The Order of the Knights of Columbus is the world's largest Roman Catholic fraternal service organization. Founded in the United States in 1881, it is named in honor of Christopher Columbus and dedicated to the principles of Charity, Unity, Fraternity, and Patriotism. Councils have been chartered in many parts of the world, and the organization boasts a worldwide membership of more than 1.7 million members in 14,000 councils. Membership is limited to practicing Catholic men aged 18 or older.
The order gives millions of dollars annually to charities and its members perform millions of hours of voluntary service. In addition to these philanthropic activities, the order also runs a highly successful insurance program that was originally established to help care for Roman Catholic widows, widowers, and orphans left behind after the unexpected death of the breadwinner.
The Order of the Knights of Columbus was established in 1881 by a Catholic priest, Father Michael J. McGivney in New Haven, Connecticut. McGivney's primary motivation for the creation of the order was to give American Catholics access to a mutual benefit society. As a parish priest in an immigrant community, he saw what could happen to a family when the breadwinner died. He wanted to provide insurance to care for the widows and orphans left behind. His motivation was derived partially from person experience as he himself had to temporarily leave his seminary studies to care for his family when his father died. A further impetus behind the creation of an explicitly Catholic organization was that in the late nineteenth century, 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, or, as in the case of Freemasonry, were forbidden from joining by the Catholic Church itself. As such, McGivney wished to provide Catholics with an alternative. He also believed that Catholicism and fraternalism were compatible, and wished to establish a society that would encourage men to be proud of their American-Catholic heritage.
Seeking to analyze the options currently open to Catholics (with regards to service organizations), McGivney traveled to Boston to examine the Massachusetts Catholic Order of Foresters and to Brooklyn to learn about the recently established Catholic Benevolent League, both of which offered insurance benefits. While he found the latter to be lacking the excitement he thought would be necessary for his organization to compete with the secret societies of the day, he expressed an interest in establishing a New Haven Court of the Foresters. However, the charter of Massachusetts chapter prevented the group from operating outside their area. Returning to New Haven, McGivney and a committee of St. Mary's parishioners decided to form a club that was entirely original.
However, this new brotherhood still required a distinctive title. Though McGivney had originally conceived of the name "Sons of Columbus," James T. Mullen, who would later become the first Supreme Knight, successfully suggested that "Knights of Columbus" would better capture the ritualistic nature of the new organization. As for the reference to Columbus, the order was founded ten years before the 400th anniversary of the explorer's arrival in the New World and in a time of renewed interest in him. The fabled navigator was a hero to many American Catholics, and naming him as patron was partly an attempt to bridge the division between the Irish-Catholic founders of the order and Catholic immigrants of other nationalities living in Connecticut. The place of honor held by Columbus is clearly evidenced by an 1878 editorial from the Connecticut Catholic, which states: "As American Catholics we do not know of anyone who more deserves our grateful remembrance than the great and noble man—the pious, zealous, faithful Catholic, the enterprising navigator, and the large-hearted and generous sailor: Christopher Columbus."
The name of Columbus was also partially intended as a mild rebuke to Anglo-Saxon Protestant leaders, who upheld the explorer (a Catholic Genovese Italian working for Catholic Spain) as an American hero, while simultaneously seeking to marginalize recent Catholic immigrants. In taking Columbus as their patron, McGivney and his parishioners were sending the message that not only could Catholics be full members of American society, but that they were, in fact, instrumental in its foundation.
He gathered a group of men from St. Mary's parish for an organizational meeting on October 2, 1881, and the order was incorporated under the laws of the state of Connecticut on March 29, 1882. Though the first councils were all held in the organization's home state, the order spread relatively quickly throughout New England and (later) the entire United States.
By the time of the first annual convention in 1884, the order was prospering. The five councils headquartered throughout Connecticut boasted 459 members. Also, Catholic groups from other states were requesting information about setting up their own chapters. After fifteen years of growth and development, the rapidly expanding society was certainly not dedicated solely to providing mutual benefit insurance anymore. This expansion of purpose is clearly indicated by the Charter of 1899, which included four separate statements of purpose, one of which notably aims "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."
Today, there are more than 14,000 councils around the world, with the Knights of Columbus representing one of the world's highest-profile charitable organizations. However, this charitable focus must be understood from within the faith-based perspective of the order. Knights may be seen distributing chocolate bars to raise funds to fight developmental disabilities, volunteering for the Special Olympics and other charitable organizations, erecting pro-life billboards and "Keep Christ in Christmas" signs, conducting blood drives and raising funds for disaster victims, or parading at patriotic events with their bright capes, feathered chapeaux, and ceremonial swords. The cause for McGivney's canonization is currently before the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and a guild has been formed to promote his cause. If his cause is successful, he will be the first American-born priest to be canonized as a saint.
The Supreme Council is the governing body of the order and is composed of elected representatives from each jurisdiction. The role of the Supreme Council can be roughly compared the to shareholders at an annual meeting, as each year they elect seven members to the Supreme Board of Directors for three-year terms. The 21-member board then chooses from its own membership the senior operating officials of the order, including the supreme knight.
District deputies are appointed by the state deputy and oversee several local councils, each of which is led by a grand knight. Other elected council officers include the deputy grand knight, chancellor, warden, recorder, treasurer, advocate, guard, and trustee. A chaplain is appointed by the grand knight and a financial secretary by the supreme knight. Council officers are properly addressed by using the title "worthy" (e.g. Worthy Grand Knight). Councils are numbered in the order in which they chartered into the order and are named by the local membership. For example, San Salvador Council #1 was named for the first island Columbus landed on in the New World.
As an aside, it should be noted that the title "Knight" is purely fraternal and is not the equivalent of a sovereign accolade. Therefore Knights of Columbus do not rank with chevaliers and commanders of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, the Order of Malta, the Order of St. Gregory the Great, or members of any other historic military or chivalric orders.
The degrees held by members of the knights correspond to their level of initiation into the Order. Further, as the association’s charter reflects the values of Charity, Unity, Fraternity, and Patriotism, each degree is affiliated with a particular principle. For example, 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. To advance further, the member must participate in the appropriate ceremonies (which are dedicated to unity and fraternity, respectively). Upon reaching the third degree, an individual is considered a full member (with the authorization to attend all meetings and take part in all activities, except those restricted to members of the fourth degree).
Even these central principles were gradually developed alongside the overall ideology of the organization. For instance, the first ritual handbook was printed in 1885, but contained only sections focused on Unity and Charity. However, Supreme Knight Mullen, along with primary ritual author Daniel Colwell, believed that the initiation ceremony should be held in three sections, "in accord with the 'Trinity of Virtues, Charity, Unity, and Brotherly love.'" The third section, expounding Fraternity, was officially adopted in 1891.
The fourth degree, which is the highest degree obtainable by members of the order, is also the most recent development. The primary purpose of the fourth degree is to foster the spirit of patriotism and to encourage active Catholic citizenship. Fewer than 20 percent of knights join the fourth degree, which is optional. The need for a patriotic degree was first considered in 1886, and a special plea was made at the National Meeting of 1899. The first fourth degree exemplification followed in 1900 with 1,100 knights participating at the Lenox Lyceum in New York City.
Only fourth degree knights have the optional of purchasing the full regalia to join the assembly’s color corps. The color corps is the most visible arm of the knights and is often seen in parades and other local events wearing their colorful uniforms and other accoutrements. Official dress for the color corps is a black tuxedo, baldric, white gloves, cape, and naval chapeau. The colors on a fourth degree knight's cape and chapeau denote the office he holds within the degree.
Many early members of the knights were recent immigrants who often lived in unsanitary conditions and performed hazardous jobs for poor pay. Since its founding, a primary mission of the Knights of Columbus has been to protect families against the financial ruin caused by the death of the breadwinner. Despite the evolution of the group's mandate, the central concern with providing mutual-benefit insurance remains a prominent theme.
The original insurance system devised by McGivney gave a deceased knight's widow a $1,000 death benefit. This money was raised by tithing each member $1 upon the death of a brother, with the requisite payment decreasing when the number of knights grew beyond 1,000. Under this system, 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. If he remained sick after that the council to which he belonged regulated the sum of money given to him. At the time, $5 was nearly two-thirds of the pay a man in his 30s or 40s could expect to bring home each week.
Today, the order offers a modern, professional insurance operation with more than $60 billion of life insurance policies in force. Products include permanent and term life insurance, as well as annuities and long-term care insurance. As an insurance provider, the order found it necessary to become certified by the Insurance Marketplace Standards Association for ethical sales practices. Some critics argue that the tremendous profits enjoyed by the Knights of Columbus should contravene their status as a tax-exempt charity organization.
Charity is the foremost principle of the Knights of Columbus. In the 2005 fraternal year, the order gave $136 million directly to charity and performed over 63.2 million hours in voluntary service. Further, endowed funds of over $54 million supported a number of Church-related causes.
The knights have a tradition of supporting those with physical and developmental disabilities. More than $382 million has been given over the past three decades to groups and programs that support the intellectually and physically disabled. One of the largest recipients of funds in this area is the Special Olympics. In addition, the order's highest honor, the Gaudium et Spes Award, was given with its $100,000 honorarium to Jean Vanier, the founder of l'Arche, in 2005. L'Arche is a faith-based network that provides care, in a community setting, for people with severe developmental disabilities.
Days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 the order established the $1 million Heroes Fund. Immediate assistance was given to the families of all full-time professional law enforcement personnel, firefighters, and emergency medical workers who lost their lives in the rescue and recovery efforts. Similarly, more than $10 million has been raised for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts and dispersed to the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the dioceses of Lafayette, Louisiana, Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, Lake Charles, Louisiana, Biloxi, Mississippi, and Beaumont, Texas. The order also donated more than $500,000 to the tsunami relief efforts (in 2004) and $50,000 to help victims of Typhoon Durian in the Philippines (2006).
United in Charity, a general, unrestricted endowment fund, was introduced at the 2004 Supreme Council meeting to support and ensure the overall long-term charitable and philanthropic goals of the order. The fund is wholly managed, maintained and operated by Knights of Columbus Charities, Inc., a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. Before United in Charity was formed, all requests for funds were met with the general funds of the order or in combination with specific appeals. As requests from the various constituents aligned with the mission of the order often far exceeded the funds available, it is hoped that eventually United in Charity's earnings will be sufficient to completely fund the order's charitable priorities.
At the second Supreme Council meeting on May 12 1883, Supreme Knight James T. Mullen introduced the emblem of the order. It consists of a shield mounted upon a Formée cross. The Formée cross, with its arms expanding at the ends, is an artistic representation of the cross of Christ and the shield is a symbol of the ideals of medieval knighthood. Mounted on the shield is a fasces with an anchor and a short sword crossed behind it. The fasces is a symbol of authority while the anchor is the mariner's symbol for Columbus. The sword, like the shield it is mounted on, also symbolizes the chivalry and honor of the knights of yesteryear. Each knight receives the emblem as a lapel pin.
Three elements form the emblem of the fourth degree. A dove floats over a globe showing the Western Hemisphere, the "New World" that Columbus is credited with discovering. Both are mounted on the Isabella cross, a variation of the Maltese cross that was often found on the tunics and capes of the crusading knights who fought in the Holy Land.
Spiritually, the emblem symbolizes the three persons of God. The globe represents God the Father, Creator of the Universe, the cross is symbolic of God the Son, who they believe redeemed mankind by dying on the cross, and the dove represents God the Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier of Humanity. The colors of the emblem—the red cross, white dove, and blue earth—are the colors of the United States flag, where the order was founded. The elements serve as a reminder that the principle of the degree is patriotism but also that the order is thoroughly Catholic.
Over and above their overtly religious and charitable activities, the Knights of Columbus also have a storied history of political campaigning for faith-based causes.
In 1954, lobbying by the order helped convince the U.S. Congress to add the phrase "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance. President Dwight Eisenhower wrote to (then) Supreme Knight Luke E. Hart thanking the knights for their "part in the movement to have the words 'under God' added to our Pledge of Allegiance." Similar lobbying convinced many state legislatures to adopt October 12 as Columbus Day and led to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's confirmation of Columbus Day as a federal holiday in 1937.
While the Knights of Columbus support political awareness and activity, councils within the United States are prohibited by tax laws from engaging in candidate endorsement and partisan political activity due to their non-profit status. Public policy activity is limited to issue-specific campaigns, typically dealing with Catholic family and lifestyle issues. Nevertheless, President George H. W. Bush appeared at the annual convention during the election year of 1992 and President George W. Bush sent videotaped messages before he attended in person at the 2004 election year convention.
In the United States, the Knights of Columbus often follows the lead of the Vatican in adopting socially conservative positions on public issues. For instance, they have adopted resolutions advocating a Culture of Life, defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and protecting religious expression in public schools, government, and voluntary organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America. The order also funded a postcard campaign in 2005 in an attempt to stop the Canadian parliament from legalizing same-sex marriage.
However, the political involvement of the knights is not restricted to religious issues or issues of sexual/relationship ethics. On April 9, 2006, the Board of Directors commented on the "U.S. immigration policy [which] has become an intensely debated and divisive issue on both sides of the border between the U.S. and Mexico." They called "upon the President and the U.S. Congress to agree upon immigration legislation that not only gains control over the process of immigration, but also rejects any effort to criminalize those who provide humanitarian assistance to undocumented immigrants, and provides these immigrants an avenue by which they can emerge from the shadows of society and seek legal residency and citizenship in the U.S."
The Knights of Columbus invite the head of state of every country they operate in to the Supreme Convention each year. In 1971, U.S. President Richard Nixon gave the keynote address at the States Dinner; Secretary of Transportation and Knight John Volpe was responsible for this first appearance of a U.S. president at a Supreme Council gathering. President Ronald Reagan spoke at the Centennial Convention in 1982.
John F. Kennedy, the only Catholic to be elected president of the United States, was a fourth degree member of Bunker Hill Council No. 62 and Bishop Cheverus General Assembly. Supreme Knight Luke E. Hart visited Kennedy at the White House on Columbus Day, 1961. The president told Hart that his younger brother, Ted Kennedy, had received "his Third Degree in our Order three weeks before." Hart presented Kennedy with a poster of the American flag with the story of how the order got the words "under God" inserted in the Pledge of Allegiance.
In 1959, Fidel Castro sent an aide to represent him at a fourth degree banquet in honor of the Golden Jubilee of the order's entry into Cuba. Supreme Knight Hart attended a banquet in the Cuban prime minister's honor in April of that year sponsored by the Overseas Press Club and later sent him a letter expressing regret that they were not able to meet in person.
Some local councils of the Knights of Columbus were accused of being racist during the early half of the twentieth century. While nothing prohibited black men from joining and the membership application did not ask what race the candidate was, black men were sometimes turned down. Once these unofficial tendencies were publicly acknowledged, some councils were overtly racially integrated, and all others faced increasing pressure from Church officials and organizations to change their applicant review system, to the extent that Supreme Knight Luke E. Hart began actively encouraging councils to accept black candidates by the end of the 1950s. In 1963, Hart attended a special meeting at the White House hosted by President Kennedy to discuss civil rights with other religious leaders. A few months later, a Notre Dame alumnus' application was rejected because he was black. Six council officers resigned in protest and the incident made national news. Hart then declared that the process for membership would be revised at the next Supreme Convention, but died before he could see it take place.
The 1964 Supreme Convention was scheduled to be held at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans. A few days before the convention, new Supreme Knight John W. McDevitt learned the hotel only admitted white guests and immediately threatened to move to another hotel. The hotel changed its policy and so did the order. The convention amended the admissions rule to require one-third of those voting to reject a new member and in 1972 the Supreme Convention again amended its rules to require a majority of members voting to reject a candidate.
At present, critiques continue to be aimed at the knights for allegedly discriminatory practices. Some public colleges refuse to recognize Knights of Columbus Councils as official student organizations because they consider the male-only membership policy to be discriminatory. The Supreme Council issues charters to qualifying groups despite the lack of official college recognition and interested students often work to circumvent the anti-discrimination policies. Clubs named the "Friends of the Knights of Columbus" are open to all students and they then sponsor meeting space for the council. Still other college councils apply for recognition as an on-campus fraternity or fraternal organization, and are made subject to the same rules and regulations that apply to all-male fraternities and similar groups.
In 2005, a local Knights of Columbus council in Canada was fined $2,000 by the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal for refusing to rent their hall to lesbians Tracey Smith and Deborah Chymyshynto. The council's hall manager signed a contract with the women but canceled it after they became aware that it was for a same-sex wedding reception. The two women claimed they were unaware that the facility was affiliated with the Catholic Church. The local council responded that the hall is on the same compound as a parish church and there were Catholic symbols, such as a picture of the pope and a crucifix, inside. The tribunal ruled the council was within its rights to refuse to rent it based on their religious convictions, but fined them "for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect" of the women.
The Knights of Columbus is a member of the International Alliance of Catholic Knights, which includes 15 fraternal orders, such as the Knights of Saint Columbanus in Ireland, the Knights of Saint Columba in the United Kingdom, the Knights of Peter Claver in the United States, the Knights of the Southern Cross in Australia and New Zealand, and the Knights of St. Mulumba in Nigeria.
Many councils also have women's auxiliaries. However, the Supreme Council does not charter them and they may adopt any name they choose. At the turn of the twentieth century, two women's councils were formed and each took the name the Daughters of Isabella. 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 continue to have structures independent of the Knights of Columbus.
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