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Pushing Boundaries - A History of the Knights of Columbus

Part V: Strong Enough to Take a Stand to Take a Stand

Knights at the 1901 national meeting in  upstate New York. Msgr. Patrick J. McGivney, the founder's brother, is shown seated center in the front.  He was supreme chaplain from 1901 to 1938.

Some of the more traditionally minded bishops had initially been skeptical of the Order — believing that it leaned too close to America, and too far from Rome — but by 1905, there were councils in every state, and most of the clerical opposition had melted away.

And the Knights had spread beyond America by then as well, into most of Canada, all the way across the Pacific into the Philippines, and into Mexico, a presence that would take on particular importance after the revolution there, when the Catholic Church was often under attack by the government, and the Order was a powerful force of resistance.

The Knights of Columbus was part of the great Progressive debates of the era, pressing for the kinds of governmental reforms that were in tune with Catholic social teachings. And in June 1912, 20,000 of them came to Washington to mark their biggest public triumph yet, the dedication of a potent symbol of how far they, and their religion, had advanced: the Columbus Memorial near the Capitol.

In attendance was the whole official apparatus of the nation: President Taft, Supreme Court justices, Congress. The parade of Knights, Supreme Knight James A. Flaherty declared, represented “the flower and chivalry of Catholic manhood,” a spectacle that “would thrill and gladden the heart of any Christian man.”

Not the hearts of their enemies, though, the number of which grew again as anti-Catholicism swelled in the years before the First World War, a reaction to the great wave of immigration.

The Knights fought back with lecture tours, libel suits, even a Commission on Racial Prejudices. In one court case, a judge turned to a panel of Masons, who, investigating the Knights, declared that it “teaches a high and noble patriotism, instills a love of country, inculcates a reverence for law and order.”

When the U.S. entered the war in 1917, the Order entered, too, with the same patriotic fervor as those Red Knights from New Haven. By the time it ended, the K of C emblem on the khaki-uniformed arms of the secretaries at the Order’s network of recreation centers, clubs and welcome huts had evolved into a fond nickname: Casey.

“Everybody Welcome, Everything Free” was the motto of the Knights’ war effort, and it earned such goodwill that new members poured into the councils back home, more than 400,000 new Knights by 1923.

“God has so guided us that today we stand more powerful than ever and with ever-increasing power,” wrote Supreme Knight Flaherty, “acknowledged throughout the world as a force for good.”

Pope Benedict XV offered Mass in the Vatican gardens for a delegation of Knights visiting Europe in the 1920s. The Knights were honored in France and Italy for the Order’s assistance to soldiers during World War I.

The Order published the work of W.E.B. DuBois, America’s most prominent black intellectual, as part of its Racial Contribution series, which was designed to upend what it called “the theory that the bulk of the nation are ‘hyphenates’ who are not, and never can be, true to the United States.”

 It urged the American government to take a tougher stand against a Mexican regime that was brutalizing Catholics. It successfully fought every outbreak of the compulsory education movement, a series of ballot measures, proposed laws and court cases aimed at requiring all children to attend public schools — what Flaherty called “a national movement to abolish the parochial school.”

And it claimed as its most famous member Babe Ruth, who joined Pere Marquette Council 271 in South Boston when he was still playing for the Red Sox.

On a summer afternoon in 1920, before the first pitch of a game between the New York Yankees and the Detroit Tigers, a cluster of Knights gathered at home plate at the Polo Grounds to present him with a diamond-studded watch fob in the shape of the K of C emblem. He hit his 25th home run in the fifth inning, into the upper tier of the rightfield stands, one of the previously unimaginable 54 he would hit that year.

And then Al Smith lost, and the Knights learned just how much more work they still had to do.

Part IV | Part VI

Historical Highlights
125 Years in Review
The McGivney Legacy
Supreme Knights Gallery
St. Mary’s Church
Papal Moments
At Work Everywhere
His Timeless Message
Faith in Action
Knights of Columbus Photo Album