The History of the Knights of Columbus

The Knights of Columbus was founded in 1882 by Father Michael J. McGivney who was the assistant pastor of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Connecticut. Father McGivney had envisioned a lay organization that would unite men of Catholic faith and provide for the families of deceased members.

Through the years, the Knights of Columbus has become the largest fraternal service organization. Pope John Paul II referred to the Order as the “strong right arm of the Church” for their support of the church, as well as for their philanthropic and charitable efforts.

Some Key Milestones

In Search of Liberty

After the Great War, the Order continued its charitable work, offering education and employment services to returning servicemen. In less than two years, the Knights of Columbus Bureau of Employment placed some 100,000 people in jobs. The Order’s presence in Europe continued as well. In August 1920, when a delegation of 235 Knights made a pilgrimage to Rome, Pope Benedict XV invited them to build several recreation centers for Roman youth. In response, the Knights constructed five playgrounds throughout the city. The architect, Count Enrico Galeazzi, went on to serve as the Knights’ representative in Rome for more than six decades.

Throughout the 1920s, the Order’s anti-defamation work also continued on several fronts. When the Ku Klux Klan and other “nativist” and anti-Catholic groups launched campaigns to make students attend public schools, Church leaders enlisted the Knights’ support. The K of C Historical Commission, meanwhile, worked to overcome racial prejudice in American society, publishing books on the contributions of African-, Jewish-, and German-Americans.

Helping Our Neighbors

The Great Depression initially had a detrimental effect on the Order’s membership and finances, but it also led to a renewed sense of volunteer service. The success of an extensive membership campaign in 1935, titled Mobilization for Catholic Action, led to the establishment of the Order’s Service Department, which subsequently launched a “Five-Point Program of Progress.” The program encouraged councils to play a more active role in the life of the local parish and community, and included five categories: Catholic activity, council activity, fraternal protection, publicity and maintenance of manpower.

Also in the early 1930s, violent persecution resurfaced in Mexico, prompting the Order’s leadership to strongly urge the U.S. government to take action. Tensions in Mexico eventually eased in 1937, but the threat of atheistic communism was growing in Europe. In response, the Knights organized anti-communist rallies in early 1937. When Pope Pius XI’s encyclical on the subject, Divini Redemptoris, was released in March of that year, the Order printed and distributed a million copies. The Knights also sponsored a new lecture tour and expanded its anti-communism program to include a Crusade for Social Justice. “Injustice to man is the seed of communistic growth,” Supreme Knight Martin Carmody said. “With Truth and Charity as your weapons, go forth as a Crusade.”

War and Peace

By the time Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States entered World War II in 1941, a K of C welfare program for servicemen had been well established by Canadian Knights, built and modeled on the Knights’ World War I work. In the United States, the Order’s outreach to soldiers was conducted through the National Catholic Community Service organization, which itself modeled many of its programs on the Knights’ war efforts.

At the Supreme Convention in 1944, the Order established a $1 million trust fund for the children of members who died or became disabled in World War II. Following the end of the war in 1945, the Order turned its attention to the growing threats of communism and fascism. To combat these dangers, the Knights launched in 1946 the Crusade for the Preservation and Promotion of American Ideals, which published books and pamphlets to educate the public on “the perils of communism.”

“One Nation Under God”

The Knights of Columbus initiated a campaign in 1951 to lobby for the public adoption of the phrase “under God” in the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance. The Order’s Board of Directors had amended the pledge’s recitation at Fourth Degree assembly meetings and encouraged congressional representatives to adopt the same language nationwide. One year after Supreme Knight Hart took office in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a law that officially added the words “under God” to the pledge.

In the following years, the Knights made significant contributions to the Catholic Church in America. In 1953, a Catholic advertising program launched by Knights in Missouri was officially adopted by the Order as the Religious Information Bureau. Through the bureau, which later became known as the Catholic Information Service when its operations moved to New Haven in 1969, the Knights printed and disseminated brochures and pamphlets about the Catholic faith. The program also included a correspondence course in which subscribers could learn about or clarify their knowledge of Church teachings.

Finally, the close of the 1950s saw the completion of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. The Order contributed $1 million toward the completion of the church’s bell tower, known as the Knights’ Tower, and more than 1,000 Knights formed an honor guard for the shrine’s dedication.

One Christian Family

In his 1981 apostolic exhortation On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, Pope John Paul II wrote, “The future of humanity passes by way of the family” (Familiaris Consortio, 86). The pope’s emphasis on the central importance of the family for the health of the Church and society reinforced the Knights’ mission. Likewise, when John Paul II published an apostolic exhortation on the role of the laity in 1988 and an encyclical on the Gospel of Life in 1995, the Order urged Catholics everywhere to embrace these teachings and even published study guides to accompany the documents.

During John Paul II’s pontificate, the Knights also strengthened their ties to the universal Church through increased support of the Vatican. In 1981, the Order established the Vicarius Christi Fund, annual earnings of which are presented to the pope for his personal charities. The Knights then underwrote a series of major restorations at St. Peter’s Basilica in anticipation of the Jubilee Year.