On an ordinary January day in 1927, as Yocundo Durán walked home in Chihuahua, Mexico, he crossed paths with Federal Gen. Miguel Valle, who was walking out of a local tavern. The general recognized Durán and had one of his soldiers detain him and ask, “Are you a Knight of Columbus?”
During this period, the Knights of Columbus became a symbol of all things Catholic: a hopeful sign to Mexican Catholics and a seditious organization in the eyes of government leaders.
Durán confirmed that he was a Knight and asked whether there was any evil in it. Considering this an indictment, Valle pronounced Durán a “subversive Catholic” and ordered him shot on the spot. Durán’s body was later delivered to his family in a bricklayer’s cart.
Scenes like this were not uncommon in 1920s Mexico, as the Mexican government led one of the most violent anti-Catholic persecutions in the 20th century. During this period, the Knights of Columbus became a symbol of all things Catholic: a hopeful sign to Mexican Catholics and a seditious organization in the eyes of government leaders.
Just five years after the first Knights of Columbus council was established in Mexico in 1905, the country was catapulted into a long period of armed conflict, now called the Mexican Revolution. But what started as a fight against the established autocratic order evolved into a multi-sided civil war, with each competing faction claiming legitimacy.
Although Catholicism had been a part of Mexico’s history for nearly 400 years, the Catholic Church was perceived as hostile toward the revolution, resulting in an unstable and anti-religious social and political environment. A new constitution, which included several anti-clerical articles, was drafted in 1917, setting the stage for an era of persecution that lasted more than two decades.
In April 1917, Mexican bishops living in San Antonio prepared a letter of protest, affirming that the new constitution “destroys the most sacred rights of the Catholic Church, of Mexican Society, and of Christian individuals.”
Despite these challenges, the Order in Mexico not only survived this period; it thrived. Membership grew from 400 Knights in 1918 to almost 6,000 in 51 councils just six years later.
Between 1926 and 1929, an open rebellion took place against the government’s new persecutory laws, which were formulated and strictly enforced under Mexican President Plutarco Elías Calles. Resistance to the “Calles Law” started peacefully, in the form of signed petitions, economic boycotts and demonstrations. But in August 1926, sporadic uprisings sparked the beginning of the Cristero War, or Cristiada. The rebels took their name from their battle cry: “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” (Long Live Christ the King!). To the Mexican government, this pronouncement often last words of Cristeros before their deaths was more than a declaration of faith; it was an act of treason. About 70 Mexican Knights were among the Cristeros who died while standing up for their faith.
During this time, the government seized Catholic schools and seminaries, expropriated Church property, and outlawed religious education. It closed Catholic hospitals, orphanages and homes for the elderly. It also banned monastic orders, expelled foreign-born clergy and prohibited public worship. Priests and nuns were barred from wearing religious garments, from voting, and from criticizing the government or commenting on public affairs either in writing or in speech. If charged with a violation of the law, they were, like Durán, often denied a trial.
Mexico’s bishops were expelled, and many of the clergy were exiled for years; those who remained or returned in secret were forced to work and minister “underground.” Many seminarians were also exiled to Spain or the United States.
From the Order’s establishment in Mexico, Knights were active in starting schools and hospitals and invigorating the spiritual life of parishes. Within the country, the Knights “had a reputation for being both staunchly Catholic and politically and socially active,” notes historian Jean Meyer in his forthcoming book La Cristiada. The Caballeros, as the Knights are known in Spanish-speaking countries, “attracted leaders in society, including doctors, lawyers and businessmen, bringing a new dimension, energy and vision to combating the persecution.”
Knights were targeted by the government and many were expelled from their homes, according to Msgr. Ramiro Valdez, executive secretary of the commission that promoted the canonization of 25 Mexican martyrs, including six Knights of Columbus.
“In Mexico, [Knights] became the greatest defenders of the Church and of the Catholic faith,” Msgr. Valdez said. “But their apostolic work also extended to taking care of the immigrants in the United States who had to leave Mexico because of persecution.”
In 1923, a key event took place in the chronology that preceded the Cristero War. The Diocese of León laid the cornerstone for a monument to Christ the King on Cubilete Hill in the state of Guanajuato. The event - condemned by government authorities as illegal - was attended by various bishops, as well as Msgr. Ernesto Filippi, the papal nuncio. Two days later, officials expelled Msgr. Filippi, which was the equivalent of expelling a foreign ambassador.
Msgr. Filippi’s expulsion marked a shift in orientation for Mexican Knights, who now saw their role as protectors of the clergy and the Church from the government’s oppression. Recognizing an immediate need for all Catholic organizations to collaborate, then-State Deputy Luis G. Bustos organized the “Pacto de Honor de las Organizaciones Católicas” (“Honor Agreement Among Catholic Organizations”) in 1923.
The following year, as part of the National Eucharistic Congress, the Knights of Columbus arranged for an all-night vigil of eucharistic adoration at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. But at the last moment, the government denied the permits required for the celebration and shut the event down.
With the support of the Order, Bustos joined in founding La Liga Nacional de la Defensa de la Libertad Religiosa, or the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty, in March 1925. Over half of the League’s founding members were Knights, and hundreds of Knights throughout Mexico became officers of its centers.
“The Knights’ participation was intrinsic to the formation of the League,” said Msgr. Valdez. “This was a difficult period ... and the Knights’ collaboration was fundamental for other groups like Acción Católica Mexicana, Mexican Catholic Action, in their work of defending the right to religious liberty.”
The Order also funded la Confederación de Agrupaciones Católicas, a confederation of Catholic groups that established 500 regional, municipal and diocesan centers; reorganized hundreds of schools and catechist centers; set up 57 labor centers; and supported traveling speakers who presented at conferences throughout the country.
In 1926, anti-Catholic pressure increased under President Calles. The Calles Law called for uniform enforcement throughout the country of the constitution’s anti-clerical articles. It threatened severe sanctions for violators and for government officials who failed to enforce the law. “As long as I am president of the republic, the constitution of 1917 will be obeyed,” Calles vowed, saying that he would not be moved by the “wailing of sacristans or the groans of the over-pious.”
Dr. Patrick Foley, editor emeritus and founder of the journal Catholic Southwest: A Journal of History and Culture, emphasized that Knights - both lay members and clergy - led the opposition to this law.
“Many of the Knights were attacked simply because they were … singled out by the government as opponents of the radical socialist views of the government,” he explained, adding that the Knights involvement “was seen most prominently in heroic individual actions of Knights, both overt and underground.”
Aware of President Calles’ anti-clerical policies, Pope Pius XI condemned the “cruel persecution” and “great evils” of the Mexican government in his 1926 encyclical, Iniquis Afflictisque. The pope also highlighted the work of the Order: “First of all we mention the Knights of Columbus, an organization which is found in all states of the Republic and fortunately is made up of active and industrious members who, because of their zeal in assisting the Church, have brought great honor upon themselves.”
Although the Knights as an organization did not provide support to the Cristeros’ military efforts, it remained a target for the Mexican government, explains historian Meyer. “The K of C headquarters in Mexico was attacked, ransacked and its records destroyed. Soon the Knights of Columbus in Mexico was forced underground.”
As was the case with Yocundo Durán, simply being a Knight was considered subversive, since one had to be a practicing Catholic to join - which revealed public allegiance to the Church. In August 1926, the New York Morning World published a questionnaire that the Mexican government gave to all of its employees, whether at the federal, state and municipal levels. The first question: “Are you a Knight of Columbus?”
At the 1926 Supreme Convention in Philadelphia, Supreme Knight James A. Flaherty denounced the Mexican government’s persecution and condemned the U.S. government’s silence on the issue.
In Mexico, the initiatives of the Supreme Council did not go unnoticed. At a meeting of the Mexican legislature held Nov. 25, 1926, legislators discussed various articles in the November issue of Columbia magazine and cited remarks made at the Supreme Convention.
Addressing the assembly and his radio listeners during the legislative session, Deputy Alejandro Cerisola accused the Knights of instigating rebellion and of “antipatriotic activities” to “betray the country.” He labeled the Catholic clergy and the Knights of Columbus as enemies and characterized Supreme Knight Flaherty as “a vile slanderer and vulgar liar.” Cerisola then condemned the proposals made at the convention, “as it proves that we are right in thinking that the Mexican clergy is crazily attempting to retake power over the country’s political situation.”
The Mexican government also exiled a delegation of Mexican Knights who had attended the Supreme Convention as “accomplices of the North American Knights of Columbus.” Like many Catholic Mexican refugees during this period, the delegation brought their faith and commitment to their new community, founding Tepeyac Council 2635 in Los Angeles, which remained active until 1940.
Likewise, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans immigrated to Texas, and the Knights’ Mexican Fund provided direct assistance to many of the refugees.
According to Meyer, more than 200,000 people from every socioeconomic background were killed or martyred by 1930. On May 21, 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized 25 martyrs - including six Knights - from the Cristiada period. Thirteen more Mexican martyrs - including three Knights - were beatified in Guadalajara, Mexico, on the Solemnity of Christ the King on Nov. 20, 2005.
The future of the Order in Mexico is one of prosperity, growth, and hope. Yet it is its past that gives clarity to its mission. As Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson said in March 2011 during his visit to the Shrine of Christ the King at Cubilete Hill, the blood of the martyrs “has united forever the Order of the Knights of Columbus with the people and the land of Mexico. The Order’s history is forever linked to the history of this great nation. And that response - Love God above all things and our neighbor as we love ourselves - is the only response that we can give to the King of Kings.”
MARÍA DE LOURDES RUIZ SCAPERLANDA is a freelance writer and author living in Norman, Okla. Her books include The Journey: A Guide for the Modern Pilgrim (Loyola Press).