Late-19th century Connecticut was marked by the growing prevalence of fraternal benefit societies, hostility toward a recent influx of Catholic immigrants from Europe, and dangerous working conditions in factories that left many families fatherless. In response to these societal pressures, Father Michael J. McGivney, the 29-year-old assistant pastor of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Connecticut, gathered a group of men at his parish on Oct. 2, 1881. He proposed establishing an organization that would unite men of Catholic faith, provide for the families of deceased church members, and discourage Catholic men from entering secret societies whose membership was antithetical to church teachings.
The organization’s members selected Christopher Columbus as their patron — as a Catholic and celebrated as the discoverer of America, they considered him an ideal representative for a new fraternity that wanted to emphasize a distinctly Catholic brand of American patriotism. Dedicating themselves to the four precepts of Charity, Unity, Fraternity and Patriotism, the Knights of Columbus began electing officers in February and officially assumed corporate status on March 29, 1882.
The organization quickly gained an international reputation for its war and disaster relief during World War I and World War II, spearheading patriotic fundraisers in local communities and sending aid and support to both Allied soldiers and to civilian communities abroad. Today, the Knights of Columbus is the world’s largest Catholic fraternal service organization and has a membership of over 1.9 million men worldwide. Originally serving as a mutual benefit society to working class and immigrant Catholics in the United States (Father McGivney was an Irish immigrant himself), it has developed into a fraternal benefit society dedicated to providing charitable services, actively defending Catholicism in various nations, and promoting Catholic education.
Completed in 1969, the Knights of Columbus Tower, located in New Haven (the fraternity’s international headquarters, pictured at right) stands 328 feet tall and is the third-tallest building in the city.
“Our History,” Knights of Columbus official website
“The History of the Knights of Columbus,” Knights of Columbus Stritch Assembly website