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History of The Knights of Columbus: Founding and Early Growth

Late-19th century Connecticut was marked by the growing prevalence of fraternal benefit societies, hostility toward Catholic immigrants and dangerous working conditions in factories that left many families fatherless. Recognizing a vital, practical need in his community, Father Michael J. McGivney, the 29-year-old assistant pastor of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn., gathered a group of men at his parish on Oct. 2, 1881. He proposed establishing a lay organization, the goal of which would be to prevent Catholic men from entering secret societies whose membership was antithetical to Church teaching, to unite men of Catholic faith and to provide for the families of deceased members.

As a symbol that allegiance to their country did not conflict with allegiance to their faith, the organization’s members took as their patron Christopher Columbus — recognized as a Catholic and celebrated as the discoverer of America. Thanks to Father McGivney’s persistence, the Knights of Columbus elected officers in February 1882 and officially assumed corporate status on March 29.

In addition to the Order’s stated benefits, Catholic men were drawn to the Knights because of its emphasis on serving one’s Church, community and family with virtue. Writing in The Columbiad in 1898, a year before he was elected supreme knight, Edward L. Hearn wrote that a Knight should live according to the virtues of loyalty, charity, courtesy and modesty, as well as “self-denial and careful respect for the feelings of others.” Fraternity and patriotism were added to the Knights’ founding principles of charity and unity in 1885 and 1900, respectively.

  • 1882: The Knights of Columbus is born on Feb. 6, 1882, when the first members choose Columbus as their patron. Immediately after the Order’s March 29 incorporation, Father McGivney sends the first diocesan-wide appeal for new members to his fellow priests.

  • 1886: By the end of his four-year tenure as supreme knight, James T. Mullen personally presides at the institution of 22 of the first 38 councils. John J. Phelan is elected to succeed him and is the first supreme knight to sense the Order’s destiny as a national society.

  • 1890: Father McGivney dies Aug. 14, 1890. His funeral Mass is celebrated in Thomaston, Conn., four days later.

  • 1892: The Order passes laws allowing non-insurance or associate members to join.

  • 1892: 6,000 Knights march in the New Haven Columbus Day parade to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World.

  • 1895: The Vatican’s first acknowledgment of the Knights comes when Archbishop Francesco Satolli, apostolic delegate to the United States, writes a letter extolling the “merits of this splendid Catholic organization” and giving the Order his apostolic blessing.

  • 1897: On Nov. 25, 1897, Canada’s first council — Montreal Council 284 — is chartered.


Along with the addition of “patriotism” to the Knights’ principles came the first Fourth Degree exemplification, which took place Feb. 22, 1900, in New York City, with 1,100 Knights participating. A similar event took place in Boston in May with another 750 candidates taking the patriotic degree.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the fledgling Order was growing dramatically. Councils had been chartered throughout the United States and Canada, and international expansion continued to Mexico and the Philippines in 1905, along with Cuba and Panama in 1909.

The Knights also turned their attention to college campuses, and in more ways than one. In 1904, more than 10,000 Knights and their families attended ceremonies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., in which the Order presented the school with a grant for more than $55,000. The funds, used to establish a K of C chair of American history, began a long history of support for CUA. In addition, students at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana soon organized their own K of C council. Chartered in 1910, Notre Dame Council 1477 was the Order’s first college council, launching a subset of the Knights that today includes councils at 244 schools worldwide.

  • 1900: The first exemplification of the Fourth Degree takes place on Feb. 22, 1900, in New York City; 1,100 Knights receive the degree. The following May, another 750 Knights take the degree in Boston.

  • 1904: More than 10,000 Knights and their families attend ceremonies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., in which a check for $55,633.79 is presented to the school for the establishment of a K of C chair of American history. From 1909 to 1913, Knights raise $500,000 to establish a permanent endowment for CUA.

  • 1905: The first council in the Philippines — Manila Council 1000 — is chartered by U.S. citizens after the Spanish-American War. The same year, the Order expanded to Mexico, establishing Guadalupe Council 1050 in Mexico City.

  • 1909: U.S. workers in the Canal Zone institute Balboa Council 1371 in Panama City. A degree team from Mobile, Ala., then visits Cuba and institutes San Agustin Council 1390 in Havana.

  • 1909: A reported 5,000 Knights meet James A. Flaherty’s train in Philadelphia in 1909 when he arrives at the annual convention where he is elected supreme knight.


A group of Knights of Columbus secretaries are pictured outside of a K of C Hut at Camp Zachary Taylor in Kentucky in 1918.
Knights of Columbus secretaries outside of a K of C Hut at Camp Zachary Taylor in Kentucky in 1918.

As membership in the Knights of Columbus grew, the Order became increasingly known as a force for public good. Following the dedication ceremony for the Christopher Columbus Memorial Fountain in Washington, D.C., in 1912, a reporter for The Washington Star noted that the large number of Knights in attendance “marked anew the important position of the Knights of Columbus as an order in the social fabric of the United States.”

In response to growing anti-Catholic hostility and the rise of socialism, two Knights, David Goldstein and Peter W. Collins, embarked on an extensive, 27,000-mile lecture tour throughout North America in 1914. Later that same year, the Order established the K of C Commission on Religious Prejudice. The commission’s work concluded in 1917, when the United States entered World War I.

During the Great War, the Order provided rest and recreational facilities and social services to Allied servicemen of all faiths. K of C Huts throughout the United States and Europe provided religious services, supplies and recreation under the motto, “Everybody Welcome, Everything Free.”

Everybody meant everybody. Whatever your race or creed, you were welcome at K of C facilities. In fact, the Order was praised by a contemporary African American historian of World War I, because “unlike the other social welfare organizations operating in the war, it never drew the color line.”

As a result of the Order’s wartime work, which earned high praise from Pope Benedict XV, nearly 400,000 men joined the Knights between 1917 and 1923.

  • 1910: Notre Dame Council 1477 is chartered in the spring of 1910, becoming the first of nearly 250 college councils worldwide.

  • 1912: With support from the Knights, the Christopher Columbus Memorial Fountain is dedicated in Washington, D.C. Some 20,000 Knights attend the ceremonies, which are overseen by President William H. Taft.

  • 1914: Tens of thousands of copies of a “bogus oath” are circulated to defame the Knights of Columbus. The Knights, in turn, lay the groundwork for a lecture series and educational programs to combat anti-Catholic hostility. Between 1914 and 1917, the number of anti-Catholic publications drops from 60 to fewer than five.

  • 1916: When National Guardsmen are sent to the U.S.-Mexico border to prevent Mexican Gen. Francisco “Pancho” Villa from raiding towns in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas, K of C councils in those states spontaneously respond to the religious and social needs of troops serving there.

  • 1917: When the United States enters World War I, Supreme Knight Flaherty writes President Woodrow Wilson telling him that the Order plans to establish centers to provide for the troops’ “recreational and spiritual comfort.” The Knights’ services, he says, will be offered “regardless of creed.”

  • 1917: By the summer of 1917, the Order opens service centers, or “K of C Huts,” in training camps and behind the lines of battle. The Knights and independent fund drives raise nearly $30 million to finance the huts.


Father McGivney

To habitually anticipate the needs of others is a sign of true Christian charity. To spend one's life alleviating the sufferings of others and bringing joy to one's neighbor brings witness to the reality of Christ's love in one's mind and heart. This is the pattern of service and ministry we discover in Father McGivney as we plot the events of his daily life.

Father McGivney seems to have never failed in his interest and concern for others, even at the expense of his own health and well being. We can rejoice in the example he provides of remaining united to Christ in the Mass, prayer and sacrifice without removing himself from the realities of life that so preoccupied the members of his flock.

There was in Father McGivney a balance between the human and divine. His ability to mourn with those in sorrow and to spread joy and support to those in need of joy and encouragement, typified his priestly disposition. Every one of us, cleric or lay, married or single, needs to achieve such a balance and integrate it into our own lives.

God hears our prayers for help, and he listens to the powerful intercession of his friends, the saints. Let us learn to invoke the intercession of this holy, humble and very human parish priest for our conversion and growth in spiritual life.


Mosaic in the chapel at the Knights of Columbus Supreme Council office in New Haven, Conn.
Mosaic in the K of C Supreme Council Office Chapel.

Father McGivney was not one to stint when it came to celebrating. Whether preparing for the great feasts of the liturgical year or civic and religious holidays, Father McGivney was energetic and creative, working behind the scenes so that such events would bear spiritual fruit and provide good wholesome fun.

Father McGivney often served as master of ceremonies for liturgical celebrations throughout the diocese, a role that required a sense of reverence and attention to detail. The beauty of the Easter decorations at St. Mary’s Church was reported in the secular press, and the Holy Thursday repository was judged exquisite by many.

With an Irish name, and ministering to a largely Irish immigrant congregation, Father McGivney placed considerable emphasis on the annual celebration of St. Patrick's Day. Dramatic presentations and musical revues in the local rented hall required plenty of foresight in providing sets and costumes, or simply rehearsing the performers. Father McGivney was in the thick of all these activities.

St. Mary’s annual fair was an event that ran several days, and Father McGivney was always concocting new ways to entertain the parishioners, especially the young men and women who were the special object of his priestly love and concern. On one occasion he went all the way to New York to get just the right costumes and props. Another time, at the parish picnic, he insisted that there should be enough hired horses so the young, who were anxious for a horse and buggy ride, would not have to wait too long in line.

McGivney carried this priestly love and concern with him wherever he went, touching the hearts of many along the way.


Research has revealed that Father McGivney always put his priestly work of celebrating the Mass and the sacraments, of ministering directly to his people, before everything else. His abundant charity flowed from his daily Mass, his personal prayer and frequent confession.

His concern to be a good confessor for his people was brought to light recently when Father Biagio Cretella, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn., presented Father Gabriel B. O’Donnell, vice postulator, with a special book that had been on his bookshelf for years. The book was St. Alphonsus Liguori’s Guide for Confessors and it had once belonged to Father McGivney! This discovery was exciting because St. Alphonsus Liguori is a Doctor of the Church, and by knowing that his renowned and helpful guide was used by Father McGivney gives us more insight into the prominence that McGivney placed on confession and its heavenly graces.

In 1875, two years before his ordination, McGivney inscribed his name on the inside front cover. After his death, the book passed into the hands of his younger brother Patrick, also a priest. Where had the book been for more than 100 years? We simply don't know. What we do know is that the book was a standard work that formed the piety of 18th and 19th century Catholic priests. The discovery of this book offers insight into the quality of his ministry as a confessor of souls.

St. Alphonsus taught the importance of frequent confession in developing an intimate relationship with God. Like Father McGivney, St. Alphonsus, had a profound sense of the horror of sin and possibility of eternal damnation. The short life expectancy of the time created an atmosphere of urgency in preparing for death.

Father McGivney's priestly mission was primarily spiritual. Even his works of charity, particularly his monumental task of establishing the Knights of Columbus, had as their source and goal a life of eternal communion with God. Father McGivney was extremely focused on building a better world, and even though he did so mightily through his concern for the widow and orphan and the moral well-being of young Catholics, his primary concern was to prepare his people for the next world, heaven.


There was in Father McGivney some spark, some magnetism, which drew the young to him. He was at ease with little children and lost some of his natural reserve and formality with them. But it was to the young adults of his day that he was given a particular mission. Father McGivney was bonded to the young men and women of his flock in a mutual admiration and respect that endured even after his death in 1890. He was relatively young himself, only 25, when he began his first priestly assignment at St. Mary's Church in New Haven, Conn., and so, he understood their aspirations as well as their struggles and temptations.

"Apostle" means "one who is sent." Father McGivney was sent by God to the young people of his time to lead them along a secure path to Christian adulthood. In an age experiencing the growing despair and violence of teenagers and young adults, it is imperative that we look to models such as Father McGivney to learn the art of drawing the youth of our society to a life of moral excellence and the nobility of Christian service of God and neighbor. No stranger to adversity, Father McGivney is an apostle to those who struggle to find meaning and purpose in life. He is a heavenly patron for young men and women of the third millennium.


Sent to serve the young of his flock, Father McGivney in turn “sent” the young men under his guidance and direction into the world to become good husbands and fathers, true knights for God and country.

His work with the young was but a steppingstone to the formation of strong Catholic families. His dedication to the ideal of Christian manhood, expressed so clearly in the founding of the Knights of Columbus, was never allowed to obscure his ultimate goal of protecting the good of the entire family unit. Just a couple of years after the Order was established, he began to limit his involvement in the Knights, so as to be available to his whole flock.

Though focused on the task at hand, he never lost sight of his ultimate purpose: to care for and strengthen Christian families.

In a sense, the founding of the Knights of Columbus was a means rather than an end; a means to strengthen husbands and fathers so that they could, in turn, strengthen their families in the faith and secure their material well-being.

Father McGivney also regarded politics as a means to build a better society and protect the Christian family life. An example of this regard can be seen below in an excerpt from one of Father McGivney’s sermons, which was recorded by the New Haven Observer in 1884.

“My friends, the political campaign is rapidly drawing to a close and the time has come to decide which of the numerous presidential candidates shall receive your vote. In casting your ballots you should look well to the responsibilities under which every citizen of this free government is placed. Let not the soft or alluring words of tricky politicians, or the seductive dollar turn you a hair's breadth from your lawful path. Vote not as other men dictate, but rather like men with the interest of your country at heart. Vote according to the dictates of your own consciences.”


Father McGivney was a very selfless shepherd, always attentive to his flock. Whether it was listening to a family’s hopes and aspirations for education or job security or whether it was listening to stories of disappointment or betrayal in love, he heard and advised them to the best of his ability. And those who came to him burdened with fear and guilt. He encouraged.

Just 10 months after his ordination, Father McGivney expressed the toll of such a heavy workload in a letter to a former seminary professor: “I have not had time for even one day’s vacation since I left St. Mary’s [Seminary] and was obliged to be at my post alone while Father Murphy was away. So pardon me the delay.”

His spirituality flowed from his priestly identity and the primary work of bringing Christ to his people in the sacraments. His example of being ever ready to listen, advise and console, stirred the idealism and generosity of his young parishioners to imitate his virtue in their own lives and in their proper vocation.

The uniqueness of Father McGivney’s spirituality of pastoral action lies less in its piety, which was typical of the age and religious climate, and more in the fact that he fostered collaboration between priests and laymen in addressing the serious issues Catholics faced in the second half of the 19th century. This spirit of cooperation and a certain sense of equality must be considered a unique aspect of Father McGivney’s pastoral action.

While always considered a man of exemplary virtue, Father McGivney was still always approachable. He was loved by his people, particularly his young parishioners, whose souls he so carefully nurtured and formed. Add to the mix his other activities such as visiting the sick, instructing the children in catechism and the herculean task of founding the Knights of Columbus, and one can well understand why he had little stamina to fight off the tuberculosis which finally carried him off from this world.

All in all, McGivney accomplished an extraordinary amount in his short 38 years and was an admirable and hardworking pastor of souls.


Father McGivney’s earliest surviving letter shows that he could bear a heavy load. “I have been alone all summer with the whole work of a parish on my shoulders,” he wrote in October 1878 to Father Alphonse Magnien, a favorite professor at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, where he had graduated the previous year. Father McGivney was referring to his first assignment — at St. Mary’s Church, a New Haven parish struggling with a $165,000 debt (approximately $3.8 million today, adjusted for inflation) and an ill pastor. “I have not had time for even one day’s vacation since I left,” he added.

The young curate was not the kind of priest who believed his ministry ended with the Mass. He walked fast but spoke slowly, with perfect diction and the authority of faith, in a voice so clear and pleasant that an old blind man, not even Catholic himself, came to Mass each Sunday just to hear it. Father McGivney was — as William Geary, a founding member of the Knights, would later write — “a great favorite of the people, and was particularly intimate with the energetic pushing go-ahead young men.”

His ministry didn’t end with his parish either. He made regular pastoral rounds to the local jail, where his spiritual counsel was especially prized by James “Chip” Smith, a young man sentenced to death for killing a police chief. Five days before the execution date, Father McGivney celebrated a High Mass for Smith at the jail Aug. 28, 1882, after which he said, with his voice breaking: “I am requested by Mr. Smith to ask pardon for all faults he may have had and all offenses he may have committed, and at his request I ask for the prayers of all of you, that when next Friday comes he may die a holy death.”

As reported that day in the New Haven Daily Palladium, he then asked for prayers for everyone who would be present at the execution, himself included. “To me this duty comes with almost a crushing weight. If I could consistently with my duty be far away from here next Friday, I should escape perhaps the most trying ordeal of my life, but this sad duty is placed my way by providence and must be fulfilled.”


Father McGivney’s vision extended far beyond New Haven, too. “By permission of our Rt. Rev. Bishop, and in accordance with an Act of the Legislature of the State of Connecticut, we have formed an organization under the name of the Knights of Columbus,” he wrote in April 1882 to a long list of parish priests in Connecticut. He saw the fledgling Order as addressing a pressing need of the Catholic Church in America and concluded with an earnest request: “that you will exert your influence in the formation of a Council in your parish.”

Father McGivney was disappointed at the initial response. “Our beginning is extremely slow,” he wrote two months later to Michael Edmonds, secretary of another fraternal society, the Massachusetts Catholic Order of Foresters. “The Order I was endeavoring to establish fell back almost lifeless but not dead.”

After continuing to promote the Knights’ founding ideals of charity and unity, the young priest was encouraged when he heard from some men in Meriden, Conn., the following year. They had read about the Knights in The Pilot, Boston’s Catholic newspaper, and wanted to know how they could start a council of their own. Father McGivney replied quickly.

“I am glad to hear that the Meriden Catholic young men are not behind their age in looking for their own benefit,” he wrote to P.J. Ford on April 17, 1883. “You will see that when we are well established in the diocese, we can bid defiance to the secret societies and bring our fellow Catholics to enjoy without any danger to their faith all the benefits which those societies offer as inducements to enter them.”

In an Aug. 25, 1883, letter to the editor of The Connecticut Catholic, he wrote, “We are advancing slowly, but surely.”

Eleven councils would be established by November 1884, when Father McGivney was named pastor of St. Thomas Church in Thomaston.

“I have been with you for seven long years, visiting your sick and guiding the steps of your children in the paths in which they should go,” he said in his farewell homily on Nov. 10. “Wherever I go, the memory of the people of St. Mary’s and their great kindness to me will always be uppermost in my heart.”

Parishioners wept openly in the pews. “Never, it seemed, was a congregation so affected by the parting address of a clergyman as the great audience which filled St. Mary’s yesterday,” the New Haven Evening Register reported. “There was never a more energetic or hardworking young priest stationed in New Haven than he.”


At his new parish, Father McGivney established the 18th K of C council in April 1885, at a time when councils were forming at a rate of two per month.

In May, he crafted one of the most eloquent of his extant letters, which was a sharp defense of the Order against doubters. When a priest writing anonymously to The Connecticut Catholic questioned whether the Knights of Columbus was itself just the kind of “secret society” the Church proscribed, Father McGivney sent a tart reply.

Not only was the Order categorically not a secret society, he wrote, but: “The constitution and by-laws of the Knights of Columbus contain nothing collusive to the rules of the Church. Although but a few years organized, the Order has effected incalculable good in many households.”

Just a few weeks before Father McGivney wrote that letter, the Knights had paid out their first death benefit; and just a few weeks after he wrote it, he rode in a carriage at the head of a line of 1,500 Knights who paraded through downtown New Haven. He no longer served as the supreme secretary but remained the Order’s supreme chaplain, and its spiritual heart. The last piece of writing we have from his hand is a postcard sent to William Geary in February 1886, announcing an upcoming visit back to New Haven.

“[W]ill try to find you all information I can regarding K of C,” he wrote.

When Father McGivney died Aug. 14, 1890, at age 38, his survivors included 6,000 members of the Order that started in the basement of St. Mary’s Church Oct. 2, 1881.

“[W]hen we look back at the gathering of the sixteen members on that fateful Sunday afternoon,” Geary, who was among those 16, later wrote, “we can fully realize in their action the hand of Divine Providence.”

Father McGivney’s name, Geary concluded, “is written upon the heart of every true Knight of Columbus, and his name will be revered for generations to come.”

KEVIN COYNE is an award-winning writer and professor at the Columbia School of Journalism. He lives in Freehold, N.J., with his family.


Father McGivney’s letter to Connecticut priests, typed on Supreme Council letterhead with the words “Unity and Charity” visible on the seal, was written shortly after the Order was officially incorporated in 1882. - Knights of Columbus Supreme Council Archives

Father McGivney on the Knights of Columbus:

In the 13 surviving documents written by Venerable Michael McGivney, there are numerous references to the Knights of Columbus and its founding mission. Here are four excerpts of Father McGivney’s writing about the Order.

“Our primary object is to prevent people from entering Secret Societies, by offering the same, if not better, advantages to our members. Secondly, to unite the men of our Faith throughout the diocese of Hartford, that we may thereby gain strength to aid each other in time of sickness; to provide for decent burial, and to render pecuniary assistance to the families of deceased members.” — To Connecticut parish priests, April 1882

“You ask what is the membership. We only number about a hundred yet. The reason of this small number for the time established is that I have met with great opposition from the Foresters — a very strong organization in this state, especially among our young men — and again because anything new is always a hard thing to maintain.” — To Martin I.J. Griffin of Philadelphia, Feb. 12, 1883

“We have set the wheel in motion, and with willing cooperation in a work that tends so much to our own welfare, we venture to say that soon, very soon, the Order of the Knights of Columbus will hold a prominent place among the best Catholic cooperative corporations in the Union. … ‘Unity and Charity’ is our motto. Unity in order to gain strength to be charitable to each other in benevolence whilst we live and in bestowing financial aid to those whom we have to mourn our loss.” — Letter to The Connecticut Catholic, Aug. 25, 1883

“The Order of the Knights of Columbus is the same now as when first instituted. viz.: It is an Order composed of Catholics and instituted for the welfare of Catholic families. … Not only in sickness, but when death takes the support of the family away, the Knights of Columbus comes to the relief of the widow and the orphan in a very substantial manner.” — Letter in response to “Clericus” in The Connecticut Catholic, May 30, 1885

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