Part IV: Staking Their Claim
How to be Catholic in America — that was the theme which inspired and animated the organization that Father McGivney founded in the basement of St. Mary’s Church 125 years ago.
It was embodied in the name chosen by the 75 men at the first official meeting on a snowy February evening in New Haven. By calling themselves the “Knights of Columbus,” they were indelibly linking their church and their country, staking their own claim to the New World.
By invoking the name of the Italian explorer, they underlined a simple, stark, unassailable fact — that this predominantly Protestant nation might openly discriminate against Catholic immigrants and impugn their loyalty, might scurrilously defame the Church and the pope, might do everything it could to make Catholics feel unwelcome here, but it was in fact a nation that celebrated as its discoverer a Catholic.
And the Catholic descendants of Columbus, one charter member said, “were entitled to all rights and privileges due to such a discovery by one of our faith.”
By 1885, the Order had paid its first death benefit and accumulated enough members for a thousand Knights to parade through downtown New Haven, led by a carriage carrying Father McGivney. “The parade is a credit to the Irish race,” the former governor of Connecticut said as the marchers passed.
The Hartford Telegram agreed: “There are some narrowminded people living in New England yet who imagine that the Irish race are idle, slovenly and often vicious,” an editorial declared, but the parade proved that “the second generation in this country are intensely American in their instincts, and they are forging ahead to prominent positions in commerce, trade and in the professions.”
By the mid-1890s, the Order was spreading beyond Connecticut, and fighting back hard as the Nativist movement gained strength during a four-year economic depression.
“With true American patriotism,” wrote Thomas Cummings, editor of The Columbiad and the Order’s national organizer, “they demand from their members respect for manhood and liberty for the individual, particularly that liberty which is the essence of all liberty and which was first planted on this continent by Roman Catholics, viz: Freedom to worship God according to one’s conscience.”
When America went to war against Spain in 1898, the Catholic Church opposed it, but the Knights did what it regarded as its national duty and supported the war.
“[A]t the declaration of war all personal opinions as to the wisdom of such a course were forgotten” one state deputy reported, “and the Catholic people, imbued with the teachings of our Holy Church, to be always ready to sacrifice everything for our Faith and Country, offered themselves by the hundreds to fight and, if need be, to die in defense of our Country’s cause.”.