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Who Are the Knights of Columbus?

The Knights of Columbus is a Catholic fraternal organization dedicated to charitable works on behalf of their members and the world at large. There! Short article, right? Just kidding. Of course, there’s more to the story! The Knights of Columbus have been involved in some pretty large humanitarian efforts. You could even give them credit for creating an early version of insurance, though I’m sure that invention probably has some mixed reviews. Either way, the K of C, as they like to be called, tries their best to do good work for people around the world. But what are these good works? And how did they start?

The year was 1882, and Father Michael J. McGivney saw members of his parish suffering. Anti-Catholic sentiments were on the rise and poor factory conditions were leaving families without a breadwinner. You remember how factories in the 1800s and early 1900s were riddled with death. So the good Father McGivney decided to start an organization to set up a gathering place for new Catholic faces in the United States and set up funds to be distributed to families who have lost loved ones. This organization was called “Sons of Columbus,” and it was named after the infamous explorer, Christopher Columbus, in order to show other Americans that Catholics were just like them. 

A portrat of Michael Joseph McGivney
Michael Joseph McGivney via Connecticut

The name was eventually changed to “Knights of Columbus” a few months later so the group would sound more stately. And stately they sounded, even calling their leaders “Supreme Knights.” They even did acts of chivalry, with the early form of life insurance being extremely popular, especially during a time when most government support systems didn’t exist yet. Father McGivney died in 1890, but the Knights lived on and became stronger than ever, giving Catholic immigrants a place to commune and establish themselves in American society. By 1892, people could even join the organization without paying into the insurance pool, though they wouldn’t count as full members.

In 1895, The Vatican recognized the Knights of Columbus as a great Catholic organization, and the Vatican was correct because they were the only fraternal organization in the United States that allowed Black members. In 1897, the organization went international with their first Canadian council formed in Montreal. Soon charters began to pop up in Mexico, Cuba, the Philippines, and Panama. During World War I, the Knights established wellness centers all across Europe in order to provide soldiers with services. These centers ran under the slogan, “Everyone Welcome, Everything Free,” and the Knights of Columbus meant what they said. Soldiers, no matter their race or religion, were welcome to rest and heal in these centers.

As the organization grew, the need to expand clubhouses did as well. Many houses for the Knights were rather luxurious, but almost none as much as 1 Prospect Park West in New York City. The Columbus Council built the structure in 1925, and it featured many popular amenities like a pool, an auditorium, and a banquet hall. It even functioned as a hotel for members passing through town. The building was owned by the Knights of Columbus until the 1950’s when they began to operate out of The Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral. No matter what building they were in, they remained committed to helping their members and the population at large, even going toe to toe with the KKK.

The building facade of 1 Prospect Park West
1 Prospect Park West. RealtyHop

When WWII began, the Knights of Columbus were back at their war efforts, establishing centers for soldiers that would provide medical services and much-needed recreation. They also established a $1 million trust fund for families who had members die during the war. Afterward, they spent much of their time helping families who had suffered losses. While this kept them busy, they also were able to persuade the government to add “one nation under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, just for fun I guess.

Remember when we discussed how the Knights were the only fraternal organization in the US to allow Black members? Well, it wasn’t always a policy that was accepted by councils across the country. While leadership and the church always encouraged integration, the Supreme Knight, Luke E. Hart, even went to the White House to discuss the matter in 1963, local councils were less than accommodating. A few months after Hart’s White House visit, a man was rejected from a local chapter because he was Black, and this prompted Hart to demand revisions to the membership process. They did just that in 1964.

Afterward, it was business as usual for a while. The Knights kept doing charity work, funding education and global technologies that would help Catholics communicate on a global scale. In 1984, they even won a President’s Volunteer Action Award in a ceremony at the White House. In 1997, a charge was led to canonize founder Michael J. McGivney, which means he’d be a candidate for sainthood. 

To be fair, the Knights are not without their faults. They had to pay $500,000 in damages for breaking a contract, and they have recently been criticized for the high salaries their board members get paid. That said, they still try to do good work all throughout the world. They have provided aid to earthquake victims in Haiti, Hurricane victims after Sandy, and typhoon victims in the Philippines. Even today, they give money, time, and effort to communities that can’t speak for themselves.

So that’s the deal with the Knights of Columbus. They’re a Catholic fraternal organization. But they’re also so much more. They are philanthropists, builders, and advocates for those who are discriminated against all over the world. They came from a small church and expanded into an international, powerhouse organization within a matter of decades, helping soldiers, the displaced, and grieving families. They sought equality in a time when seeking it was dangerous, and they did it because they knew it was right. The Knights of Columbus will probably never stop doing good works, providing aid to those forgotten by the people in charge. They also built a pretty cool building near Prospect Park.

Russell is a writer and comic based in New York City. His plays have been featured at Penn State’s Cultural Conversation’s Festival, The NYC Thespis Festival, and Imaginarium’s Inaugural Theater Festival. Follow him on TikTok and Instagram @pooleparty528