When the first issue of Columbia was published in August 1921, Warren G. Harding was U.S. president, Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino were Hollywood’s biggest stars and the New York Yankees had never been to the World Series. Many of the 20th century’s most popular magazines — Reader’s Digest, Better Homes and Gardens, The New Yorker — did not exist. In fact, before Time began, there was Columbia.
Yet, even before Columbia, there was The Columbiad. Published since 1893, first in Boston and later in Hoboken, N.J., The Columbiad shared news about the nascent Order until 1921. That year, buoyed by unprecedented membership growth — from 389,000 in 1917 to 758,000 in 1921 — the Knights of Columbus announced it was taking over its official publication. In addition to a new name, the magazine would boast a new format, colored covers and a broader editorial vision.
“The nation’s foremost public men, essayists, fiction writers and artists will be among Columbia’s contributors,” Supreme Knight James Flaherty explained in the final issue of The Columbiad. “The editorial policy will be one of outspoken religious and patriotic conviction tempered with secular instruction and entertainment, and the single and permanent aim will be to provide the Order with a publication worthy of its power and prestige and meriting the heartiest support of the entire membership.”
The editorial staff of Columbia has striven to fulfill this “single and permanent aim” for the last century. The following pages provide a small window into its 100-year history.
Columbia’s first editor, John B. Kennedy, quickly implemented the Order’s vision for the new magazine by seeking out and publishing a wide array of talented writers, including G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. In 1924, shortly after the 28-page magazine expanded to 52 pages, Myles Connolly became editor and widened the stable of well-known contributors even further (see above). Connolly’s own “Mr. Blue” stories — which later became the bestselling novel Mr. Blue — began appearing in Columbia in 1926. By the time Connolly moved to Hollywood in 1928 to pursue a career as a screenwriter, Columbia was among the leading periodicals in the United States, as well as the largest Catholic magazine in the world.
During the 1920s, Columbia covered the vital issues of the day and expressed the Order’s strong opposition to troubling developments such as the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, the threat of communism and the persecution of the Catholic Church in Mexico. Indeed, for its outspoken articles, Columbia was banned by the Mexican government in 1926. While continuing its core mission of informing members about the Order’s activities, Columbia also featured illustrated short stories, poetry, book and film reviews, sports stories, recipes and other popular topics that appealed to a wide audience.
John B. Donahue began his tenure as editor a year before the stock market crash of 1929. The Order’s membership dropped during the Great Depression as many Knights could not afford to pay dues. In 1932, the magazine celebrated the Order’s 50th anniversary while also promoting unemployment relief and membership drives.
With sabers rattling across Europe in the mid-1930s, Columbia chronicled the twin dangers of Nazism and communism. A July 1936 editorial titled “Malice in Naziland” was followed in March 1937 by one titled “The Red Threat to Peace.” By decade’s end, World War II had begun.
Canada entered the Second World War just days after Hitler invaded Poland Sept. 1, 1939. The United States followed suit after the bombing of Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941. Columbia carried a message from Supreme Knight Francis P. Matthews to the Order on the first page of the January 1942 issue. “We know that we, with our fellow Americans of every creed and race, will pay dearly … before the victory is won,” the supreme knight wrote. “But we know, too, that we shall be paying not for a war that we did not want, but for the peace that victory, with God’s help, will restore to the world.”
Columbia adapted its pages to world events, printing stories, photos and advertisements in support of the Allied efforts. Reports about members and councils buying war bonds, taking care of wounded service members and operating recreation huts filled the “What Knights are Doing” section. The magazine also promoted the Order’s own Peace Program, a vision for the future developed in discussion with Catholic clergy and scholars.
After the war, the Soviet threat to peace became an overriding concern. Throughout the late 1940s into the 1960s, Columbia published scores of articles about the expansion of communism in Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, South America and Africa.
In 1955, Columbia changed its large format to the standard magazine size that continues to this day. Pope Pius XII extended his “personal good wishes” to Supreme Knight Luke Hart about the new design and imparted his apostolic blessing on the Columbia staff and membership of the Order.
In the years that followed the change in format, the magazine featured content about culture and the arts, sports and pastimes such as fishing, but also continued to cover significant events related to the Church or politics — such as the Second Vatican Council and the election of President John F. Kennedy, who was a member of the Order.
The closing of the Second Vatican Council on Dec. 8, 1965, coincided with a change in leadership at Columbia. John B. Donahue retired after 37 years as editor, and Elmer von Feldt began his tenure in January 1966.
Von Feldt led the magazine toward a goal articulated by Supreme Knight John McDevitt at the 1966 Supreme Convention. McDevitt urged Knights to be at the forefront in answering the council’s call for lay people to “take up the renewal of the temporal order as their own special obligation.” To this end, the supreme knight said, Columbia would “focus on the great challenge and opportunity of lay Catholics in the era of Vatican II.”
The magazine began sharing more articles about Catholic responses to issues such as poverty, injustice, abortion, substance abuse and pornography. It reported on the many debates that followed Vatican II, while also clarifying and defending Church teachings about marriage, parenting, education and vocations.
Coverage of K of C activities expanded, particularly after the celebration of the Order’s centennial in 1982. While Columbia had reported Knights’ doings since its earliest days (see page 30), its feature stories and photography now increasingly showcased their work to serve those in need, share the Gospel and renew society.
Von Feldt and his successor, Richard McMunn (1988-1999), ushered the magazine through several advancements. A new offset press allowed Columbia to print interior pages in full color for the first time in 1982; the entire publication was full color by 1988.
Columbia also marked several historic milestones in the last decades of the 20th century, during the pontificate of St. John Paul II and administration of Supreme Knight Virgil Dechant — the centennial of the Knights of Columbus (1982); the quincentennial of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the New World (1992); and the opening of the cause for canonization of Father Michael J. McGivney (1997).
The turn of the new millennium marked a watershed moment not only for the Church and society, but also for the Order, with the election of a new supreme knight in 2000, and for Columbia, with the promotion of Tim Hickey to editor the previous year.
In his first annual report, in 2001, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson spoke at length about the content and mission of Columbia. “The goal of the magazine is simple,” he said. “To promote and further the aims of the Order and of the Church universal; to enhance Catholic family life; to offer spiritual direction and sustenance to its readers; and to report on the variety and ingenuity of Knights of Columbus fraternal and charitable activities.”
With technological advancements came advancements in publishing. Before long, the entirety of Columbia’s editorial content was translated into French and Spanish. A digital Polish version was also introduced in 2006, after the Order’s first international expansion in nearly a century.
That same year, long-running columns on Church and world events were retired to allow more space in the magazine’s crowded front pages for reflections by the supreme knight and supreme chaplain. Additional faith formation content and features such as “Catholic Man of the Month” soon followed.
After 25 years of service to the Supreme Council, Hickey retired in 2008 to pursue a vocation to the priesthood (see back cover). Then-managing editor Alton Pelowski succeeded Hickey and has overseen further developments in the magazine’s presentation, including redesigns in 2009 and 2020, and a significant increase in original photography.
At the most recent Catholic Press Awards ceremony, held virtually June 10, Columbia received 36 mentions for content published in 2020. Its nine first-place awards (among Catholic magazines) included Best Coverage of Religious Liberty Issues; Best Explanation of Marriage; Best Reporting on Vocations; and Best Photograph (Portrait). The magazine was also recognized for Best Photo Story (News) for coverage of Father McGivney’s beatification last fall and received second place for Best Redesign.
Columbia is currently printed in four languages, with a combined circulation of approximately 1.7 million copies.
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