Michael J. McGivney, an Irish-American Catholic priest, founded the Knights of Columbus in New Haven, Connecticut. He gathered a group of men from St. Mary's Parish for an organizational meeting on October 2, 1881. Several months later, the order was incorporated under the laws of the state of Connecticut on March 29, 1882. Although its first councils were all in Connecticut, the order spread throughout New England and the United States.
The order was intended to be a mutual benefit society. These organizations, which combined social aspects and ritual, were especially flourishing during the latter third of the nineteenth century. As a parish priest in an immigrant community, McGivney saw what could happen to a family when the main income earner died. This was before most government support programs were established. He wanted to provide insurance to care for the widows and orphans left behind. In his own life, he temporarily had to suspend his seminary studies to care for his family after his father died.
Because of religious and ethnic discrimination, Roman Catholics in the late 19th century were regularly excluded from labor unions, popular fraternal organizations, and other organized groups that provided such social services. Papal encyclicals issued by the Holy See prohibited Catholics from participating as lodge members within Freemasonry. McGivney intended to create an alternative organization.
The original insurance system devised by McGivney gave a deceased Knight's widow a $1,000 death benefit. Each member was assessed $1 upon a death, and when the number of Knights grew beyond 1,000, the assessment decreased according to the rate of increase. Each member, regardless of age, was assessed equally. As a result, younger, healthier members could expect to pay more over the course of their lifetimes than those men who joined when they were older. There was also a Sick Benefit Deposit for members who fell ill and could not work. Each sick Knight was entitled to draw up to $5 a week for 13 weeks (roughly equivalent to $125.75 in 2009 dollars). If he remained sick after that, the council to which he belonged determined the sum of money given to him.
From the earliest days of the order, members wanted to create a form of hierarchy and recognition for senior members. As early as 1886, Supreme Knight James T. Mullen had proposed a patriotic degree with its own symbolic dress. About 1,400 members attended the first exemplification of the Fourth Degree at the Lenox Lyceum in New York on February 22, 1900.
Early 20th century
To prove that good Catholics could also be good Americans, during World War I the Knights supported the war effort and the troops. It was hoped that this would help mitigate some of the American anti-Catholicism. Supreme Knight James A. Flaherty proposed to US President Woodrow Wilson that the order establish soldiers' welfare centers in the US and abroad. The organization already had experience, having provided similar services to troops encamped on the Mexican border during Pershing's expedition of 1916. With the slogan "Everyone Welcome, Everything Free," the "huts" became recreation/service centers for doughboys regardless of race or religion. They were staffed by "secretaries", commonly referred to as "Caseys" (for K of C) who were generally men above the age of military service. The centers provided basic amenities not readily available, such as stationery, hot baths, and religious services. After the war, the Knights became involved in education, occupational training, and employment programs for the returning troops. As a result of this,
the Order was infused with the self-confidence that it could respond with organizational skill and with social and political power to any need of Church and society. In this sense, the K. of C. reflected the passage of American Catholicism from an immigrant Church to a well-established and respected religious denomination which had proven its patriotic loyalty in the acid test of the Great War.
During the nadir of American race relations, a bogus oath was circulated claiming that Fourth Degree Knights swore to exterminate Freemasons and Protestants. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which was growing into a newly powerful force through the 1920s, spread the bogus oath far and wide as part of their contemporary campaign against Catholics. Numerous state councils and the Supreme Council believed publication would stop if the KKK were assessed fines or punished by jail time assessed and began suing distributors for libel. As a result, the KKK ended its publication of the false oath. As the order did not wish to appear motivated by a "vengeful spirit", it asked for leniency from judges when sentencing offenders.
See him through – Help us to help the boys
After World War I, many native-born Americans had a revival of concerns about assimilation of immigrants and worries about "foreign" values; they wanted public schools to teach children to be American. Numerous states drafted laws designed to use schools to promote a common American culture, and in 1922, the voters of Oregon passed the Oregon Compulsory Education Act. The law was primarily aimed at eliminating parochial schools, including Catholic schools. The Compulsory Education Act required almost all children in Oregon between eight and sixteen years of age to attend public school by 1926. Roger Nash Baldwin, an associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union and a personal friend of then-Supreme Advocate and future Supreme Knight Luke E. Hart, offered to join forces with the order to challenge the law. The Knights of Columbus pledged an immediate $10,000 to fight the law and any additional funds necessary to defeat it. The case became known as Pierce v. Society of Sisters and in a unanimous decision, the Court held that the act was unconstitutional and that parents, not the state, had the authority to educate children as they thought best.
Postwar social unrest was also related to the difficulties of absorbing the veterans from the war in the job market. Competition among groups for work heightened tensions. In the 1920s there was growing anti-Semitism in the United States related to economic competition and the fears of social change from decades of changed immigration, a lingering anti-German sentiment left over from World War I, and anti-black violence erupted in numerous locations as well. To combat the animus targeted at racial and religious minorities, including Catholics, the order formed a historical commission which published a series of books on their contributions, among other activities. The "Knights of Columbus Racial Contributions Series" of books included three titles: The Gift of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois, The Jews in the Making of America by George Cohen, and The Germans in the Making of America by Frederick Schrader.
Today, according to Massimo Faggioli, the Knights of Columbus are "'an extreme version' of a post–Vatican II phenomenon, the rise of discrete lay groups that have become centers of power themselves." As the order and its charitable works grew, so did its prominence within the church. The Supreme Board of Directors was invited to hold their April meeting at the Vatican in 1978, and the board and their wives were received by Pope Paul VI. Pope John Paul I's first audience with a layman was with Supreme Knight Dechant, and Pope John Paul II met with Dechant three days after his installation.
John Paul traveled to the Dominican Republic and Mexico in 1978 and Dechant was invited to attend and welcome the Pope to the Americas. During the pope's 1979 visit to the United States, the Supreme Officers and Board were the only lay organization to receive an audience.
In 1997, the cause for McGivney's canonization was opened in the Archdiocese of Hartford. It was placed before the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in 2000. The Father Michael J. McGivney Guild was formed in 1997 to promote his cause, and it currently has more than 140,000 members. Membership in the Knights of Columbus does not automatically make one a member of the guild, nor is membership restricted to Knights; members must elect to join. On March 15, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI approved a decree recognizing McGivney's "heroic virtue," significantly advancing the priest's process toward sainthood. McGivney may now be referred to as the "Venerable Servant of God." If the cause is successful, he would be the first priest born in the United States to be canonized as a saint.