Pushing Boundaries – A History of the Knights of Columbus

Father Michael J. McGivney
Over the course of its history, the Knights of Columbus has been an unstoppable force for good in the Church and society.Learn how a handful of immigrant Catholic men, led by one visionary priest, Father Michael J. McGivney, seized the spirit of their times to found an organization whose appeal is timeless because its goals are for all eternity.

by Kevin Coyne

At each crossroads, each hamlet, each farm town it passed on its way south through Nebraska, the festive campaign train was met by curious onlookers straining for a glimpse of the man who hoped to be the next president of the United States.

They sat in their Model Ts as it sped past them into the next cornfield. They waved from station platforms when it stopped long enough for Al Smith to step out and doff his signature brown derby.

Al Smith

In Fairbury, 800 of them cheered as a band struck up “The Sidewalks of New York,” a song about a place few of them had ever seen. A local banker welcomed the governor from the East, predicting a “tidal wave” of votes six weeks hence.

Kansas, reliably Republican Kansas, greeted the Democratic nominee with even bigger crowds as the train sped south through the sun-baked afternoon: more than 1,000 at Belleville and Clay Center, 4,000 at Manhattan. At nightfall the train reached Topeka, home of the vice-presidential nominee on the opposing ticket. Spectators climbed the sides of the campaign car and Governor Smith walked back and forth across the platform in the ghostly light of white flares, swinging his derby and shaking every hand he could reach.

On days like this, it was easy to believe that he might actually win. The voters of a largely Protestant nation might set aside fear and prejudice and elect a Catholic to lead them.

About the Author
Kevin Coyne is the author of numerous magazine articles and books including Domers: A Year at Notre Dame (Penguin, 1996) and Marching Home: To War and Back with the Men of One American Town (Viking Penguin, 2003).He is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and a columnist for the New Jersey edition of the Sunday New York Times. Coyne is working on a new  history of the Knights of Columbus.

The train left Topeka and sped through the night toward Oklahoma. There, Smith was scheduled to deliver a major speech meant to show the farmers of the nation’s vast midsection that a man from the teeming streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan could understand their problems.

It was in the last hours before dawn, after the train had crossed the state line and Smith was asleep, that some of the passengers looked out the windows and noticed a light in the distance — a cross burning in a field, a poisonous welcome from a group that was particularly active in Oklahoma, the Ku Klux Klan

President Herbert Hoover dedicated a statue honoring Cardinal James Gibbons, one of the first U.S. churchmen to endorse the Order,in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 14, 1932. The date marked the 42nd anniversary of Father McGivney’s death. Gibbons had ordained McGivney a priest in 1877.

More than 10,000 people packed the Oklahoma City Coliseum that evening. They heard a fiery Al Smith speak a truth he had previously left mostly unspoken — that he was running against not just Herbert Hoover, but against a “whispering campaign” of “bigotry, hatred, intolerance and un- American sectarian division.”

“I here and now drag them into the open and I denounce them as a treasonable attack upon the very foundations of American liberty,” he said about the Klan, which had attacked not just him, but the entire Catholic Church, as well as an organization to which he proudly belonged: the Knights of Columbus (Dr. John C. Coyle Council 163).

“Nothing could be so contradictory to our whole history,” Smith argued. “Nothing could be so false to the teachings of our divine Lord himself. The world knows no greater mockery than the use of the blazing cross, the cross upon which Christ died, as a symbol to instill into the hearts of men a hatred of their brethren while Christ preached and died for the love and brotherhood of man.”

He spoke without notes, his public voice unleashed, rising to a pitch that matched his private outrage. “Let me make myself perfectly clear: I do not want any Catholic in the United States of America to vote for me on the sixth of November because I am a Catholic,” he said to a wave of applause. “By the same token, I cannot refrain from saying that any person who votes against me simply because of my religion is not a real, pure, genuine American.”

The Coliseum filled with more applause, and it radiated out from Oklahoma City, taken up by American Catholics who were tired of having their patriotism questioned. “Win or lose, I think Smith’s campaign has done much for Catholicity by dragging ‘Old Man Intolerance’ out into the broad daylight where the public can have a good look at him,” wrote Luke Hart, who, as the Order’s supreme advocate, had been fighting his own battles in the same long war against anti-Catholic bias.

Hart was less certain, though, about Smith’s prospects in the election, in which the Knights remained officially neutral. “Much as I would love to see it, I cannot convince myself that he has a chance,” he wrote.

He was right. Smith won the big cities, with their large populations of immigrant Catholics, but got barely 40 percent of the total vote, losing even his own home state of New York. America in 1928, it seemed, just wasn’t ready for a Catholic president.

How to be Catholic in America — that was the theme which inspired and animated the organization that Father McGivney founded in the basement of St. Mary’s Church 125 years ago.

It was embodied in the name chosen by the 75 men at the first official meeting on a snowy February evening in New Haven. By calling themselves the “Knights of Columbus,” they were indelibly linking their church and their country, staking their own claim to the New World.

By invoking the name of the Italian explorer, they underlined a simple, stark, unassailable fact — that this predominantly Protestant nation might openly discriminate against Catholic immigrants and impugn their loyalty, might scurrilously defame the Church and the pope, might do everything it could to make Catholics feel unwelcome here, but it was in fact a nation that celebrated as its discoverer a Catholic.

And the Catholic descendants of Columbus, one charter member said, “were entitled to all rights and privileges due to such a discovery by one of our faith.”

By 1885, the Order had paid its first death benefit and accumulated enough members for a thousand Knights to parade through downtown New Haven, led by a carriage carrying Father McGivney. “The parade is a credit to the Irish race,” the former governor of Connecticut said as the marchers passed.

The Hartford Telegram agreed: “There are some narrowminded people living in New England yet who imagine that the Irish race are idle, slovenly and often vicious,” an editorial declared, but the parade proved that “the second generation in this country are intensely American in their instincts, and they are forging ahead to prominent positions in commerce, trade and in the professions.”

By the mid-1890s, the Order was spreading beyond Connecticut, and fighting back hard as the Nativist movement gained strength during a four-year economic depression.

“With true American patriotism,” wrote Thomas Cummings, editor of The Columbiad and the Order’s national organizer, “they demand from their members respect for manhood and liberty for the individual, particularly that liberty which is the essence of all liberty and which was first planted on this continent by Roman Catholics, viz: Freedom to worship God according to one’s conscience.”

When America went to war against Spain in 1898, the Catholic Church opposed it, but the Knights did what it regarded as its national duty and supported the war.

“[A]t the declaration of war all personal opinions as to the wisdom of such a course were forgotten” one state deputy reported, “and the Catholic people, imbued with the teachings of our Holy Church, to be always ready to sacrifice everything for our Faith and Country, offered themselves by the hundreds to fight and, if need be, to die in defense of our Country’s cause.”.

Some of the more traditionally minded bishops had initially been skeptical of the Order — believing that it leaned too close to America, and too far from Rome — but by 1905, there were councils in every state, and most of the clerical opposition had melted away.

And the Knights had spread beyond America by then as well, into most of Canada, all the way across the Pacific into the Philippines, and into Mexico, a presence that would take on particular importance after the revolution there, when the Catholic Church was often under attack by the government, and the Order was a powerful force of resistance.

The Knights of Columbus was part of the great Progressive debates of the era, pressing for the kinds of governmental reforms that were in tune with Catholic social teachings. And in June 1912, 20,000 of them came to Washington to mark their biggest public triumph yet, the dedication of a potent symbol of how far they, and their religion, had advanced: the Columbus Memorial near the Capitol.

In attendance was the whole official apparatus of the nation: President Taft, Supreme Court justices, Congress. The parade of Knights, Supreme Knight James A. Flaherty declared, represented “the flower and chivalry of Catholic manhood,” a spectacle that “would thrill and gladden the heart of any Christian man.”

Not the hearts of their enemies, though, the number of which grew again as anti-Catholicism swelled in the years before the First World War, a reaction to the great wave of immigration.

The Knights fought back with lecture tours, libel suits, even a Commission on Racial Prejudices. In one court case, a judge turned to a panel of Masons, who, investigating the Knights, declared that it “teaches a high and noble patriotism, instills a love of country, inculcates a reverence for law and order.”

When the U.S. entered the war in 1917, the Order entered, too, with the same patriotic fervor as those Red Knights from New Haven. By the time it ended, the K of C emblem on the khaki-uniformed arms of the secretaries at the Order’s network of recreation centers, clubs and welcome huts had evolved into a fond nickname: Casey.

“Everybody Welcome, Everything Free” was the motto of the Knights’ war effort, and it earned such goodwill that new members poured into the councils back home, more than 400,000 new Knights by 1923.

“God has so guided us that today we stand more powerful than ever and with ever-increasing power,” wrote Supreme Knight Flaherty, “acknowledged throughout the world as a force for good.”

Pope Benedict XV offered Mass in the Vatican gardens for a delegation of Knights visiting Europe in the 1920s. The Knights were honored in France and Italy for the Order’s assistance to soldiers during World War I.

The Order published the work of W.E.B. DuBois, America’s most prominent black intellectual, as part of its Racial Contribution series, which was designed to upend what it called “the theory that the bulk of the nation are ‘hyphenates’ who are not, and never can be, true to the United States.”

It urged the American government to take a tougher stand against a Mexican regime that was brutalizing Catholics. It successfully fought every outbreak of the compulsory education movement, a series of ballot measures, proposed laws and court cases aimed at requiring all children to attend public schools — what Flaherty called “a national movement to abolish the parochial school.”

And it claimed as its most famous member Babe Ruth, who joined Pere Marquette Council 271 in South Boston when he was still playing for the Red Sox.

On a summer afternoon in 1920, before the first pitch of a game between the New York Yankees and the Detroit Tigers, a cluster of Knights gathered at home plate at the Polo Grounds to present him with a diamond-studded watch fob in the shape of the K of C emblem. He hit his 25th home run in the fifth inning, into the upper tier of the rightfield stands, one of the previously unimaginable 54 he would hit that year.

And then Al Smith lost, and the Knights learned just how much more work they still had to do.

Pope John Paul II greets the Order’s officers and directors during a private audience  granted the Knights in 1993.

In 1960, the Democrats nominated another Catholic as their candidate for president: John F. Kennedy, a member of Bunker Hill Council 62 in Charlestown, Mass., and a Fourth Degree Knight. Hart was by then the supreme knight of an organization that had grown so much in stature and influence that its 75th anniversary in 1957 had been marked by a cover story in Life magazine.

Hart believed that Kennedy’s election “would do more to eliminate bigotry in this country than anything else that ever happened.”

Anti-Catholicism wore different masks than it did during Al Smith’s campaign, but Kennedy had his own Oklahoma City moment. His was in Houston, in a speech to a group of Protestant ministers. “I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” he told them. “I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church, and the Church does not speak for me,” he said.

He railed, too, as Smith had, about religious prejudice, and he outlined his belief in an America “that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish…and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”

But Kennedy won, and when Luke Hart visited the White House, the president greeted him by saying, “Hello, Chief” — a moment that showed just how far upward the Knights had helped to redefine the boundaries of what it meant to be both a Catholic and a real, pure, genuine American.

125 Years in Review –1980s

In 1981, the Order establishes the Vicarius Christi Fund, with annual earnings to be used for the pope’s personal charities. The first check for $1.2 million is conveyed to Vatican secretary of state, at the 1982 centennial convention, which is also attended by President Ronald Reagan.
The Knights establishes a $1 million Father Michael J. McGivney Fund for New Initiatives in Catholic Education to be administered by the National Catholic Educational Association. Annual proceeds are used to this day to finance programs that advance Catholic schools.
From 1981 to 1984, the K of C refurbishes St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, the birthplace of the Order. The renovations are capped with the placement of a 179-foot steeple atop the church.
On Dec. 8, 1981, the remains of Father Michael J. McGivney are disinterred from the McGivney


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