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History of the Knights of Columbus

The history of the Knights of Columbus begins with its founding in 1882 by Father Michael J. McGivney at St. Mary's Parish in New Haven, Connecticut. Originally intended to be a mutual benefit society, it has since grown into a Catholic anti-defamation league, a leading philanthropic society, and the world's largest Catholic fraternal service organization.

The Order was designed to not only allow members to be proud of both their Catholic and American heritages, it also tried to instill a model of Catholic gentlemen that held members to the highest standards. It grew quickly beyond Connecticut and New England, with the first international councils established by 1905. The Fourth Degree, the patriotic degree, was established Order-wide in 1903 and the Ordersupported military forces in wars throughout the 20th century. Serving as a Catholic anti-defamation society, the Order battled the Ku Klux Klan and has worked for racial and religious harmony. In recent years it has become a powerful force in the Catholic Church, given its membership numbers and financial resources


Early historyEdit


Michael J. McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus.
St. Mary's Church

Michael J. McGivney, an Irish-American Catholic priest, founded the Knights of Columbus in New Haven, Connecticut. He gathered a group of men from St. Mary's Parish for an organizational meeting on October 2, 1881. Several months later, the Order was incorporated under the laws of the state of Connecticut on March 29, 1882.[1] McGivney had originally conceived of the name "Sons of Columbus" but James T. Mullen, who would ascend to become the first Supreme Knight, was successful in suggesting that "Knights of Columbus" better expressed the ritualistic nature of the new organization and drew from positive historical associations.[2]

The Order was intended to be a mutual benefit society. As a parish priest in an immigrant community, McGivney saw what could happen to a family when the main income earner died. This was before most government support programs were established. He wanted to provide insurance to care for the widows and orphans left behind. In his own life, he temporarily had to suspend his seminary studies to care for his family after his father died.[3]

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 such social services.[4] Papal encyclicals issued by the Holy See also prohibited Catholics from participating as lodge members within Freemasonry. McGivney intended to create an alternative organization. He also believed that Catholicism and fraternalism were compatible and wanted to found a society to encourage men to be proud of their American-Catholic heritage.[5][6]

Fraternal organizations, which combined social aspects and ritual, were especially flourishing during the latter third of the nineteenth century, the so-called "Golden Age of Fraternalism.[7][6] New Haven's Irish Catholic men of the era could have joined one of many other organizations,[nb 1] and Catholics of other ethnicities had additional options.[6]

McGivney traveled to Boston to examine the Massachusetts Catholic Order of Foresters and to Brooklyn, New York to learn about the recently established Catholic Benevolent League, both of which offered insurance benefits. He found the latter to be lacking the excitement he thought was needed if his organization were to compete with the secret societies of the day. He explored establishing a New Haven Court of the Foresters, but the group's charter in Massachusetts limited them to operating within that Commonwealth. McGivney's committee of St. Mary's parishioners decided to form a new club.[8][6]

Catholic and AmericanEdit

Christopher Columbus is the patron and namesake of the Knights.

Taking the name of Columbus was partially intended as a mild rebuke to Anglo-Saxon Protestant leaders, who upheld the explorer (a Genovese Italian Catholic who had worked for Catholic Spain) as an American hero, yet simultaneously sought to marginalize recent Catholic immigrants.[9] In taking Columbus as their patron, the founders expressed their belief that not only could Catholics be full members of American society, but that they were instrumental in its foundation.[9][10]

Of the first 28 members of the first council, 16 were born in Ireland.[6] A majority of the first generation of Knights across the Order were immigrants.[6] Joining the Knights gave the recent immigrants a mantle of "middle-class American respectability without forfeiting their preexisting ethnic and religious identities,"and gave them "a rhetorical foundation for claims to full American citizenship."[6]

Unlike many other Catholic organizations of the time, though, the Knights placed a greater emphasis on loyalty to their new world republics than they did on old ethnic divisions of the old world.[11][12] McGivney envisioned an organization that would imbue members "with a zealous pride in one's American-Catholic heritage."[11][5] In Canada, a similar sentiment held among early members.[13]

The model of Christian knighthood promoted by the Order "provided Catholic men with a positive interpretation of the separation they would have experienced relative to the Protestant-dominated social and political context in New Haven."[6] The Order effused a sense that as Catholic gentlemen and Knights of Columbus they should be regarded as exemplars of virtue, not aberrations from the dominant Protestant model of manhood.[6]

High standards for membersEdit

The Order held members to a higher standard than did other organizations of the time.[6] Membership was limited to "practical" Catholic men or "Catholics in good standing" at the time of their application.[6] According to McGiveny, the "reason our examination is so strict is, that we deem it better for all concerned to have five hundred sound and good men in our order than five thousand otherwise."[6] Only "worthy" men were permitted to join.[6]

Perhaps to counteract the perception of the Irish as drunks or lower class, sobriety was demanded of members.[6] The Order was the only fraternal organization in America at the time whose constitution did not exclude African American members,[14] but "liquor dealers" were expressly prohibited from joining.[6] Newspapers at the time published "sensationalized accounts of inebriated soirees" held by other organizations for Irishmen, but the "Knights' social functions--formal dinners, balls, and cotillions--also reflected members' aspirations toward middle-class refinement."[6]

At the Board of Government convention in 1887, a proposal was made to admit non-Catholics, but was strongly opopsed by Supreme Knight John J. Phelan: "The Order cannot stultify itself or allow itself to masquerade in the garb of sanctity it wittingly desecrates. Our laws design us to be Catholics pure and simple."[6]


Although its first councils were all in Connecticut, the Order spread throughout New England and the United States in subsequent years. The Order experienced "unparalleled success" in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[6] It outpaced all other Catholic fraternities of the era.[6]

By the time of the first annual convention in 1884, the Order was prospering. The five councils throughout Connecticut had a total of 459 members. Groups from other states were requesting information.[15] By 1889, there were 300 councils comprising 40,000 knights. Twenty years later, in 1909, there were 230,000 knights in 1,300 councils.[16]

As the order expanded outside of Connecticut, structural changes in the late 1880s and 1890s were instituted to give the Knights a federalist system with local, state, and national branches of government.[17] This allowed them to coordinate activities across states and localities.[18]

The Charter of 1899 included four statements of purpose, including: "To promote such social and intellectual intercourse among its members as shall be desirable and proper, and by such lawful means as to them shall seem best."[19] The new charter showed members' desire to expand the organization beyond a simple mutual benefit insurance society. Associate members who did not purchase life insurance were permitted to join in 1892.[11]

On September 22, 1934, William Cardinal O'Connell was the first American to be made an honorary member of the Supreme Council.[20] In 1937, Massachusetts State Deputy Patrick J. Moynihan stunned delegates by nominating Deputy Supreme Knight Francis P. Matthews for Supreme Knight, but Matthews declined the nomination.[21]

Outside the United StatesEdit

The first councils in Mexico and the Philippines were founded in 1905.[22] Cuba's first council was established in 1909.[23]


Canada Council number 284 was established in 1897 in Montreal. It was largely anglophone with only six French Canadian members. Its first Grand Knight, however, was J.J. Guerin, a member of the Quebec Legislature.[10] Archbishop Paul Bruchesi of Montreal and several other bishops initially opposed the Knights' expansion into Canada.[10] Private negotiations with Cardinal James Gibbons assuaged the fears of most.[10]

In Toronto, however, Archbishop Denis T. O'Connor blocked efforts to expand into his archdiocese on the grounds that there were already too many Catholic societies in existence.[10] Upon his retirement in 1908, new Archbishop Fergus McEvay allowed a council to be formed on the condition that he be allowed to appoint the council's chaplain.[24] The 131 charter members swelled to over 600 in just eight years, and it became the largest council in Ontario with nearly 10% of all knights in the province.[25]

The Knights grew rapidly in Canada, and by 1904 there was a state council in Quebec and one for Ontario and the Maritimes.[10] Six years later, in 1910, the 60 Canadian councils had 9,000 members.[10] While there were other Catholic fraternal societies in Canada in the 19th century, "none recruited as vigorously, grew as rapidly, or captured the public attention and imagination as did the caped and plumed Knights of Columbus."[11] By then, the Knights were seen as "those laymen who could successfully defend the Church from external opposition when required and, more importantly, could voice the opinions and teachings of the Church, bringing them to bear of the problems of Canadian society."[26]

Forty years after its founding, the Knights of Columbus had spread into Canada and had become a powerful enough presence there to generate a backlash from the nationalist francophone community.[27] French Canadians created a competing society, the Ordre de Jacques Cartier, in 1926.[28]

Columbian manhoodEdit

In contrast to most of the other fraternal societies of the era, which provided an escape from the extreme gender bifurcation of the Victorian era, "literature produced by the Knights of Columbus valorized affectionate bonds between men and their mothers, and idealized the relationship between men and their wives and children."[6] The early records of the Order did not display the same level of anxiety that other organizations did about the feminization of men that arises from a commitment to family and faith.[6]

Instead, Columbian manhood in the early documents equated manhood with the performance of one's duties as a Catholic and father.[6] It emphasized being chivalrous, a loving husband, a good Catholic, and a solidarity with one's fellow man.[6] Knights were seen as fathers and parishioners first, not as men trying to escape those more feminine spheres as other organizations often promoted.[6]

Two years after its founding, in a series of letters to the editor of the Connecticut Catholic, William Geary encouraged young men to join the Order by appealing to their sense of fraternal duty to family, faith, parish, and country.[6] Joining the Knights, Geary argued, allowed Catholic men to fulfill their duty to their families by providing for them in case he was injured or killed and unable to provide.[6] This sense of duty to faith and family was also reflected in the public events the Order conducted during its first two decades of existence.[6] This definition of manhood was also universal, available to every man regardless of his class or social position.[6]

The Columbiad, "a monthly paper devoted to the interests of the Knights of Columbus," published an article in November 1903 comparing Knights of Columbus to chivalrous medieval Christian knights, extolling their shared traits of vigorous, virtuous, manly faith.[6] "The Christian Knight," according to The Columbiad, "was the knight of spotless life, of Christian faith, of dauntless courage, of unblemished honor, faithful to his word, loyal and true, like the knights of King Arthur."[6] Both had "manly virtue, valor, humanity, courtesy, justice and honor" and both were called to "rescue the helpless from captivity, to protect the orphans and widows, and assist the sick and poor."[6] Knighthood, in the Columbian model, "valorized individual self-sacrifice for greater social welfare."[6] It gave members "an aristocracy of character."[29]

Columbian men were also expected to take an active role in fatherhood and child rearing.[6] The Columbiad affirmed the role and duty of the father, encouraging men to show affection and to "assist their children intelligently and sympathetically to overcome" faults and character flaws.[6] Men were also expected to have close and supportive relationships with their wives and mothers.[6]

Creation of the Fourth DegreeEdit

From the earliest days of the Order, members wanted to create a form of hierarchy and recognition for senior members;[30] this issue was discussed at the National Meeting of 1899.[31] As early as 1886, Supreme Knight James T. Mullen had proposed a patriotic degree with its own symbolic dress.[32]

About 1,400 members attended the first exemplification of the Fourth Degree at the Lenox Lyceum in New York on February 22, 1900.[30][31] The event was infused with Catholic and patriotic symbols, imagery that "celebrated American Catholic heritage."[33] The two knights leading the ceremony, for example, were the Expositor of the Constitution and the Defender of the Faith.[33] The ritual soon spread to other cities.[30] The new Fourth Degree members returned to their councils, forming assemblies composed of members from several councils. Those assemblies chose the new members.[34]

In 1903, the Board of Directors officially approved a new degree exemplifying patriotism Order-wide, using the New York City model.[30] The Order had a "desire to receive within its ranks only the best" and intended the men should be practicing Catholics. As one measure, each candidate was required to submit a certificate from his parish priest attesting that he had received Holy Communion within the past two weeks.[35]

War effortsEdit

Cristero WarEdit

Following the Mexican Revolution, the new government began persecuting the church. To destroy the church's influence over the Mexican people, anti-clerical statutes were inserted into the Constitution, beginning a 10-year persecution of Catholics that resulted in the deaths of thousands, including several priests who were also knights of Columbus. Leaders of the order began speaking out against the Mexican government. Columbia, the official magazine of the Knights, published articles critical of the regime. After the November 1926 cover of Columbia portrayed Knights carrying a banner of liberty and warning of "The Red Peril of Mexico", the Mexican legislature banned both the order and the magazine throughout the country.[36]

In 1926, a delegation of Supreme Council officers met with President Calvin Coolidge to share with him their concerns about the persecution of Catholics in Mexico. The order subsequently launched a $1-million campaign to educate Americans about the attacks on Catholics and the church in the Cristero War.[37] The organization produced pamphlets in English and Spanish denouncing the anticlerical Mexican government and its policies. So much printed material was smuggled into Mexico that the government directed border guards be aware of women bringing Catholic propaganda into the country hidden in their clothes.[38][39] Twenty-five martyrs from the conflict would eventually be canonized, including six knights.[40][41]

Supreme Treasurer Daniel J. Callahan, a well known civic leader in Washington, convinced Senator William E. Borah to launch an investigation in 1935 into human rights violations in Mexico.[42] The order was praised for their efforts by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical, Iniquis afflictisque.[43]

World War IEdit

A Knights of Columbus poster from WWI

To prove that good Catholics could also be good Americans, and to mitigate some of the American Anti-Catholicism prevelent in the United States at the time, the Knights supported both the war effort and the troops during World War I. Thousands of knights served in the American Expeditionary Forces, including William T. Fitzsimons, considered the first American officer killed in the war.[44] On April 14, 1917, soon after the United States entered the war, the board of directors passed a resolution calling for

the active cooperation and patriotic zeal of 400,000 members of the order in this country to our Republic and its law, pledge their continued and unconditional support to the President and Congress of the Nation, in their determination to protect its honor and its ideals of humanity and right.[45]

Supreme Knight James A. Flaherty proposed to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson that the Order establish soldiers' welfare centers in the U.S. and abroad. The organization already had experience, having provided similar services to troops encamped on the Mexican border during Pershing's expedition of 1916.[46] Staff and chaplains were sent to every Army camp and cantonment.[47]

With the slogan "Everyone Welcome, Everything Free," the "huts" became recreation/service centers for doughboys regardless of race or religion.[47][48] They were staffed by "secretaries," commonly referred to as "Caseys" (for K of C) who 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.[49] One well-known "Casey" was major league baseball player Johnny Evers of ""Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance," who traveled to France as a member of the Knights of Columbus to organize baseball games for the troops.[50] A total of 260 buildings were erected and 1,134 secretaries, of which 1,075 were overseas, staffed them.[47] In Europe, headquarters were established in London and Paris.[47] The order continued this work until November 1919, at which point the effort was taken over by the federal government.[47]

To pay for these huts and their staff, the order instituted a per capita tax on the membership to raise $1 million.[47] Local councils undertook their own fundraising drives which resulted in an additional $14 million to support the effort.[47] In 1918, just before the war ended, the Knights and other organizations undertook another effort to raise funds to support the welfare of the men fighting abroad.[47] The amount apportioned to the order and the National Catholic War Council totaled $30 million which, when combined with earlier efforts, funded efforts to support troops both in the United States and overseas.[47] After the war, the Knights became involved in education, occupational training, and employment programs for the returning troops.[46][47]

As a result of their efforts during the war, "the Order was infused with the self-confidence that it could respond with organizational skill and with social and political power to any need of Church and society. In this sense, the K. of C. reflected the passage of American Catholicism from an immigrant Church to a well-established and respected religious denomination which had proven its patriotic loyalty in the acid test of the Great War."[51][52] The Knights used the legitimacy their war efforts and government partnership provided them to attract millions of new members.[53]

In Canada, the order's charity work a "fusion of Catholicism and Canadian identity among Catholic lay-men but [which also] signaled significant changes in Protestant Toronto's acceptance of English-speaking Catholics as loyal citizens."[13] According to Supreme Knight Flaherty, "The war provided us with an opportunity to put ourselves before the public in a most favorable light."[54] Since this time they have been "a leading American association."[55] In fact, the Knights' efforts attracted so much positive publicity that anti-Catholics and opponents of the order began to complain.[54]

After the war, the Knights built a series of playgrounds in Rome for the children of that city, overseen by past Supreme Knight Edward L. Hearn.[56] The work was eventually put to a halt by [Benito Mussolini]] as he wanted the allegiance of the Italian youth for the fascist party.[56]

World War IIEdit

Shortly after the United States entered the Second World War, the order established a War Activities Committee to keep track of all activities undertaken during the war.[57] They also, in January 1943, established a Peace Program Committee to develop a "program for shaping and educating public opinion to the end that Catholic principles and Catholic philosophy will be properly represented at the peace table at the conclusion of the present war."[58] The committee conferred with scholars, theologians, philosophers, and sociologists and proposed a program adopted at the 1943 Supreme Convention.[59][60]

Canadian KnightsEdit

Less than two weeks after the outbreak of World War II, on September 13, 1939, Canadian Supreme Director Claude Brown wired each Canadian state deputy to inform them of his plans to establish a welfare program comparable to the "huts" sponsored by the order during World War I.[61] The Canadian government accepted his proposal by the end of October, and formed a unified organization including the Knights, the YMCA, the Salvation Army, and the Canadian Legion.[61] Between December 1939 and April 1940, the Canadian Knights raised almost $230,000, "an extraordinary amount considering the fact that there were relatively few Knights in Canada."[61]

In large cities, recreation centers were established, and morale programs were run in a number of training camps.[62] Hostels were established for servicemen on furloughs first in Canada, then England, and eventually across Europe.[62] Sporting events were organized, musical and comedy shows were produced, and even academic courses and a library were provided.[62]

Recognizing the danger the volunteers who staffed these camps were undertaking, the Canadian government gave them a stipend equal to that of a captain in the Canadian Army and made them eligible for retirement and disability pay.[62] F. O'Neil, who ran the Knights' recreation center in Hong Kong, was captured by the Japanese and was made a prisoner of war.[62] Six volunteers, including Brown, died during the war.[62]

Canadian Knights, and not the government, provided supplies for Catholic chaplains.[62] Bishop Charles Leo Nelligan of the Military Ordinariate of Canada wrote that

In Canada the Knights of Columbus Canadian Army Huts stretch like a golden chain from coast to coast, connecting up all out military camps and a large number of our newly established training centers. In each and every one of them is to be found a genial and capable staff, always ready and anxious to serve the troops.[62]

Supreme Knight Francis Matthews "expressed a feeling of pride" on behalf of the entire order at the Canadian Knights' efforts, and membership in Canada more than doubled between 1939 and 1947.[63]

Conflict with the Ku Klux KlanEdit

Since its earliest days, the Knights of Columbus has been a "Catholic anti-defamation society."[64] These efforts increased during the 1920s as the Knights, the "pre-eminent Catholic fraternal organization,"[54] sought to correct misconceptions about Catholicism.[65]

Not long after the establishment of the Fourth Degree, during the nadir of American race relations, a bogus oath was circulated claiming that Fourth Degree Knights swore to exterminate Freemasons and Protestants. In addition, they purportedly were prepared to flay, burn alive, boil, kill, and otherwise torture anyone, including women and children, when called upon to do so by church authorities.[66][67] "It is a strange paradox," according to some commentators, that the degree devoted to patriotism should be accused of anti-Americanism.[68]

The "bogus oath" was based on a previous oath falsely attributed to the Jesuits more than three centuries earlier.[69] The Ku Klux Klan, which was growing into a newly powerful force through the 1920s, spread the bogus oath far and wide as part of their contemporary campaign against Catholics (which was part of a campaign against immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, of whom many were Catholic).[70][71][72] During the 1928 Presidential election, the Klan printed and distributed a million copies of the oath in an effort to defeat Catholic Democratic candidate Al Smith. Thomas S. Butler (R), U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania, read it into the Congressional Record.[73] The bogus oath was refuted by the Committee of Public Information, a propaganda agency of the U.S. Government established during World War I.[68]

Misunderstanding Catholicism, the Klan alleged that Knights were only loyal to the Pope and that they advocated the overthrow of the United States government.[74] Across the country, local, state, and the Supreme Councils offered rewards to anyone who could prove that the widely circulated oath was authentic.[75] No one could, but that did not stop the Klan from continuing to publish and distribute copies. Numerous state councils and the Supreme Council believed that this "violent wave of religious prejudice was actuated by mercenary motives." They believed publication would stop if the KKK were assessed fines or punished by jail time assessed. They began suing distributors for libel.[74] The KKK ended its publication of the false oath. As the Order did not wish to appear motivated by a "vengeful spirit," it asked for leniency from judges when sentencing offenders.[74]

To help combat this misconception, the K of C submitted the actual oath of Fourth Degree members for examination by various groups of prominent non-Catholic men around the country. Many made public declarations attesting to the loyalty and patriotism of the Knights.[76] After examining the true oath, a committee of high-ranking California Freemasons, a group identified as a target in the bogus oath, declared in 1914:

The ceremonial of the Order [of the Knights of Columbus] teaches a high and noble patriotism, instills a love of country, inculcates a reverence of civic duty and holds up the Constitution of our Country as the richest and most precious possession of a Knight of the Order.[77]

In Muncie, Indiana, a local council organized a march of 750 people to protest the KKK.[78]

Pierce v. Society of SistersEdit

After World War I, many native-born Americans had a revival of concerns about assimilation of immigrants and worries about "foreign" values; they wanted public schools to teach children to be American. Numerous states drafted laws designed to use schools to promote a common American culture, and in 1922, the voters of Oregon passed the Oregon Compulsory Education Act. The law was primarily aimed at eliminating parochial schools, including Catholic schools.[79][80] It was promoted by groups such as the Knights of Pythias, the Federation of Patriotic Societies, the Oregon Good Government League, the Orange Order, and the Ku Klux Klan.[81]

The Compulsory Education Act required almost all children in Oregon between eight and sixteen years of age to attend public school by 1926.[81] Roger Nash Baldwin, an associate director of the ACLU and a personal friend of then-Supreme Advocate and future Supreme Knight Luke E. Hart, offered to join forces with the Order to challenge the law. The Knights of Columbus pledged an immediate $10,000 to fight the law and any additional funds necessary to defeat it.[82]

The case became known as Pierce v. Society of Sisters, a seminal United States Supreme Court decision that significantly expanded coverage of the Due Process Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment. 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.[83] It upheld the religious freedom of parents to educate their children in religious schools.

Racial integration in the U.S.Edit

Postwar social unrest was also related to the difficulties of absorbing the veterans from the war in the job market. Competition among groups for work heightened tensions. In the 1920s there was growing anti-Semitism in the United States related to economic competition and the fears of social change from decades of changed immigration, a lingering anti-German sentiment left over from World War I, and anti-black violence erupted in numerous locations as well. In this period African Americans were leaving the South by the tens of thousands, to escape oppressive social conditions and find work in the North and Midwestern industrial cities, in what came to be called the Great Migration.

To combat the animus targeted at racial and religious minorities, including Catholics, the Order formed a historical commission which published a series of books on their contributions, among other activities.[84][65] The "Knights of Columbus Racial Contributions Series" of books included three titles: 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.[84][65]

As the 20th century progressed, some councils in the United States became integrated, but many were not. Given the history of slavery and early development in the US, most African Americans were Protestant. But many in former French or Spanish territories had grown up Catholic. Church officials and organizations encouraged integration. By the end of the 1950s, Supreme Knight Luke E. Hart was actively encouraging councils to accept black candidates.[85] In 1963, Hart attended a special meeting at the White House hosted by President John F. Kennedy to discuss civil rights with other religious leaders. A few months later, a local KofC council rejected a black man's application because of his race, notwithstanding that he was a graduate of Notre Dame University. Six council officers resigned in protest, and the incident made national news. Hart declared that the process for membership would be revised at the next Supreme Convention, but died before he could see it take place.[86]

The 1964 Supreme Convention was scheduled to be held at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans. A few days before the Convention, new Supreme Knight John W. McDevitt learned the hotel admitted only white guests, under the state's racial segregation policy. He threatened to move the Convention to another venue. The hotel changed its policy and so did the Order. The Convention amended the admissions rule to require that a new applicant could not be rejected by less than one-third of those voting. In 1972 the Supreme Convention amended its rules again, requiring a majority of members voting to reject a candidate.[87]

Recent historyEdit

Year Membership Councils
2018[88][89] 1,967,585[nb 2] 15,900
2013[90] 1,843,587 14,606
2012[90] 1,830,000 14,400
2011[90] 1,820,000 14,200
2010[90] 1,810,000 14,000
2009[90] 1,790,000 13,700
1982[91] 1,300,000 <7,000
1964[86] 1,000,000+
1957[92] 1,000,000
1938[93] 500,000
1931[94] 2,600
1923[95] 774,189 2,290
1917[45][96] 400,000
1914[97] 300,000+
1909[16] 230,000 1300
1899[97][16] 40,267[nb 3] 300
1897[99][100] 16,651 195
1896[100] 13,694
1892[6] 6,500
1886[99] 2,700 27
1884[15] 459 5

According to Massimo Faggioli, the Knights of Columbus are "'an extreme version' of a post-Vatican II phenomenon, the rise of discrete lay groups that have become centers of power themselves."[52]

In 1959, Fidel Castro sent an aide to represent him at a Fourth Degree banquet in honor of the Golden Jubilee of the Order's entry into Cuba.[101] Supreme Knight Luke E. Hart attended a banquet in the Cuban Prime Minister's honor in April of that year sponsored by the Overseas Press Club.[101] He later sent him a letter expressing regret that they were not able to meet in person.[101]

Hart visited President and fellow Knight John F. Kennedy at the White House on Columbus Day, 1961.[nb 4] Hart presented Kennedy with a poster of the American flag with the story of how the Order got the words "under God" inserted in the Pledge of Allegiance.[102]

Knights of Columbus headquarters

The Order opened a new headquarters in New Haven in 1969.[103] The ribbon cutting took place during the 87th Supreme Convention where Governor John N. Dempsey and Hartford Archbishop John F. Whealon each spoke and Apostolic Delegate Luigi Raimondi gave a blessing.[104] The architect for the building, which broke ground in 1967, was Kevin Roche.[104] The order's headquarters had been housed, at various times, in five other buildings, including their first headquarters on New Haven Green.[104]

As the Order and its charitable works grew, so did its prominence within the Church.[105] 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.[105] Pope John Paul I's first audience with a layman was with Supreme Knight Dechant, and Pope John Paul II met with Dechant three days after his installation.[105]

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.[105] It was also while there that Dechant was invited to establish the Order in the Dominican Republic.[105] During the pope's 1979 visit to the United States, the Supreme Officers and Board were the only lay organization to receive an audience.[106]

In 1997, the cause for 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.[107] Membership in the Knights of Columbus does not automatically make one a member of the guild, nor is membership restricted to Knights; members must elect to join. On March 15, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI approved a decree recognizing McGivney's "heroic virtue," significantly advancing the priest's process toward sainthood. McGivney may now be referred to as the "Venerable Servant of God." If the cause is successful, he would be the first priest born in the United States to be canonized as a saint.[108]

The Knights of Columbus were among the groups that welcomed Pope Benedict XVI on the South Lawn of the White House on April 16, 2008, the pontiff's 81st birthday, during his visit to the U.S.[109] In March 2016 the Knights of Columbus delivered to US Secretary of State John Kerry a 280-page report entitled Genocide Against Christians in the Middle East. This led the US State Department to declare that "ISIS's systematic massacre of Christians in the Middle East had reached genocidal proportions."[110]

Supreme ConventionsEdit

President Richard Nixon addressed the Supreme Convention in 1971.[111] Presidents Ronald Reagan spoke in 1982[112] and 1986[113] and George W. Bush spoke in 2004.[113] George H.W. Bush spoke as vice president in 1984 and then again as president in 1992.[113] President Bill Clinton sent a videotaped message to the 111th Supreme Convention saying the Order’s "contributions to the Catholic Church and to your communities merit our applause."[113]

Insurance programEdit

Year Reserve Fund Assets
1896[114] $12,000

The original insurance system devised by McGivney gave a deceased Knight's widow a $1,000 death benefit. Each member was assessed $1 upon a death, and when the number of Knights grew beyond 1,000, the assessment decreased according to the rate of increase.[115] Each member, regardless of age, was assessed equally. As a result, younger, healthier members could expect to pay more over the course of their lifetimes than those men who joined when they were older.[116] There was also a Sick Benefit Deposit for members who fell ill and could not work. Each sick Knight was entitled to draw up to $5 a week for 13 weeks (roughly equivalent to $125.75 in 2009 dollars[117]). If he remained sick after that, the council to which he belonged determined the sum of money given to him.[118]

The need for a reserve fund for times of epidemic was seen from the earliest days, but it was rejected several times before finally being established in 1892.[119]

Since its first loan to St. Rose Church in Meriden, Connecticut in the late 1890s, the Knights of Columbus have made loans to parishes, dioceses, and other Catholic institutions.[120] By 1954, over $300 million had been loaned and the program "never lost one cent of principal or interest."[120]

In the post World War II era, the interest rates on long-term bonds dipped below levels at which the Order's insurance program could sustain itself, and Supreme Knight Hart moved the order into a more aggressive program of investing in real estate.[121] Under his leadership, the Order established a lease-back investment program in which the Order would buy a piece of property and then lease it back to the original owner "upon terms generally that would bring to our Order a net rental equal to the normal mortgage interest rate."[121]

Late in 1953 it was learned that the land upon which Yankee Stadium was built was for sale. On December 17, 1953, the Order purchased the property for $2.5 million and then leased it back for 28 years at $182,000 a year with the option to renew the lease for three additional terms of 15 years at $125,000 a year.[120] In 1971 the City of New York took the land by eminent domain.[122]

Between 1952 and 1962, 18 pieces of land were purchased as part of the lease-back program for a total of $29 million. During this time, the amount of money invested in common stock also increased.[120] In 1969, a requirement that all members between 18 and 26 take out insurance was abolished.[123]

Modern programEdit

Year Insurance in
force (billions)
2012 $88.4 $19.4
2011 $83.5 $18.0
2010 $79.0 $16.9
2009 $74.3 $15.5
2008 $70.1 $14.1

The Order offers a modern, professional insurance operation with more than $100 billion of life insurance policies in force and $19.8 billion in assets as of June 2013,[124] a figure more than double the 2000 levels.[90][124] Nearly 80,000 life certificates were issued in 2013, almost 30,000 more than the Order's closest competitor, to bring the total to 1.73 million.[90] The program has a $1.8 billion surplus.[90]

Over $286 million in death benefits were paid in 2012 and $1.7 billion were paid between 2000 and 2010.[90] This is large enough to rank 49th on the A. M. Best list of all life insurance companies in North America.[125] Since the founding of the Order, $3.5 billion in death benefits have been paid.[126] Premiums in 2012 were nearly $1.2 billion, and dividends paid out totaled more than $274 million.[90] Over the same time period, annuity deposits rose 4.2%, compared to an 8% loss for the industry as a whole.[90]

Every day in 2012 more than $10 million was invested, for a total of $2.7 billion on the year, and an annual income of $905 million.[90] The Order maintains a two prong investment strategy. A company must first be a sound investment before stock in it is purchased, and secondly the company's activities must not conflict with Catholic social teaching.[90] Citing the awards they have won, the Order calls themselves "champions of ethical investing."[52] The Order also provides mortgages to churches and Catholic schools at "very competitive rates" through its ChurchLoan program.[90]

Products include permanent and term life insurance, as well as annuities, long term care insurance, and disability insurance.[124] The insurance program is not a separate business offered by the Order to others but is exclusively for the benefit of members and their families.[127] According to the Fortune 1000 list, the Knights of Columbus ranked 880 in total revenue in 2017[128] and, with more than 1,500 agents, was 925th in size in 2015.[90] All agents are members of the Order.[citation needed]

The Order's insurance program is the most highly rated program in North America.[90] For 40 consecutive years, the Order has received A. M. Best's highest rating, A++.[90][129] Additionally, the Order is certified by the Insurance Marketplace Standards Association for ethical sales practices.[130] Standard & Poor's downgraded the insurance program's financial strength/credit rating from AAA to AA+ in August 2011 not due to the Order's financial strength, but due to its lowering of the long-term sovereign credit rating of the United States to AA+.[131][132][nb 5] Additionally, the insurance program has a low 3.5% lapse rate of the 1.9 million members and their families who are insured.[90][124]

Supreme KnightsEdit

Supreme Knight[133] Term began Term ended Deputy Supreme Knight[133] DSK Term Supreme Chaplain[133] SC Term
1 James T. Mullen   February 2, 1882 May 17, 1886 John T. Kerrigan[134] 1882 to 1884 Rev. Patrick P. Lawlor 1882 to 1884
John F. Dowling[135] 1884 to 1886 Rev. Michael J. McGivney[135] 1884 to 1890
2 John J. Phelan[136]   May 17, 1886 March 2, 1897 William Hassett[136] 1886 to 1887
James C. Roach 1887 to 1895
Rev. Hugh Treanor 1891 to 1899
James E. Hayes 1895 to 1897
3 James E. Hayes   March 2, 1897 February 8, 1898 John J. Cone[137] 1897 to 1898
4 John J. Cone   March 2, 1898 March 31, 1899 Vacant
5 Edward L. Hearn   April 1, 1899 August 31, 1909 John W. Hogan[138][139] April 1, 1899 to June 3, 1903 Rev. Garrett J. Barry 1899 to 1901
Rev. Patrick J. McGivney[37][140] 1901 to 1928
Patrick L. McArdle[139][141] June 3, 1903[139] to 1905
James A. Flaherty[142] 1905 to 1909
6 James A. Flaherty[140][143]   September 1, 1909 August 31, 1927 Martin H. Carmody[140] 1909 to 1927
7 Martin H. Carmody[140][144] September 1, 1927 August 31, 1939 John F. Martin[140][145] 1927 to 1933
Rev. John J. McGivney[140][145] 1928 to 1939
Francis P. Matthews[144] 1933 to 1939
8 Francis P. Matthews[145]   September 2, 1939 October 14, 1945 John E. Swift 1939 to 1945 Rev. Leo M. Finn[145][146] 1939 to 1960
9 John E. Swift[147][148] October 24, 1945 August 31, 1953 Timothy P. Galvin 1945 to 1949
William J. Mulligan[148][149] 1949 to 1960
10 Luke E. Hart   September 1, 1953 February 19, 1964
John W. McDevitt[149][150] 1960 to 1964 Bishop Charles P. Greco[151][146] 1961 to January 20, 1987
11 John W. McDevitt February 22, 1964 January 21, 1977 John H. Griffin, MD[150][152] 1964 to 1966
Charles J. Ducey[153][154] 1966 to April 1976
Ernest J. Wolff[154] 1976 to 1977
12 Virgil C. Dechant January 21, 1977 September 30, 2000 Frederick H. Pelletier[154][155] 1977 to 1981
John M. Murphy 1981 to 1984
Ellis D. Flinn[156] 1984 to February 1, 1997
Bishop Thomas V. Daily[157] February 13, 1987 to April 1, 2005
Robert F. Wade[158] April 1, 1997 to September 30, 2000
13 Carl A. Anderson   October 1, 2000 Present Jean B. Migneault[159] October 1, 2000 to October 27, 2006
Archbishop William E. Lori[160] April 2, 2005 to Present
Dennis A. Savoie[161][162] October 27, 2006 to December 2013
Logan T. Ludwig[163] December 12, 2013 to December 16, 2016
Patrick E. Kelly[163] January 1, 2017 to present



  1. ^ For example, the Knights of St. Patrick, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, the Sons of Erin, the Catholic Order of Foresters, the Red Knights, the Irish Catholic Benevolent Union, the Hibernian Society, the Catholic Benevolent League, the Ancient Order of Foresters, the St. Vincent's Death Benefit League, any number of local parish total abstinence societies.[6]
  2. ^ This includes 34,854 knights in 374 college councils, and 2,227 online members.[89]
  3. ^ As of December 31, 1898, there were 10,763 members in Massachusetts alone, which was second only to New York.[98]
  4. ^ Kennedy, the only Catholic to be elected President of the United States, was a Fourth Degree member of Bunker Hill Council No. 62 and Bishop Cheverus General Assembly. At the meeting, the president told Hart that his younger brother, Ted Kennedy, had received "his Third Degree in our Order three weeks before."[102]
  5. ^ Other US insurance groups also downgraded by S&P from AAA to AA+ were New York Life, Northwestern Mutual, TIAA, and USAA as, like the Knights of Columbus, their assets are highly concentrated in the U.S. and they have significant holdings in U.S. Treasury and agency securities.


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Lapomarda, S.J., Vincent A. (1992). The Knights of Columbus in Massachusetts (second ed.). Norwood, Massachusetts: Knights of Columbus Massachusetts State Council.