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Charity in a Time of War


by Cecilia Hadley

A century after the Armistice, the Knights’ work during World War I remains one of the Order’s greatest legacies

Joseph “Uncle Joe” Kernan, a K of C secretary from Utica

Joseph “Uncle Joe” Kernan, a K of C secretary from Utica, N.Y., gives chocolate to an injured refugee boy in Saint- Pierremont, France, Nov. 7, 1918. K of C Multimedia Archives/National Archives/Lieutenant R.W. Sears

The United States, after years of debate, mobilized for war in the spring of 1917. The Supreme Council had a momentous decision to make: Should the Order mobilize, too?

A year earlier, councils in New Mexico, Texas and Arizona had responded spontaneously to assist National Guardsmen sent to the U.S.-Mexico border. The Knights established recreation halls, which were open to all “regardless of creed or color,” and facilitated Mass for Catholic servicemen.

With the world at war, could the Order expand the program to a global scale? Some Council members thought it unwise to attempt, but support for the idea swelled at the grassroots level. Councils in Missouri and Vermont, for example, quickly raised thousands of dollars to open K of C recreation centers near local military installations. Canada had entered the war in 1914, and Canadian Knights were also raising funds to support troops.

So, in May 1917, Supreme Knight James A. Flaherty sent a letter to President Woodrow Wilson, proposing to establish centers “for the recreation and spiritual comfort” of servicemen. The proposal was readily accepted, and the Knights’ hut program became the flagship initiative of the K of C Committee on War Activities.

The Knights eventually established approximately 250 recreation centers in Europe, as well as 450 in the United States, each with the slogan: “Everybody Welcome, Everything Free.”


Doughboys gather in the reading room of the large K of C hut

Doughboys gather in the reading room of the large K of C hut in Dijon, France, circa 1918 Knights of Columbus Multimedia Archives/J.C. Hemment

Knights of Columbus recreation centers, or “huts,” took different forms, adapted to varying needs and means: spacious halls near stateside bases, hostels with hundreds of beds in New York City and Boston, rented space in European hotels, and tents or bombed-out buildings near the front.

Whatever form they took, the huts were meant to serve the whole man — body, mind and soul. A serviceman could find a warm drink or free cigarette and perhaps take a shower. To combat boredom, he might watch a movie, play cards, join a baseball game or even take a math class; to combat homesickness, he could write a letter on free stationery in front of the fireplace.

Catholics could find even deeper comfort in Mass and the sacraments.

William Almon Wolff, writing in Collier’s magazine in April 1919, described the atmosphere that set Knights of Columbus huts apart from other recreational facilities: “I have talked to a great many returning soldiers and marines, and they all say about the same thing. Those K.C. huts had personality — that’s about as close as you can come to defining it.”


The men who ran the Knights of Columbus huts — officially called “secretaries” and affectionately known as “KCs” or “Caseys” — were carefully chosen. Their work required the ingenuity and initiative to solve problems, the stamina to work long hours in often difficult conditions, and the charity to serve others cheerfully. For the hundreds of secretaries assisting at hospitals, it also required a strong stomach.

Most Caseys were past military age; the Order prided itself on not claiming service exemptions for its workers and valued the fatherly approach of relatively older men. Secretaries Joseph “Uncle Joe” Kernan and Frank “Pop” Bundschu were particularly beloved for their work bringing provisions and other comforts to the men on the front lines. Bundschu participated in the inaugural run of the first “roller kitchen,” an unwieldy contraption with nominal brakes.

Their work sometimes consisted of writing letters and finding priests for dying men. One secretary recalled consoling a soldier and feeding him chocolate as he was operated on without anesthetic.

All told, more than 1,000 Caseys assisted servicemen “over there,” while nearly 2,000 served the troops at home.


U.S. servicemen kneel during a Mass of Peace & Thanksgiving

U.S. servicemen kneel during a Mass of Peace and Thanksgiving celebrated at the K of C clubhouse at the Camp Sherman clubhouse in Chillicothe, Ohio, Nov. 28, 1918. Knights of Columbus Multimedia Archives

Father Joseph Quillien, a K of C chaplain, wrote from the French port of Brest in March 1918: “My hands are full from morning to night.” Hundreds of troops had contracted pneumonia on the crowded transport ships, and Quillien was busy offering consolation and last rites to scores of dying men.

With the military chaplain corps stretched thin, Quillien and other priests volunteered with the Knights to step into the breach. They celebrated Mass in trench dug-outs, heard confessions at all hours, and anointed the dying both in the hospital and on the field.

Father Osias Boucher, one of the first K of C chaplains to arrive in Europe, received the Croix de Guerre for his valor administering last sacraments amid a German barrage. Also heroic, if less dramatic, was the work of stateside chaplains by the beds of flu victims in the deadly epidemic that swept the world in 1918.

In all, approximately 100 priests served overseas as volunteer chaplains through the Knights, and scores more volunteered at U.S. camps.


Canada accounted for scarcely more than 5 percent of the Order’s 350,000 members during World War I, but Canadian Knights accomplished much.

As a member of the British Commonwealth, Canada entered the war more than two years before the United States. Canadian Knights began by opening halls as social centers for mobilized troops, and furnishing servicemen with rosaries and chaplains with portable altars. As these chaplains deployed to Europe, they saw a need for Catholic recreation huts and appealed to the Knights for help.

Canadian councils began supporting a Catholic Army Huts program in 1917. The Knights raised more than $1.2 million Canadian dollars for the program, led by Joseph L. Murray and George H. Boivin, state deputies of Ontario and Quebec, respectively. They eventually operated about 40 huts in Canadian cities, plus several dozen in England, France and elsewhere in Europe.

The legacy of the Canadian Catholic huts extended to World War II. Dr. Claude Brown of Ontario, a decorated military dentist during World War I who later served on the K of C board of directors, revived the program in 1939. Two years later, Brown died as a result of wounds received in a German air raid on London.


Women field workers, each wearing a cape with a K of C

Women field workers, each wearing a cape with a K of C emblem, are pictured circa 1919 with three Caseys, including William M. Cavanaugh (left) and Joseph J. Gramling (right), directors of the famous “doughnut factory” in Coblenz, Germany. Knights of Columbus Multimedia Archives

Supporting the Caseys in numerous ways, women had an important role in the Knights of Columbus war effort.

For example, the Knights employed 36 female office staff in its Paris headquarters. A 1920 account of the Order’s work pays tribute to the women’s skill in handling transatlantic communications and supply chains, even as the occasional mortar landed nearby.

Back at home, the large “service houses” the Order operated in major cities, offering free beds and hospitality to hundreds of servicemen daily, depended largely on the labors of local Catholic women.

In addition, many Caseys turned to women for help entertaining the troops. In New York City, for example, women arranged elaborate programs for the Longacre hut in Times Square.

Elisabeth Marbury, a famous theatrical agent and producer, was sent in 1919 on a three-month tour of K of C huts in France. “Mother Casey,” as the troops came to call her, later said of her overseas work, “I found the best spirit prevailing everywhere in the huts of the Knights of Columbus. The magic words ‘Everyone Welcome, Everything Free’ did the trick.”


The war was over in November 1918, but the work of the Knights was not. More than 420 K of C secretaries moved with the Army of Occupation into Germany, establishing more than 100 huts there.

About 150 Caseys were dispatched to the ports to help men headed in the other direction. Troops embarking on homeward ships received tobacco, shaving kits and other comforts. K of C postcards were addressed to their families with a single sentence: “I’m safe and sound.”

These postcards answered the question that mattered most to loved ones, but the returning men had other questions: What comes next? Can I find work? The Knights helped answer these, too.

Under a broad employment campaign, the Order tapped its 1,700 local councils to act as de facto employment bureaus, connecting veterans to jobs on farms, in factories and in offices. By the time the campaign ended in 1921, the Knights had found jobs for more than 300,000 veterans.

Another area of help — unique among relief organizations — was postwar education. The Knights established approximately 150 evening schools, which operated until 1925. The Order also ran a series of correspondence courses in 85 subjects until the late 1950s. One WWI vet paid grateful tribute to these classes in a 1974 letter to the Supreme Council: “It offered the only ‘diploma’ for educational matriculation we ever received.”

CECILIA HADLEY writes from Falls Church, Va.

$14 million (approximately $200 million today) was raised by the Knights of Columbus Committee on War Activities during World War I, after an initial goal of $1 million.

More than 1,000 K of C secretaries served overseas, where they established 250 huts. Nearly 2,000 additional “Caseys” served the troops in more than 450 sites at home. Well over 100 priests also served with the Knights as chaplains.

Nearly 15,000 baseballs, in addition to more than 1,600 footballs and 2,200 sets of boxing gloves, were freely distributed at K of C recreation centers during the first months overseas.

40,000-60,000 doughnuts were made daily at the K of C club in Coblenz, Germany.

More than 300,000 veterans found jobs after the war thanks to a K of C employment campaign.

Some 400,000 men joined the Knights of Columbus between 1917 and 1923, doubling the pre-war membership.