Category: Archive

120 years ago: Knights of Columbus founded

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Edward T. O’Donnell

One hundred-twenty years ago this week, on March 29, 1882, the Order of the Knights of Columbus received its charter from the state of Connecticut. At that moment, the Knights was more of an idea than an organization. It boasted only one chapter — New Haven — and only a few dozen members. Despite these humble origins, the Knights of Columbus grew rapidly, eventually becoming the largest Catholic fraternal order in the United States and a major influence in the lives of millions of Irish Americans.

The idea to found a private society for Roman Catholic men was the inspiration of an Irish-American priest named Michael J. McGivney. Born in Waterbury, Conn., in 1852 to Irish immigrant parents, he was the oldest of seven children (plus six more who died in infancy). At age 13 he dropped out of school and followed his father into the booming metalworking factories of Waterbury. Three years later, he began to study for the priesthood and was ordained in 1877.

McGivney was assigned to St. Mary’s parish in New Haven — the city’s only Catholic church. He quickly earned a reputation as an activist priest, deeply committed to helping the poor and to building up the strength of the church. He soon hit upon the idea of establishing a Catholic fraternal order that would promote both charity and faith. After some preliminary meetings at St. Mary’s in the fall of 1881 with men interested in the idea, the Knights of Columbus held its first official meeting on Feb. 7, 1882. Seven weeks later, it received its charter from the State of Connecticut.

The Knights had several goals as indicated in its principles “Unity,” “Charity,” “Fraternity,” and “Patriotism.” First, as a fraternal society it was designed to provide assistance to needy members and their families. They established an insurance fund to pay for funeral of a deceased member and provide his family with short-term financial support. Eventually this charitable mission evolved to include providing help to the poor of the wider community.

Second, the Knights were intended to provide Catholic men with a Catholic alternative to the many fraternal societies like the Masons then very popular in America. Leaders of the Catholic church in America had grown increasingly concerned that these fraternal groups posed a threat to the faith of Catholics. Many were likewise concerned about the growing numbers of Catholics joining labor unions, especially the Knights of Labor, which in the 1880s espoused a radical, quasi-socialist ideology.

Follow us on social media

Keep up to date with the latest news with The Irish Echo

Third, the Knights as an organization was dedicated both to defending Catholicism from its attackers and championing the belief that American democracy and Catholicism were uniquely compatible. Anti-Catholic nativism was on the rise once again in the 1880s and ’90s, most evidently in the form of the American Protective Association (established 1889). Tellingly, the group’s name was chosen in honor of Christopher Columbus, a figure who was both an American hero and a Catholic. It indicated in a very explicit way the desire to provide their members with a Catholic equivalent to the Puritans’ Plymouth Rock.

This multi-faceted appeal made the Knights of Columbus immensely popular among the clergy and laity. McGivney traveled the state to spread the word about the movement and encourage the formation of new chapters. By 1886 there were 31 councils in the state.

McGivney died in 1890 of pneumonia at the young age of 38. His funeral in Waterbury, Conn., was one of the biggest in the city’s history. Dozens of priests and delegations from the 57 Knights of Columbus councils across the country attended the funeral that was presided over by the bishop of Hartford. Countless civic leaders also attended. It was a measure of both how beloved McGivney had become in his brief life and how large and influential his Knights of Columbus had become in just eight years.

The Knights experienced rapid growth in the 1890s, fueled by a combination of rising patriotism spurred by the Spanish-American War, enthusiasm generated by the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World, and anti-Catholic bigotry as promoted by the American Protective Association.

By 1905 the organization had chapters in every state. Its profile rose dramatically as a result of its voluntary work and fund-raising during World War I. The Order set up centers that provided hospitality and assistance to soldiers in the U.S. and abroad. It repeated this effort on a larger scale in World War II. During the Cold War the Knights of Columbus played a major role in spreading anti-Communism through literature, advertisements, and speeches. In a related initiative, the Order led the successful drive to add the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954.

Although the Knights of Columbus became more diverse in its membership in the 20th century as Italians and other Catholics joined its ranks, the Irish-American connection begun with McGivney remained strong. James T. Mullen became the Order’s first Supreme Knight in 1886 and was followed by a long line of Irish Americans, including John T. Phelan, James E. Hayes, John J. Cone, Edward L. Hearn, James A. Flaherty, Martin Carmody, and Francis P. Matthews.

Like so many aspects of the Catholic Church in America, the Knights of Columbus experienced significant loss of membership and influence after 1960. Still, for the faithful membership — currently 1.6 million in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and several other countries — the ideals of the fraternal order remain as relevant as ever. They see themselves as the guardians of a church undergoing attacks from a hostile secular society and internal strife due to clerical scandals and declining rates of mass attendance. Moreover, the Knights of Columbus continues its mission of charitable work. In 2001 its members raised $105 million and contributed 50 million hours of volunteer service for charitable causes.

Not surprisingly, the Knights are also active in promoting the cause of Fr. McGivney for canonization.


March 30, 1955: Grace Kelly wins an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in “The Country Girl.”

April 2, 1914: Cumann na nBan, an Irish women’s republican organization, is founded.


March 28, 1879: Nationalist martyr Terence MacSwiney is born in Cork.

March 28, 1944: NBA star Rick Barry is born in Elizabeth, N.J.

March 30, 1880: Writer Sean O’Casey is born in Dublin.

Read about Ed O’Donnell’s new book, “1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History,” or contact him at www.EdwardTODonnell.com.

Other Articles You Might Like

Sign up to our Daily Newsletter

Click to access the login or register cheese