Building a Better World

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IN AUGUST OF 1920, the Knights of Columbus embarked on a post-war tour of France and Italy, with the goal of dedicating a statue of Lafayette donated by the Knights in Metz, France. The trip also included a pilgrimage to Rome, where they met Pope Benedict XV, who personally invited the Knights to maintain a presence in Rome.

While Rome worked to recover from World War I, wholesome places for sports and recreation for Roman youth were both a scarcity and an overlooked need. At the pope’s suggestion, the Knights of Columbus built several playgrounds throughout Rome for the youth. In the spirit of “Everything Free” seen in the World War I huts, the children were welcomed at the Knights of Columbus facilities without charge. Reflecting Father McGivney’s model of Knights working with and through one’s parish, the use of the Knights’ fields in Rome was arranged through Rome’s parishes.

As the 1920s wore on, religious liberty became an increasingly contentious issue in North America. The Mexican government’s persecution of the Catholic Church caused the Knights of Columbus to mobilize in support of the Church in Mexico, raising $1 million to shed light on the situation and to aid refugees in the United States. The Knights - who had launched councils in Mexico since 1905 - lobbied U.S. President Calvin Coolidge to seek a solution to the crisis. Ultimately, the Knights’ work paid off, as increasing public pressure helped bring about the Accords in 1929. Pope Pius XI praised the Knights of Columbus’ work in Mexico in his 1926 encyclical Iniquis Afflictisque. The Knights also continued to fight restrictive immigration policies such as the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924, which targeted predominately Catholic immigrants.

Finally, at a point in history when racial equality was not an ideal held by everyone in the country, the organization looked ahead of its time and commissioned a set of short histories as part of “The Knights of Columbus Racial Contribution Series.” Highlighting the national contributions of those frequently targeted by racism - including African-Americans and Jews - the Knights showed that their fight to be accepted as patriotic Catholics extended to protecting those of other races and religions as well.

An Education in Peace

The 1920s brought times of social tensions and hatred. In the United States, the Ku Klux Klan saw a huge resurgence in membership, spreading sentiments of hatred and violence against Catholics, Jews, African-Americans, and immigrants throughout the country.

At the same time, in Mexico, the Klan found a comrade in Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles, who enforced new laws persecuting Catholics. These laws enforced the abolition of Catholic education, restrictions of worship and celebrations, and the expulsion of hundreds of priests - including the pope’s delegate himself.

Throughout this, the Knights of Columbus opposed bigotry on both sides of the border. The Knights launched an educational campaign, bringing to light the atrocities in Mexico through lectures and publications. Likewise, they gave a voice to some of the most oppressed groups, with the Knights of Columbus Historical Commission publishing books on the important role of African-American, Jewish, and German people in the United States.

After War, Fields of Hope

From 1922 on, several playgrounds were built throughout Rome. One of them, St. Peter’s Oratory, was close to the Vatican, the land having been donated by the pope himself. Pope Pius XI expressed enthusiastic approval of the new work, saying, “I can see for myself from my study window what progress they are making here in the heart of Rome.” He said the Knights of Columbus’ presence was “very fitting.... for it is no less important than any other level of relief work.”