The Founding: 1882-1899

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 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.

  • 1882: The Knights of Columbus is born on Feb. 6, 1882, when the first members choose Columbus as their patron. Immediately after the Order’s March 29 incorporation, Father McGivney sends the first diocesan-wide appeal for new members to his fellow priests.
  • 1886: By the end of his four-year tenure as supreme knight, James T. Mullen personally presides at the institution of 22 of the first 38 councils. John J. Phelan is elected to succeed him and is the first supreme knight to sense the Order’s destiny as a national society.
  • 1890: Father McGivney dies Aug. 14, 1890. His funeral Mass is celebrated in Thomaston, Conn., four days later.
  • 1892: The Order passes laws allowing noninsurance or associate members to join.
  • 1892: 6,000 Knights march in the New Haven Columbus Day parade to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World.
  • 1895: The Vatican’s first acknowledgment of the Knights comes when Archbishop Francesco Satolli, apostolic delegate to the United States, writes a letter extolling the “merits of this splendid Catholic organization” and giving the Order his apostolic blessing.
  • 1897: On Nov. 25, 1897, Canada’s first council — Montreal Council 284 — is chartered.

Print Email

In Search of Liberty: 1919-1929

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.

Finally, when the Mexican government began enforcing the anti-clerical provisions of its 1917 Constitution, the Knights responded with one voice. Under President Plutarco Elias Calles, who took power in 1924, priests and religious were exiled and the free exercise of religion was forbidden. In Iniquis Afflictisque, his 1926 encyclical on the persecution of the Church in Mexico, Pope Pius XI praised the Knights’ tireless work, which included a major public education campaign, diplomatic efforts and charitable support for refugees.

  • 1920: Two years after launching educational, vocational and employment programs for World War I veterans, more than 50,000 students are enrolled in K of C-sponsored evening school programs across the United States and Canada. The Order also launches a correspondence school.
  • 1920: 235 Knights sail from New York City to France. In Paris, they are greeted by Church and civic authorities, who thank the Knights for their WWI work. In Metz, a large equestrian statue of the French patriot Lafayette, funded by the Knights, is unveiled. The K of C delegation continues to Rome, where it is received in a private audience with Pope Benedict XV on Aug. 28, 1920.
  • 1923: In response to the passage of laws in Oregon prohibiting children under 16 from attending private schools, the Knights work to overturn the law. In 1925, the Supreme Court declares the Oregon law unconstitutional.
  • 1924: In response to a request from Pope Benedict XV, the Knights opens St. Peter’s Oratory, the first K of C recreation center for youth in Rome. Four more are established between 1924 and 1927.
  • 1924: The Order’s anti-defamation work resumes after World War I. The K of C Historical Commission publishes the Knights of Columbus Racial Contributions Series. Three monographs highlighting the positive contributions of African-, Jewish- and German-Americans are published.
  • 1925: The Knights’ Rome youth work stimulates interest in similar projects in North America, and the Columbian Squires program is established. Brother Barnabas McDonald consults with the Knights on the creation of the Squires. The institution of the first Squires circle takes place at the Supreme Council meeting in Duluth, Minn.
  • 1926: Supreme Knight Flaherty, Deputy Supreme Knight Martin H. Carmody and other officers meet with President Calvin Coolidge about the persecution of the Catholic Church in Mexico. The Order launches a $1 million educational campaign to influence American public opinion on the need for a strong stand against the Mexican government’s attacks on the Church. It takes more than 10 years for the tensions to ease.

Print Email

Our Principles

All the good works we do are informed by our four core principles:   

Charity – Our Catholic faith teaches us to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Members of the Knights of Columbus show love for their neighbors by conducting food drives and donating the food to local soup kitchens and food pantries, by volunteering at Special Olympics, and by supporting, both spiritually and materially, mothers who choose life for their babies. Knights recognize that our mission, and our faith in God, compels us to action. There is no better way to experience love and compassion than by helping those in need, a call we answer every day.   

Unity – None of us is as good as all of us. Members of the Knights of Columbus all know that – together – we can accomplish far more than any of us could individually. So we stick together…we support one another. That doesn’t mean that we always agree or that there is never a difference of opinion. It does mean that – as a Knight of Columbus – you can count on the support and encouragement of your brother Knights as you work to make life better in your parish and community.   

Fraternity – The Venerable Michael J. McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus, in large part, to provide assistance to the widows and children left behind when the family breadwinner died – often prematurely. The Order’s top-rated insurance program continues to do this today, as do individual Knights, who last year gave more than 10 million hours of their time to assist sick and/or disabled members and their families. In the Knights of Columbus, we watch out for and take care of one another.   

Patriotism – Members of the Knights of Columbus, be they Americans, Canadians, Mexicans, Cubans, Filipinos, Poles, or Dominicans, are patriotic citizens. We are proud of our devotion to God and country, and believe in standing up for both. Whether it’s in public or private, the Knights remind the world that Catholics support their nations and are amongst the greatest citizens.

Print Email

Who We Are

Thanks to the efforts of Father Michael J. McGivney, assistant pastor of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven and some of his parishioners, the Connecticut state legislature on March 29, 1882, officially chartered the Knights of Columbus as a fraternal benefit society. The Order is still true to its founding principles of charity, unity and fraternity.

The Knights was formed to render financial aid to members and their families. Mutual aid and assistance are offered to sick, disabled and needy members and their families. Social and intellectual fellowship is promoted among members and their families through educational, charitable, religious, social welfare, war relief and public relief works.

The history of the Order shows how the foresight of Father Michael J. McGivney, whose cause for sainthood is being investigated by the Vatican, brought about what has become the world's foremost Catholic fraternal benefit society. The Order has helped families obtain economic security and stability through its life insurance, annuity and long-term care programs, and has contributed time and energy worldwide to service in communities.

The Knights of Columbus has grown from several members in one council to more than 15,100 councils and 1.9 million members throughout the United States, Canada, the Philippines, Mexico, Poland, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama, the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, Cuba, Guatemala, Guam, Saipan, Lithuania, Ukraine, and South Korea.

Print Email