to social justice, McDevitt restored the confidence of the hierarchy in the order's direction. In general, John Mc-Devitt's administration represents a synthesis of modern fraternalism and traditional faith.
Virgil C. Dechant's administration reflects his command of the insurance programs, his policy to modernize the structures of the international headquarters in New Haven, his commitment to infuse a strong social service component into the order's fraternalism, his positive response to the needs of the American Church mediated by the bishop, and his deep loyalty to the Vatican represented by the order's contributions to the pope's charities, and the Vatican's needs for architectural restoration and artistic beatification.
Under Dechant's leadership the order has experienced considerable growth. In 2001 there were 1.7 million Knights located in more than 13,000 councils. With twenty-five billion dollars of insurance in force and with the widespread programs of the order, entailing contributions of nearly $92.2 million by Supreme, state, and local councils in 1989, and almost twenty-three million manhours given to community service during that year, the Knights of Columbus still experience the vitality of their original mission to respond to the needs of the Church and to witness to the unique character of the Catholic experience in America.
Upon the retirement of Virgil Dechant at the age of 70 in October 2000, Carl Anderson, the Supreme Secretary, was elected Supreme Knight by the Supreme Board of Directors. Formerly the Dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, Anderson brings a theological dimension to his leadership. His columns in Columbia include a religious message in a popular idiom. Since a year later the amount of insurance in force reached the record level of $42 billion, Anderson reveals a command of that vital aspect of the Order.
Bibliography: The papers of the order are located in the Archives of the Knights of Columbus in New Haven, Connecticut. c.j. kauffman, Faith and Fraternalism The History of the Knights of Columbus, rev. ed (New York 1992); Columbianism and the Knights of Columbus (New York 1992).
[c. j. kauffman]