Founded by Father Michael J. McGivney, curate at St. Mary’s Parish in New Haven, Connecticut, the Knights of Columbus was chartered on March 29, 1882, in the State of Connecticut.
As the Priest explained to a small group of men at a meeting in the basement of St. Mary’s Church in October 1881, his purpose in calling them together was manifold: to help Catholic men remain steadfast in their faith through mutual encouragement, to promote closer ties of fraternity among them; and to set up an elementary system of insurance so that the widows and children of members in the group who might die would not find themselves in dire financial straits.
The founder and first Officers of the fledgling organization chose the name “Knights of Columbus” because they felt that, as a Catholic group, it should relate to Christopher Columbus, the Catholic discoverer of America. This would emphasize that it was a Catholic who discovered, explored, and colonized the North American continent. At the same time “Knights” would signify that the membership embodied knightly ideals of spirituality and service to Church, country and fellowman.
By the end of 1897 the Order was thoroughly rooted in New England, along the upper Atlantic seaboard and into Canada. Within the next eight years it branched out from Quebec to California, and from Florida to Washington.
From such promising beginnings Father McGivney’s original group has blossomed into an international society of over 1.7 million Catholic men in nearly 14,000 councils who have dedicated themselves to the ideals of Columbianism: Charity, Unity, Fraternity, and Patriotism.
Today members of the Order are found in the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Philipines, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Panama, Poland, Cuba, Guam, the Virgin Islands, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas. They belong to many races and speak many different languages. They are diverse, yet they are one. Their diversity spells creativity; their unity spells strength.
The Knights’ creativity is manifested in numerous programs and projects directed to the benefit of their fellowman. Their strength assures that these programs are operated effectively and brought to positive conclusions.
After assuming leadership of the Order in January 1977 as Supreme Knight, Virgil C. Dechant embarked on a series of significant projects designed to strengthen Columbianism, the Church, the family and each individual knight.
One of his first moves was to place his stewardship under the patronage and protection of Our Lady, and he formalized this dedication during a pilgrimage to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. soon after he took office.
As a further concrete sign of his devotion to the Blessed Virgin under her title, “Our Lady of the Rosary”, he implemented a plan to present a special “Knights of Columbus Rosary” to each new member enrolled in the society. These have been distributed at the rate of 10,000 per month since the program began.
The “Pilgrim Virgin Marian Hour of Prayer” programs undertaken every two years have attracted millions of participants to prayer services sponsored by councils in honor of Our Lady under several of her titles.
His other initiatives have gone far toward strengthening the Order as it confronts the increasing secularism of our modern age. He has renewed the Knights´ pledge of loyalty and fidelity to the magisterium and to the hierarchy of the Church in the countries where the Order exists. He also has renewed the society’s commitment to the pro-life activities of the U.S. and Canadian bishops through periodic grants of $150,000 and $20,000 respectively, made by the Order to support the bishops’ pro-life programs.
Among other, the Supreme Knight formulated a program to maintain the involvement of the widows and children of deceased members in the activities of the Order. A resolution passed at the 95th annual meeting of the Supreme Council in August 1977 calls for the establishment of a committee in every unit of the Order which shall be responsible for keeping contact with widows and dependent children of deceased members. These children will remain eligible for all educational benefits, such as student loans and all the society’s fellowships and trusts.
Upon receipt of notice that a member has died, the Supreme Knight sends a letter of condolence to the widow or next of kin, informing them first of all that their loved one has been enrolled in a Mass offered at St. Mary’s Church, birthplace of the Order, one every day throughout the year. Upon request, the widow´s name is added to the list for COLUMBIA magazine. State and local councils are encouraged to do the same for their publications. They are also called on to extend to widows and their families any scholarship or loan programs they may conduct.
A renewed emphasis on family life seeks to involve the member’s wife and children in his commitment to the life of Catholic knighthood. Their support for his promise to be a staunch Catholic layman is essential if it is to be effective and long lasting. The Order’s Service Program has been revised to permit more participation by the wives and children of members and also to enable greater identification on their part with the Order. The wives now can wear the Order’s emblem in the form of jewelry and children can wear it in badge form.
A family life director has been added to the “Surge with Service” program. His responsibility is to assure that a number of activities and projects is directed specifically to the family and that families are encouraged to take part in them.
A major sign of the Order’s active concern for the future of the Church and the spread of the Gospel is the establishment of the Supreme Council Vocations Program, now operating in all jurisdictions and already showing promise of success in helping turn around the decline in the number of candidates to the priestly and religious life.
The Knights of Columbus have a long and enviable tradition of aid to Catholic education. As early as 1904 the Order endowed a chair in American history at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. and later provided an endowment of $500,000 for graduate fellowships there which still reaps benefits today. The million dollar „Father Michael J. McGivney Memorial Fund for New Initiatives in Catholic Education“ established in 1980 is devoted to fostering improvements through research and development.
“Don’t keep the Faith-spread it!” long has been a guiding principle of the Knights of Columbus. Almost $1 million is budgeted annually by the Order for various projects of the Catholic Advertising Program.
The Knights of Columbus funded the construction of the campanile or Knights’ Tower at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. The bells for the tower were donated by the Order as well. In keeping with the commitment to Our Lady’s Shrine, the Order established the “Luke E. Hart Memorial Fund” in 1979 in the amount of $500,000. Earnings are used to promote Marian devotion and to preserve the beauty of the basilica in perpetuity.
And it was the leadership of the Knights which finally succeeded in having the words “under God” inserted in the Pledge of Allegiance to the American Flag.