The History of
the Knights of Columbus
Founded by Father Michael J. McGivney
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. Called together by their parish priest, Father Michael J. McGivney, these men formed a fraternal society that would one day become the world's largest Catholic family fraternal service organization. They sought strength in solidarity, and security through unity of purpose and devotion to a holy cause: they vowed to be defenders of their country and their families and their Faith. These men were bound together by the ideal of Christopher Columbus, the discoverer of the Americas, the one whose hand brought the Holy Faith to this New World. They were Knights of Columbus
The Order has been called "the strong right arm of the Church," and has been praised by popes, presidents and other world leaders, for support of the Church, programs of evangelization and Catholic education, civic involvement and aid to those in need. As recently as 1992, Mother Teresa of Calcutta praised the Knights in a speech on the occasion of her reception of the first Knights of Columbus Gaudium et Spes Award.
Thanks to the inspired work of Father McGivney—as well as that of millions of other Knights over the past century—the Knights of Columbus now stands at its pinnacle of membership, benefits and service. Currently, there are over 1.6 million Knights of Columbus—more than ever before in our Order's history. Together with their families, the Knights are nearly 6 million strong. In addition, from the first local council in New Haven, the Order has grown to more than 12,000 councils in the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Panama, the Virgin Islands, Guatemala, Guam and Saipan. Each year, the Order continues this strong growth.
Through the foresight and leadership of Father McGivney, and the sacrifice and dedication of those early Knights, and the millions of their brother who have followed in their footsteps, the Knights of Columbus would become the world's foremost Catholic fraternal benefit society, one that has helped millions of Catholic families grow in their faith and defend their beliefs. It has made its members better husbands, fathers, sons, and citizens. It has helped families obtain economic security and stability through the Knights' life insurance program. It has built Catholic communities, fed the poor and defended the vulnerable. It has helped to renovate the Vatican and bring the Pope to the world.
Since it was incorporated on March 29, 1882, the Knights of Columbus has grown from several members in one council to more than 12,000 councils and over 1.6 million members throughout the United States, Canada, the Philippines, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama, the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, Guatemala, Guam and Saipan. The Order has had twelve Supreme Knights—from the first Supreme Knight, James T. Mullen, who designed the famous emblem of the Order, to our current Supreme Knight, Virgil C. Dechant, who has led the Order to tremendous increases in membership, prestige and influence. Millions of Catholic men have been Knights of Columbus—men of all nationalities and backgrounds and professions—men like baseball great Babe Ruth and President John F. Kennedy.
LOVE OF CHURCH AND COUNTRY
Charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism—these are the watchwords of the Knights of Columbus. And, since 1882, Knights of Columbus have backed up these words with actions. During World War I, 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 Order raised more than $14 million for this program on its own, and was allocated another $30 million from a national fund drive.
During the early years of World War II, Canadian Knights set up similar soldiers' welfare centers in Canada. The U.S. Knights were the first national organization to sponsor a blood donor program, and numerous councils led war bond drives in support of the war effort. Thousands of Knights were killed in action during the war.
During the Cold War, Supreme Knight John E. Swift oversaw the Order's varied responses to the Communist threat, as the Knights operated speakers' bureaus, funded anti-Communist advertisements and radio addresses, and published pro-freedom pamphlets. In 1954, the Knights of Columbus led the effort to officially include the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag, a crusade that resulted in federal legislation signed by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In 1957, the Knights of Columbus donated a $1 million, 329-foot bell tower to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC—a tower that became known as "the Knights' Tower." The Order has since donated a 56-bell carillon to the Shrine and provided funding for its operation.
During the 1960s and 1970s, decades of degeneration and social chaos, the Knights of Columbus, behind Supreme Knight John McDevitt and current Supreme Knight Virgil C. Dechant, stood as a tower amidst societal crisis to promote racial equality and love of country. Against a tide of dissension, the Order championed Church teaching on divorce, birth control, abortion, and pornography.
Since the late 1970s, Supreme Knight Dechant has led the Knights to record-breaking growth in all areas of the Order's operations: membership, new council development, international development, insurance sales, volunteerism and charitable giving. He has fostered support and devotion to the Church and to our Blessed Mother. He has pledged the Knights' support for the Holy Father, the cardinals, bishops and all clergy and religious. He led the way to increased support for Catholic telecommunications, education, and special charities, such as the International Special Olympics.
Knights of Columbus have helped to build and support the Catholic Church, from the United States to the Philippines. Knights have lived for their faith in Canada, and died for their faith in Mexico. Throughout the history of the Order, in these and many other ways, Knights of Columbus have provided immeasurable support to their families and communities, to their countries and the Church. The Knights of Columbus has enabled its members to strengthen and protect their loved ones—spiritually, by developing their faith, and financially, with the highest quality life insurance available, a product that has brought security and prosperity to millions of Knights and their families.
Through their dedication to the ideals of the Order—Charity, Unity, Fraternity, Patriotism—and through their fidelity to Christ's Church and his Vicar, the Knights of Columbus continue to be what they were called long ago: "The Strong Right Arm of the Church."
KNIGHTS OF COLUMBUS ARCHIVES
The Knights of Columbus Supreme Council Archives exists to preserve the history of the Knights of Columbus. The collection includes correspondence, pamphlets, publications, programs, newspaper clippings and books relating to the history of the Order. The collection focuses on Supreme Council activities, but does contain some material relating to state and local councils. Some topics relating to the Supreme Council include anti-Catholicism such as the Mexican Persecution and the Bogus Oath, the Historical Commission, the Roman Playgrounds, the Oregon School Case, Columbian Squires, World War I, Reconstruction, World War II, and the James Cardinal Gibbons Memorial Statue papers. Material relating to the founder Father Michael J. McGivney and St. Mary's Church are also collected. The Archives includes material relating to the Catholic Church as well as an over three hundred volume library on Christopher Columbus and Columbus related materials such as the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.
The Archives is located in New Haven, Connecticut at the Supreme Council Headquarters. Access to the archives is available by appointment and with the permission of the Archivist. Some materials are restricted. The Archives is usually open Monday through Friday 8:00 am - 4:30 pm. It is closed on major holidays.
KNIGHTS OF COLUMBUS MUSEUM
The Knights opened a museum at their headquarters in New Haven, Connecticut during the organization's 100th anniversary in August 1982.
The Museum is dedicated to the acquisition, preservation, interpretation and exhibition of information and materials deriving from or relevant to the history, formation and activities of the Knights of Columbus. It also contains material on the Catholic Church, Christopher Columbus, as well as secular history in America. To view some of the exhibits, visit the online tour of the Knights of Columbus Museum and view the Gallery of Supreme Knights.
The Museum has grown over the years, and a separate building is now being readied to house its expanded operations. A grand opening at One State Street, where the order's history will be showcased in an attractive setting and interactive computer stations will enable research, is planned by mid to late 2000. The old museum is currently closed while exhibits are being transferred to the new building. In the meantime, you can take a cyber-tour of the museum via the link below.
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