On October 2, 1881, a small group of men met in the basement of St. Mary’s Church on Hillhouse Avenue in New Haven, Connecticut to discuss the formation of a fraternal benefit society. Convened at the request of Father Michael J. McGivney, a 29-year-old assistant pastor of St. Mary’s, this meeting marked the foundation of what has become the world’s largest Catholic family fraternal service organization, the Knights of Columbus.
Father Michael J. McGivney proposed establishing a lay organization, the goal of which would be to prevent Catholic men from entering secret societies whose membership was antithetical to Church teaching and to unite men of Catholic faith and to provide for the families of deceased members. The Order was incorporated under the laws of the state of Connecticut and on March 29, 1882 the Connecticut legislature granted a charter to the Knights of Columbus, formally establishing it as a legal corporation. The Order’s principles in 1882 were “unity” and “charity.” The concepts of “fraternity” and “patriotism” were added later.
The primary motivation for the Order was 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 and wanted to provide insurance to care for the widows and orphans left behind. Catholics were regularly excluded from labor unions and other organizations that provided social services. In addition, Catholics were either barred from many of the popular fraternal organizations.
He also believed that Catholicism and fraternalism were not incompatible and wished to found a society that would encourage men to be proud of their American-Catholic heritage. William Geary, one of the Order’s charter members, said that at the first council meeting in 1882, Father McGivney was “Acclaimed as founder by 24 men with hearts full of joy and thanksgiving, recognizing that without his optimism, his will to succeed, his counsel and advice they would have failed.”
Father McGivney had originally suggested “Sons of Columbus” as a name for the Order. This would bind Catholicism and Americanism together through the faith and bold vision of the New World’s discoverer. However, the word “Knights” replaced “Sons.”
Four months after this meeting, the group adopted the name “Knights of Columbus.” Shortly after the turn of the century, Knights could be found in every state of the United States, in most of the provinces of Canada, Mexico and the Philippines, and were prepared to enter Puerto Rico and Cuba.
Why Columbus? In choosing Christopher Columbus as their patron the first Knights demonstrated their pride in America’s Catholic heritage. To the Irish-American Catholics who incorporated the organization, the name Knights of Columbus evoked allegiance to the Church and affirmed the discovery of America as a Catholic event.
Almost immediately after the incorporation of the Knights of Columbus, Father McGivney wrote a letter to all the pastors of the then Diocese of Hartford, Connecticut, outlining the organization’s aims. He wrote: “Our primary object is to prevent our people from entering secret societies by offering the same if not better advantages to our members. Secondly, our object is to unite the men of faith in the Diocese of Hartford that we may thereby gain strength to aid each other in time of sickness, to provide for decent burial and to render assistance to families of deceased members.” The founder’s letter concluded with his hope that the Knights of Columbus would be represented in every parish in Connecticut. Today, the Order aims to have an active Knights of Columbus council in every Catholic parish in countries where it exists.
By the time of the first annual convention in 1884, the Order was prospering. In the five councils throughout Connecticut there were 459 members. Groups from other states were requesting information. 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.” The new charter showed members’ desire to grow the organization beyond a simple mutual benefit insurance society.
Though the concept of a Catholic fraternal order struck Father McGivney as a pastoral necessity in protecting the faith, “Unity and Charity” – the Order’s motto until 1885 when “Fraternity” was added – were expressed through its sick-benefit and life insurance feature. Father McGivney strove not only to protect their faith, but also to protect their families.
Although the Order’s constitution was frequently amended during its first 15 years, much of the general authority structure of the Order has been preserved to the present.
The Supreme Council Officers are as follows: Supreme Knight, Supreme Chaplain, Deputy Supreme Knight, Supreme Secretary, Supreme Treasurer, Supreme Advocate, Supreme Warden, and Supreme Master.
The Supreme Officers are as follows: supreme knight, supreme chaplain, deputy supreme knight, supreme secretary, supreme treasurer, supreme advocate, supreme physician and supreme warden. The major duties of each correspond to the major duties of their counterparts in any corporation. For instance, the supreme knight is the chief executive officer of the organization, the supreme secretary is the corporate secretary, etc.
A 25-member board of directors is charged with overseeing the fraternal and insurance operations of the Order between meetings of the Supreme Council.
State council officers follow the same pattern. The state deputy and his team of officers are elected by delegates at the annual state conventions held each spring.
The subordinate councils’ officers are: Grand knight, Chaplain, Deputy Grand Knight, Chancellor, Recorder, Financial Secretary, Treasurer, Lecturer, Advocate, Warden, Inside Guard, Outside Guard and Board of Trustees. Subordinate councils elect their own leaders.
There are more than 1.8 million members in 15,000 councils, with nearly 200 councils on college campuses. Membership is limited to “practical” Catholic men aged 18 or older. Membership consists of four different degrees, each exemplifying a different principle of the Order. The Order is a member of the International Alliance of Catholic Knights.
Councils have been chartered in the United States, Canada, the Philippines, Mexico, Poland, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama, the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, Cuba, Guatemala, Guam, Saipan, and on US military bases around the world. The Knights’ official junior organization, the Columbian Squires, has over 5,000 circles and the Order’s patriotic arm, the Fourth Degree, has more than 2,500 assemblies.
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. 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. 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). If he remained sick after that, the council to which he belonged regulated the sum of money given to him.
From the very early days of the Order there were calls to create some sort of recognition for senior members, and a special plea was made at the National Meeting of 1899. As early as 1886 Supreme Knight James T. Mullen had proposed a patriotic degree with its own symbolic dress. The Grand Cross of the Knights of Columbus was established, but the only recipient was Cristobal Colón y de La Cerda, Duke of Veraguas and descendant of Columbus, when he visited the US in 1893. The Fourth Degree was created.
About 1,400 members attended the first exemplification of the Fourth Degree at the Lenox Lyceum in New York on February 22, 1900,and it was infused with Catholic and patriotic symbols and imagery that “celebrated American Catholic heritage.” The two knights leading the ceremony, for example, were the Expositor of the Constitution and the Defender of the Faith. The ritual soon spread to other cities. The new Fourth Degree members then went back to their councils and formed assemblies composed of members from several councils. Those assemblies then chose the new members going forward.
The Order is dedicated to the principles of Charity, Unity, Fraternity and Patriotism. A First Degree exemplification ceremony, by which a man joins the Order, explicates the virtue of charity. He is then said to be a First Degree Knight of Columbus. After participating the subsequent degrees, each of which focuses on another virtue, he rises to that status. Upon reaching the Third Degree, a gentleman is a full member. Priests do not participate directly in Degree exemplifications as laymen do, but rather take the degree by observation.
After taking their third degree, knights are eligible to receive their fourth degree which is optional, the primary purpose of which is to foster the spirit of patriotism and to encourage active Catholic citizenship. Fourth degree members, in addition to being members of their individual councils, are also members of Fourth Degree assemblies which typically comprise members of several councils. As of 2013, there were 3,109 assemblies worldwide.
Fourth Degree Knights may optionally purchase and wear the full regalia and join an assembly’s Color Corps. The Color Corps is the most visible arm of the Knights, as they are often seen in parades and other local events wearing their colorful regalia.
Charity is the foremost principle of the Knights of Columbus. In 2012, the Order gave more than $167 million directly to charity and performed over 70 million man hours in volunteer service. According to Independent Sector, this service has a value of more than $1.6 billion. This record level represents a 6% increase at a time when total US charitable giving only rose 2%. As of July 2013, over $1.44 billion has been given in charitable contributions and 664 million man hours of service were performed in the last 10 years. On average, more than $90 and 38 hours of volunteer service are donated per member.
The Order offers a modern, professional insurance operation with more than $90 billion of life insurance policies in force and $19.8 billion in assets as of June 2013. The Order’s insurance program is the most highly rated program in North America. For 38 consecutive years, the Order has received A. M. Best’s highest rating, A++. Only two other insurers in North America have received the highest ratings from both A. M. Best and Standard & Poor’s.
As of 2013 there were 1,843,587 knights, and membership has grown each year for 41 consecutive years. Each member belongs to one of 14,606 councils around the world. In the 2012 fraternal year, 229 new councils were established, including two in the Ukraine, eight in Mexico, 10 in Poland, 13 in Canada, 80 in the Philippines, and 117 in the United States. In addition, there is a “round table” presence in Lithuania.
The Supreme Council is the governing body of the Order and is composed of elected representatives from each jurisdiction. In a manner similar to shareholders at an annual meeting, the Supreme Council elects seven members each year to the Supreme Board of Directors for three-year terms. The twenty-one member board then chooses from its own membership the senior operating officials of the Order, including the Supreme Knight.
Fourth degree members belong to one of 3,109 assemblies, including 75 created in 2012. The first assembly in Europe was established in 2012, and in 2013 a new assembly for Boston-area college councils was created at Harvard University. As of 2013 there were 335,132 Fourth Degree members, including 15,709 who joined the ranks of the Patriotic Degree the year before.
In 1898 Keane Council 353 was established at The Catholic University of America, though in later years it moved off campus. The University of Notre Dame Council 1477 was founded in 1910, and was followed by the councils at Saint Louis University and Benedictine College. In 1919, Mount St. Mary’s College and Seminary Council 1965 became the first council attached to a college and seminary, at what is now Mount St. Mary’s University.
In each autumn since 1966, the Supreme Council has hosted a College Council Conference at their headquarters in New Haven, Connecticut. Awards are given for the greatest increases in membership, the best Youth, Community, Council, Family and Church activities, and the overall Outstanding College Council of the year. The most recent winner of the Outstanding College Council Award was the Texas A&M University Council.
The Knights’ official junior organization is the Columbian Squires. Founded in 1925 in Duluth, Minnesota this international fraternity for boys 10–18 has grown to over 5,000 circles. According to Brother Barnabas McDonald, F.S.C., the Squires’ founder, “The supreme purpose of the Columbian Squires is character building.”
Squires have fun and share their Catholic faith, help people in need, and enjoy the company of friends in social, family, athletic, cultural, civic and spiritual activities. Through their local circle, Squires work and socialize as a group of friends, elect their own officers, and develop into Catholic leaders. When Squires process in a color guard, they wear blue cape and black berets.
Each circle is supervised by a Knights of Columbus council or assembly, and has an advisory board made up of either the Grand Knight, the Deputy Grand Knight and Chaplain, or the Faithful Navigator, the Faithful Captain and Faithful Friar. Circles are either council based, parish based, or school based, depending on the location of the circle and the Knight counselors.
Many councils also have women’s auxiliaries. At the turn of the 20th century two were formed by local councils and each took the name the Daughters of Isabella. Using the same name, both groups expanded and issued charters to other circles but never merged. The newer organization renamed itself the Catholic Daughters of the Americas in 1921 and both have structures independent of the Knights of Columbus but must be sponsored by a Knight of Columbus council. Other groups are known as the Columbiettes. In the Philippines, the ladies’ auxiliary is known as the Daughters of Mary Immaculate. On March 2, 1939 the first Columbiettes was instituted in New York City.
Many famous Catholic men from all over the world have been Knights of Columbus. In the United States, some of the most notable include John F. Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, Al Smith, Sargent Shriver, Samuel Alito, John Boehner, Ray Flynn, Jeb Bush, and Sergeant Major Daniel Daly, a two-time Medal of Honor recipient, once described by the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps as “the most outstanding Marine of all time.”
Many notable clerics are also 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, 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 were declared saints by Pope John Paul II.
The emblem of the Order was designed by Past Supreme Knight James T. Mullen and adopted at the second Supreme Council meeting on May 12, 1883. Shields used by medieval knights served as the inspiration, and the emblem consists of a shield mounted on a Formée cross, which is an artistic representation of the cross of Christ. This represents the Catholic identity of the Order.
Mounted on the shield are three objects: a fasces standing vertically, and crossed behind it, an anchor and a dagger or short sword. The fasces is from Roman days as a symbol of authority which must exist in any tightly-bonded and efficiently operating organization. The anchor is the mariner’s symbol for Christopher Columbus, patron of the Order. The short sword or dagger was the weapon used by medieval Knights. Thus, the shield expresses Catholic Knighthood in organized merciful action, and with the letters, K. of C., it proclaims this specific form of activity.
The red, white and blue in the background of the shield and the foreground of the Cross of Malta are the colors of our country. As such, red is the symbol of stout-hearted courage, of pulsing activity and a full measure of devotion. Blue is the symbol of hope, of calm tranquility under God and of confidence in the protection of our country. White is the symbol of nobility of purpose, of purity of aim and of crucible — tried ideals to be carried out.
The Fourth Degree emblem features a dove, a cross, and a globe. In the tradition of the Knights these symbols “typify the union of the three Divine Persons in one God head, referred to as the most Blessed Trinity.” The red, white and blue are taken from the American flag and represent patriotism, the basic principle of the Fourth Degree. Styled with the continents of the western hemisphere in white, the blue globe represents God the Father. A red Isabella cross, for the queen who sponsored Columbus, serves as a symbol of God the Son. The white dove is a symbol of peace and God the Holy Spirit. Columbus’ name in Italian (Colombo) also means “dove.”
The emblem of the Squires symbolizes the ideals which identify a squire. On the arms of a Maltese cross are the letters “P”, which represents the physical development necessary to make the body as strong as the spirit, “I”, which stands for the intellectual development needed for cultural and mental maturity, “S”, which represents the spiritual growth and practice of our faith and “C”, which stands for the development of citizenship and civic life. The larger letters: “C”, representing Christ and also Christopher Columbus, “S”, the Squires and “K”, the Knights of Columbus by whom the Squires program is sponsored are intertwined in the center of the cross. They are the three foundations of the program.
The Latin motto, “Esto Dignus”, encircles the emblem. Translated into English, it means “Be Worthy.”
The emblem of the Columbiettes symbolizes as follows, The Blue Circle represents the World, The White Cross represents Christ’s love for us – by His Crucifixion He redeemed the World, The Rays represent our zeal to serve God through the Mediums of Faith, Hope and Charity symbolized by the Three White Stars.