The Early Years
VENERABLE SERVANT OF GOD FATHER MCGIVNEY formed the Knights of Columbus against the background of profound anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States. Serving a largely immigrant parish in New Haven, Connecticut, the young priest quickly saw the need for an organization designed to aid Catholic families and provide for widows and orphans whose breadwinners died young all too frequently in an era before social safety nets. In addition, Father McGivney sought to provide Catholic men with the opportunity to practice charity in their communities and, in strengthening their mutual faith, strengthen each other.
The organization chose Columbus for its namesake because he was one of the few Catholics to be respected as a hero of American history. As a patriotic icon, Columbus helped make the case that one could be both a Catholic and a patriotic American.
Anti-Catholicism was a reality faced personally by Father Michael J. McGivney. St. Mary’s Church, where he served as parish priest, had been unable to build on the New Haven town green where most of the Protestant churches were located. Built on Hillhouse Avenue, Father McGivney’s parish was openly criticized by the New York Times as a blemish on an otherwise aristocratic avenue. Between the discrimination and the everyday hardships of Catholics who often worked in dangerous and unforgiving jobs, Father McGivney saw the need for an organization that would both strengthen the faith of his parishioners and protect the financial stability of families.
Father McGivney lived only eight years after founding the Knights. Only 38 years old, he died young, like so
many priests at the time, who died after contracting diseases during their tireless work with the sick in less than sanitary conditions. Hundreds of mourners came to the funeral, inspired by the unassuming parish priest whose vision had sparked a movement clearly in position to explode in growth across the country.
By 1897 - less than 10 years after Father McGivney’s death - the Knights had spread beyond the United States to Canada. Mexico and the Philippines followed in 1905, along with Cuba and Panama in 1909. At the same time, the Knights took on new challenges, being outspoken critics of U.S. immigration policies that sought to reduce the number of incoming Italians and other southern Europeans (predominately Catholics), seeing in these policies a thinly veiled anti-Catholic motivation.
Founded to protect and help the defenseless in society, the Knights’ mission has remained the same - even as those in need of its help have changed - for more than 125 years.
Founding the Knights of Columbus
New Haven was an industrial city, with hundreds of factories in operation at the time when Father McGivney was a priest there. And as the newspapers of the time attest, the factories were dangerous places that left many immigrant families unexpectedly fatherless. At the time, men’s fraternal organizations were quite popular, not only for their camaraderie, but also because they often provided a rudimentary form of life insurance, giving members’ families financial support in the event that the breadwinner died or was incapacitated. Most of these organizations were also secret societies forbidden to Catholics, and even hostile to the Church.
In 1882, Father McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus at a meeting with about 60 men in the basement of St. Mary’s. Calling the first council “San Salvador,” after the first New World island named by Christopher Columbus, the Knights soon spread to other towns.
When Father McGivney died just a few years after, he was remembered fondly with a quote from the Biblical book of Wisdom: “Being made perfect in a short space, he fulfilled a long time…”