Knights of Columbus

The Knights of Columbus was founded in 1882 in New Haven, Connecticut, as a fraternal, insurance, religious, and patriotic organization for Catholic men over 18. Young men aged 12-18 may join the Columbian Squires. Although the order is international, it is concentrated mostly in North and Central America. There were 1,495,251 members in 1994.
On March 29, 1882, a new fraternal insurance organization called the Knights of Columbus was chartered by the state of Connecticut, under the leadership of the 29-year-old curate of St. Mary’s Parish, Connecticut, Rev. Michael J. McGivney. The title was chosen over the alternative “Sons of Columbus.” The original intention was to provide a measure of security for widows and orphans of the parish. Since then, the Knights of Columbus has become the largest fraternal benefit society of Roman Catholic men in the world.
The charter defined four aims, as follows:
- Rendering pecuniary aid to its members and beneficiaries of its members
- Rendering mutual aid and assistance to its sick and disabled members
- Promoting such social and cultural intercourse as shall be desirable and proper
- Promoting and conducting educational, charitable, religious, social welfare, war relief, and welfare and public relief work.
The description often applied to the Knights of Columbus, “Catholic Masons,” is fairly accurate. Denied the opportunity to join the freemasons by papal edict, many Catholic men have used the Knights of Columbus in much the same way as their Protestant brethren have used the Masons. The fraternal assistance is as often unofficial as official, as Knights do business with friends whom they meet at the lodge.
A more important similarity between the Knights of Columbus and Freemasonry is that the Knights of Columbus lodges work a number of degrees. The first three, Admission, Formation and Knighthood, correspond more or less to the Entered Apprentice, Fellow-Craft, and Master Mason, and were introduced when the order was set up.
The fourth degree, corresponding to the Higher Degrees of Masonry, was introduced in 1900. Its theme is patriotism; its existence seems to have been inspired equally by a desire to dress up after the manner of other secret societies, and by an attempt to show that Catholics are not some sort of subversive heathen, but Americans much like any others. Initiates wear somewhat florid pseudo-military costumes, rather like those of a 19th-century U.S. Navy admiral.
In contrast to the Masons, Knights of Columbus members swear no oaths, as this would be contrary to the wishes of the Church. They do, however, agree not to divulge the “secrets” of the order. Another important difference between the Masons and the Knights of Columbus is that many people join the Knights of Columbus mainly for the insurance. This is one of the factors that accounts for the low attendance at many lodges, where 20 percent of the enrolled members would be regarded as a good turnout. There are no attendance requirements for a member who wishes to remain in good standing, unlike some other organizations. Those who cannot pass the physical examination necessary for health insurance, or who want to join only for social purposes, are admitted as Associate Members. They can then share in the considerable number of social, family, and athletic events organized by the Knights.
Like most Catholic organizations, the Knights’ faith tends to be sturdy. Virgil C. Dechant, the Supreme Knight, stated: “Knights of Columbus are very Church-oriented people. They don’t second guess the magisterium. But they do accept the challenge of the Second Vatican Council to be more active and involved in the Church.” This attitude means that members can devote their energies to practical works. They raise — and spend — a great deal of money to support and promote the Catholic Church. Some of their projects are temporal, such as the restoration of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, while others are more intimately connected with the spiritual: The Vicarius Christi fund of $10 million places its interest at the disposal of the Pope, and R.S.V.P. (the Refund Support Vocations Program) provides “moral and financial support to seminaries and postulants pursuing religious vocations.” Since 1948, The order has funded advertisements in a wide variety of periodicals, with the intention of interesting non-Catholics in the faith. Yet other projects are divided nicely between the spiritual and the temporal, as in the Vatican Microfilm Library at St. Louis University.
The Knights contributed the $1 million campanile at the National Shrine in Washington, D.C. and have promoted less spectacular forms of devotion, as in their campaign of giving away as many as 10,000 rosaries a month
In addition to raising money and support for the church, the Knights also supports a number of secular or community causes. Within a few years of the initial charter, the order contributed $50,000 toward a Chair of American History at the Catholic University of America, and in 1907 it raised half a million dollars toward scholarships at the same university.
During World War I it lived up to the promise embodied in their fourth head, by operating five Knights of Columbus huts in London and 45 in France. Many grateful servicemen joined the organization when they were demobilized and returned home. In World War II, the Knights of Columbus was less than pleased when the work that it regarded as its own was placed in the hands of the National Catholic Community Service by American Catholic Bishops.
More recently, the Knights of Columbus is noted for working to organize blood drives; running shelters for the homeless; delivering Meals on Wheels; and other good works — an aspect of the order that has become more important since about 1970, when the organization became less inward-looking under Virgil C. Dechant, the most influential Supreme Knight of recent times.
Some of recent K of C activities have been political, including support for the phrase “under God” in the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance, opposing Communism, and participating in such moral/political causes as fighting pornography and opposing the right to abortion.
Cheese Clubs
These were apparently social clubs for Knights of Columbus; the leader of the order was called the Head Cheese. It was probably a short-lived aberration.

International Order of Alhambra
This is the 'fun'-degree of the Knights of Columbus.

Daughters of Isabella
This is the women's auxiliary to the Knights of Columbus.