It was about 4 a.m. one morning about six weeks ago that I woke up and discovered there was a question just penetrating there – what is a Knight?
I got to ponder this for about two or three hours since I waited for the alarm to go off. My high school history teacher, Carlos DeZafra, stressed that an understanding of the history of our country was fundamental to an understanding of our country as it is today. About a year later in another class with a different teacher, I was told that by taking that idea just a step further, as you mature, the influences of your parents, your grandparents as well as other family members contributed to who you are, what your believe, your personality, your preferences and so on. The extended community that you grew up in also influenced who you are. It could be said that you are the sum total of all that you have experienced.
This could be either way. For instance, years ago, there was a popular song entitled “I Want a Gal Just Like the Gal That Married Dear Old Dad.” Well, for many of us, that could be truer than we care to admit. Or, conversely, my dad was a Yankee fan, and I learned to root for everybody or anybody who the Yankees were playing.
The same could be said of an organization. In the extreme, our political parties spend millions telling us about their past heroes, bringing up the names of Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln as if those names alone are the answers to the problems that our country faces and are cause enough for us to follow the party leadership instead of listening to their positions on today’s issues.
We all have a general concept of what a Knight of Columbus should be, and we all strive to personify that concept. As Knights, we share four basic principals. Two are what we display outwardly – charity and patriotism. The other two – unity and fraternity – are focused more toward our place in the organization itself. All four have their formative roots in the world of the latter half of the 19th century.
We all know the basic beginnings of our Order. The fact that it was incorporated in 1882 is known by all of us. That it was organized to support the needs of the members of St. Mary’s parish is also indisputable. But those two facts are results of what had happened and what was happening before and what was happening when the Knights were organized. And we all know that what was once a result can easily and quickly become a cause.
The United States of the late 1800s was significantly different in many ways from today. The potato famine in Ireland in the late 1850s resulted in an influx of Irish into the nation. Many were uneducated and illiterate, as British law oppressed the Irish people as well as the Catholic Church. The oppression of the church had started during the reign of King Henry VIII. Parliament established the Anglican Church as the state religion, and those who did not accept the official church were discriminated against, at times to the extreme. Many of our early colonists came to the New World to escape religious persecution throughout Europe. However, when they established their colony, they neglected to extend that religious freedom, the freedom they sought from others.
In 1634, the colony of Maryland was founded by Charles Calvert, then known as Lord Baltimore. The colony was established for Roman Catholics fleeing the persecution of Great Britain. But by the time of the Revolutionary War, only the state of Pennsylvania was a safe haven for Catholics. In fact, to attend or celebrate Mass in Maryland was a capital offense. The first amendment to our Constitution bans the government from establishing a state religion such as existed in Great Britain with the Anglican Church.
Those who wrote that amendment and those who approved it knew exactly what those words meant. Yet today, we have serious disagreements as to how the first amendment is to be enforced. Now, although freedom of religion was the law of the land, acceptance of the law was slow to become a reality. The Irish, and especially Irish Catholics, were considered at best to be second class. Many organizations had rules which forbade those of Irish descent or members of the Catholic Church from membership, employment or participation.
Now, I have heard that the name of our organization was discussed with several alternatives suggested. During the Civil War, the Sarsfield Guards were recognized as a fighting unit from Connecticut composed of Catholic men. After the war, the unit was disbanded by the state legislature; they feared an armed group of Catholic men. Attempts to reform the unit as a men’s social or fraternal organization later failed. One of our founding members was a member of the Sarsfield Guards. Another Civil War Catholic unit known as the Red Knights met a similar fate.
Now, I believe that the founding of the Knights took more than the few months usually attributed to it. I have read that meetings were held at various times during the fall of 1881. And I believe that Fr. McGivney spoke with individuals and small groups to feel out the level of interest and had discussed the need for an organization to meet the various needs of the parish families before calling for an organization meeting in January of 1882.
One result of that meeting was a trip by Fr. McGivney to Boston to meet with a group known as the Massachusetts Catholic Order of Foresters. Although the Foresters were willing to support a similar group in Connecticut, they were not interested in expanding their organization beyond Massachusetts. Returning to New Haven, Fr. McGivney expressed concern that the insurance provisions of the Foresters did not really meet the needs of his parish. However, the idea of the Foresters was so appealing that the group selected the name Connecticut Order of Foresters. However, it proved that the name was unsuitable and confusing.
Now, names are important. Not only do they identify the subject, they should say something positive about its purpose, its functions, goals and objectives. The name should be easily remembered. Some names are stronger than others, and strength can be especially important.
When it came to replacing the Foresters name, Fr. McGivney suggested the Sons of Columbus. It was Mr. James Mullen, our first Supreme Knight and a man familiar with the importance of brand names, who suggested Knights instead of Sons as an alternative. The change was accepted unanimously.
The expansion of the Knights was amazing. The organization obviously filled a need in the Catholic community. Within a few weeks of its incorporation, 11 new members were admitted. A rite of initiation was an integral part of all fraternal organizations of the day. And one of the first orders of business was to form an acceptance initiation rite. The initiation rite included three phases, which today correspond to the three degrees of our order.
The first council, San Salvador No. 1, was formed at St. Mary’s and is still active today. Expansion was met with some resistance to the Order, but the Order had a constitution and rules and initiation rite, which was reviewed by the bishop in Connecticut and received his approval. Within a very few years, the Knights had 48 councils in Connecticut. Expansion out of state actually was the result of a disaster. The installation of a council in Stonington, Conn., had to moved across the state line to Westerly, R.I., when the hall in Stonington burned to the ground. In a few months, there were 11 councils in Rhode Island.
To counter further resistance, the Knights presented the constitution rules and initiation rite to Archbishop Satolli, an apostolic delegate to the United States. After reviewing the documents, he granted official and public recognition by the Holy See to the Knights. With this recognition, expansion across the United States and eventually internationally was assured.
Now, the basic precepts of the organization remain unchanged since Fr. McGivney addressed that first meeting in January of 1882 – charity, unity and fraternity. The Knights were formed to meet the needs of the parish and the parishioners. The insurance program has taken the place of the original tithing upon the death of a member. The organization recognizes that parish needs vary and, thus, each council is free within the constitution and rules to form programs that meet the specific needs of the community they serve. And Supreme also recognizes that some needs are common to all parishes, and some exceed the ability of any single council.
Today, the Knights still have the same mission as when they were founded in 1882. An organization of Catholic men founded on a common faith to meet the needs of the family, parish and community. How we carry out our mission has changed to meet today’s needs, but those needs still exist.