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 Irish immigrant and 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 gained an international reputation for its war and disaster relief during World War I and World War II as a result of the Knight of Columbus’ many patriotic fundraisers in local communities. This enabled them to send aid and support to both Allied soldiers and civilian communities abroad. Today, the Knights of Columbus is the world’s largest Catholic fraternal service organization, with 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, it has evolved into a global fraternal benefit society dedicated to providing charitable services, defending Catholicism in various nations, and promoting Catholic education.
Well over a century after its founding, the Knights of Columbus remains headquartered in New Haven. The Knights of Columbus Tower, which was built in 1969 to house the organization’s international headquarters as well as a museum, stands 328 feet tall and is the third-tallest building in the Elm City.
“Our History,” Knights of Columbus official website
“The History of the Knights of Columbus,” Knights of Columbus Stritch Assembly website