In order to understand how and why the Knights of Columbus was formed, we need to know something about the man whose inspiration it was to form the organization. And, we need to know something about the economic, social and cultural conditions that existed at that time.
Let us look for a moment at the life of the founder, Father Michael J. McGivney. Father McGivney was born in Waterbury Connecticut on August 12, 1852. His father was an Irish Immigrant in the mid-1800 who found work in a brass mill. You can imagine the noxious fumes and heat to which the workers were subjected. His mother gave birth to 13 children, and six died in infancy or childhood. So Michael, the first child, with four living sisters and two brothers learned early about the sorrow of poverty and the pain of death. Then, after the Civil War, he left school at the age of 13 and went to work in the spoon-making factory of the brass mill. His work provided a few dollars for the family survival. At age 16 he left the factory with priesthood on his mind and entered college and then into the seminary. In 1873 his father died and he returned home to help the family. He also lacked the funds to continue in the seminary. He later was able to return to the seminary and was ordained on December 22, 1877.
Those times and conditions were hard. The European immigrants were entering the United States with no money and limited skills. They congregated in large towns and housing was difficult to find just like it was difficult to get a job, any job much less a job that paid a living wage. In the winter, children wore rags tied around their feet for shoes. Sanitary conditions were deplorable. Disease was rampant and illness was a common occurrence. Death brought as much relief as it did grief. The Protestants controlled the northeast wealth and the good jobs went to their friends. Catholics were forced to take the low paying, dangerous, and dirty jobs. Men routinely lost their lives. To make it more difficult on the families, Protestants owned the life insurance companies and they refused to sell life insurance to Catholics. When a man died, his widow and his children struggled for their very existence. There was a welfare program but the Protestants operated it. It consisted mainly of wealthy protestant women who would go to the homes of the poor families and read to them from “Poor Richard’s Almanac” and talk to them about the virtue of abstinence from all things, frugal living (as if they did not know what that was), and proper care of the living quarters. It was these women who then determined whether or not the poor would receive any assistance. It turned out that very few were given any assistance.
As a priest, Father McGivney saw all of this. He wanted something more for these people. It was during that time that fraternal brotherhoods began to flourish. Fraternal societies were formed around some common interest. The fraternal society attributed with being the first society was the Lodge for Railroad Master Mechanics. The workers could not afford the high cost of life insurance, so they formed their own protection society. Each man contributed a dollar into the insurance fund. When he died, his widow was given $2000. Then they started the process again.
Father McGivney envisioned a similar brotherhood that would provide the much needed financial assistance for those families who suffered the loss of the breadwinner. But he also envisioned a brotherhood for the Catholic men that would help raise their self esteem, learn the way of virtue, goodness, and generous service, help them band together for the common good, to provide for the widows and orphans. It would be a place where men could gather together in a wholesome environment without fear of ridicule and reprisals. It would be a way of helping the parish and supporting the church. Father McGivney wanted all the qualities that the early fraternal society provided, and more.
After many months of working to understand how the fraternal societies were forming, he brought together nine men in the basement of St. Mary’s Church is New Haven, Connecticut in 1882. There the concept was presented and it very quickly was embraced as being a wonderful opportunity for the men, the families, and the Church. The organization was formed. However, it took ten years for the organization to obtain their charter granted in January of 1893. With the issuance of the charter the Knights of Columbus was well on its way to achieve the dream and GOD inspired goal of Father McGivney.
How the early members of our order and Father McGivney decided upon a name is a story in itself. Father McGivney collaborated with the men in his parish to determine a name with meaning.
Christopher Columbus was chosen as patron of the new group because of his role as an evangelizer and “Catholic” discoverer. The “Sons of Columbus” was considered. But the men who formed the nucleus of the first local council wanted the ideal of Christian manhood, the nobility of a life of honesty and selfless service in the name of the fraternal society to which they were pledging themselves.
The image of the medieval knight was commonly used among those early brotherhoods in the 1800’s, and those first men who gathered in the basement of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Connecticut expressed their desire to Father McGivney for such an image to their organization. Those men felt that a knight had qualities that they wanted to evoke. The knight candidate’s all-night vigil of prayer before his knighting, expressed the challenge of a life of honor, chivalry and loyalty to one sovereign. The knight was not to be a dreamer, but a man of action committed to the ideal of Christian virtue. He was always to be ready to defend the honor of God and country. When faced with decisions and choices, the knights of medieval times strove for the more noble and excellent path, even when it was physically and morally challenging.
The first Knights of Columbus accepted the lore of Christian knighthood as a model for their own vocation to Christian holiness in the modern world. Even the Knight’s devotion to his wife was seen as a symbol of devotion to Mary, the Mother of God. This tender love for Mary has since been a part of the spirit of the Knights of Columbus.
Father McGivney recognized the wisdom of the opinions of the men gathered about him and the title “Knights of Columbus” was agreed upon.
The Knights of Columbus is a Catholic men's fraternal benefit society that was formed to render financial aid and support to members and their families. Mutual aid and assistance are offered to sick, disabled, 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, energy and service to communities worldwide.
The Knights of Columbus has grown from several members in one council in New Haven Connecticut to more than 12,000 councils and 1.7 million members throughout the United States, Canada, the Philippines, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama, the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, Guatemala, Poland and Guam.
Listed here are just a few of the many benefits and accomplishments of the Knights of Columbus. Following 9/11 the Knights of Columbus were one of the first organization to provide assistance to the families who lost a loved one as result of the catastrophe. This assistance was to all families and not just our Catholic brethren. Following Hurricane Katrina the Knights of Columbus raised $1.4 to aid families devastated by the storm. This same effort was done for the families of Hurricane Ike. Should a Knight serving in the armed services, the police departments, the firefighters or EMT be killed while on active duty the Knights of Columbus provides the children of the fallen Knight a full scholarship to any Catholic University in the United States. Currently the Knights of Columbus have designated a “Culture of Life” fund with over $5.1 in assets to support the Church’s position on Pro-Life, same sex marriage, the importance of the family unit.
Knights of Columbus believe in four basic principles: Charity, Unity, Fraternalism, and Patriotism. Charity is our most important principle. The Knights takes these principles to heart and makes every effort to address as many charitable needs as possible by contributing funds to charitable causes or by providing manpower to support our fellow man. Each council provides a vast array of charitable support to our members, the parish and its ministries, our community, and the Catholic Church. First, and foremost, we are here to support and serve our priest, deacons and seminarians. That is why when the clergy requests help, we show up in full force so they can continue to rely on the Knights as their strong right arm. We also firmly believe in the value of service to the community, as we provide our time, talents and treasures to many worthy causes.
What you get out of the Knights of Columbus is directly related to how active you are in your council. The are many opportunities to serve your family, your Brother Knights, your parish, your community and the world through the Knights of Columbus. Make a commitment now to give back to our Creator a portion of the Time, Talents and Treasures that He has so generously give to you. You won’t regret it.