Answering a need
In early fall of 1881, a group of men gathered on a foggy night in New Haven, Connecticut. Catholic men from St. Mary’s Parish had been summoned by their priest, Michael J. McGivney, to discuss the founding of an organization. At this time in history, Irish-American Catholics were harshly discriminated against. They were banned from most labor unions, fraternal organizations, and disallowed by their own church from joining the Freemasons. At this point in history, organizations like those mentioned above had huge memberships and were very influential in their communities. There was no such thing as medicare, social security, or any sort of social safety net. So, these organizations stepped in and helped their members in times of crisis.
McGivney knew the need for support first-hand. He had to withdraw from seminary school for a time when his father died to return home and help support his widowed mother and younger siblings. If his father had been a member of a fraternal organization, their family would have received monetary aid. McGivney was determined to create a group for his fellow American-Catholics to help foster fellowship and insure that families would be cared for after the primary income earner passed away.
Looking for inspiration
McGivney knew of several other Catholic brotherhoods in New England, and he set out to visit and learn from them. He visited the Massachusetts Catholic Order of Foresters in Boston. They had insurance benefits for members, and McGivney attempted to bring a chapter of the Foresters to New Haven. Unfortunately, their charter did not allow chapters to be formed outside of the state. McGivney travelled on. He discovered the recently founded Catholic Benevolent League in Brooklyn, New York. They offered insurance benefits, but McGivney thought they lacked the excitement that spurs rapid membership growth to compete with existing, popular secret societies. He returned to his parish in New Haven, determined to found a wholly original organization.
And so, in the Fall of 1881, that group of men gathered in New Haven, Connecticut to discuss the foundation of this new society. On March 29th of the following year, in accordance with the laws of the state, the Knights of Columbus was established. They used Christopher Columbus, a catholic Spaniard who worked for a Catholic government, as their namesake. It was a slight rebuff to the Anglo-Protestant leaders of the day who upheld the mariner as a symbol of American exploration and heroism, while simultaneously and actively trying to marginalize Catholics. McGivney originally wanted to name the organization the Sons of Columbus, but others thought that “Knights” would better describe the ritual and attitude they wanted to promote.
Onward and upward
The order grew quickly. By 1889, there were 40,000 members in over 300 councils. Ten years later, there were 230,000 members in over 1,300 councils. The Knights of Columbus had successfully insured thousands of otherwise overlooked and discriminated people. Their rise to prominence was not without challenge or controversy, but they had achieved the goal incepted by Michael J. McGivney. Today, the Knights of Columbus are less focused on monetary benefits for their members and more focused on community service, fellowship, promoting catholic education, and charity. Currently, the Knights of Columbus have over 1.8 million members.