History of the Knights

Late-19th century Connecticut was marked by the growing prevalence of fraternal benefit societies, hostility toward Catholic immigrants and dangerous working conditions in factories that left many families fatherless. Recognizing a vital, practical need in his community, Father Michael J. McGivney, the 29-year-old assistant pastor of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn., gathered a group of men at his parish on Oct. 2, 1881. He 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, to unite men of the Catholic faith and to provide for the families of deceased members.

As a symbol that allegiance to their country did not conflict with allegiance to their faith, the organization’s members took as their patron Christopher Columbus — recognized as a Catholic and celebrated as the discoverer of America. Thanks to Father McGivney’s persistence, the Knights of Columbus elected officers in February 1882 and officially assumed corporate status on March 29.

In addition to the Order’s stated benefits, Catholic men were drawn to the Knights because of its emphasis on serving one’s Church, community and family with virtue. Writing in The Columbiad in 1898, a year before he was elected supreme knight, Edward L. Hearn wrote that a Knight should live according to the virtues of loyalty, charity, courtesy and modesty, as well as “self-denial and careful respect for the feelings of others.” Fraternity and patriotism were added to the Knights’ founding principles of charity and unity in 1885 and 1900, respectively.

 

The New Millennium: 2000 and onwards

On May 21, 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized 25 martyrs of Mexico, including six members of the Knights of Columbus. Less than one year later, Carl A. Anderson was installed as the 13th supreme knight in Mexico City and dedicated the Order and his administration to Mary under her title Our Lady of Guadalupe. As Patroness of the Americas and Star of the New Evangelization, Our Lady has inspired the Order’s efforts, just as she inspired the steadfast faith of the Knights of Columbus martyrs.

In the past decade, the Order has continued to build upon its rich tradition of charitable work and spiritual formation. Various new charitable initiatives, as well as ongoing partnerships with organizations such as Special Olympics, have given Knights countless opportunities to practice what John Paul II called “a charity which evangelizes.” Organizing increased outreach to pregnancy resource centers, providing greater spiritual support for men and women in the military and playing a significant role in World Youth Days are just some of the many ways that the Order has worked in recent years to promote a true culture of life.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, wrote that a Christian must have “a heart which sees” — that is, which “sees where love is needed and acts accordingly.” For Knights, this often means recognizing where people are most in need and responding with material or volunteer support. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Order delivered immediate assistance to the families of fallen first responders. And when natural disasters struck, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Haitian earthquake in 2011, Knights similarly responded with immediate aid.

Finally, just as they responded to the forces of secularism and prejudice in the past, Knights have stood by their bishops and have witnessed to the importance of religion and religious liberty for society. As the cause for canonization of Venerable Michael McGivney moves forward, so too do his Knights, seeking to build a civilization of love.