Everyone Welcome, Everything Free

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LESS THAN 25 YEARS AFTER ITS FOUNDATION, the Knights of Columbus entered the world scene during World War I with the establishment of its Army Hut program. The Army Huts took the Knights of Columbus to Army bases throughout the United States, and then to Europe during the Great War.

The huts provided everything from food, to reading material, to the sponsoring of sporting events and entertainment by the Knights. From New York to Siberia, the Knights of Columbus established facilities for American servicemen under the motto, “Everybody Welcome, Everything Free.” It was a time before the establishment of the United Service Organization, and the troops had little opportunity for rest and relaxation. In addition, while there were some facilities for Protestant and Jewish troops run by charitable organizations, there were no Catholic equivalents, and there was a profound lack of Catholic chaplains.

The Knights filled those voids, providing both chaplains and recreational facilities for the troops - whether Catholic or not.

Among the popular entertainers at the time to perform for the soldiers were Cora Youngblood and her troupe of singers and Garry McGarry, a notable silent film actor and Knights of Columbus secretary in Vladivostok, Siberia.

The Knights’ ambitious program took them to more than 100 European locations. Impressed by their work, Pope Benedict XV invited the Knights to establish a hut in Rome, which they did at the Hotel Minerva from 1918-1919. The Knights also ran huts in Genoa and Venice.

The Knights earned high praise for their war work from Pope Benedict XV, French Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch, U.S. General John J. Pershing and many others. Likewise, in Rome, the Knights of Columbus’ presence was so popular that even during the height of anti-American sentiment during the negotiation of the Treaty of Versailles, the Knights were held in high regard. Their headquarters was the only place where the American flag continued to fly at that time in the city of Rome.

In the Shadow of the Pantheon

“In the famous piazza Minerva close to the Pantheon a very large signboard placarded on the front of the Minerva Hotel bears the words: ‘Knights of Columbus’… It’s as nice as a ‘Welcome for American boys’ could be imagined.  A portion of the Hotel Minerva has been annexed and is locked off from the rest of the hotel. In includes bedrooms and bathroom, rooms downstairs for reading, writing, playing games, billiards, etc. There is a side room on the ground floor where chocolate, coffee, etc., are given out at almost any hour. Cigarettes are provided and, in fact, everything the American soldier can require. Cinema pictures and other entertainments are provided in the evenings. Everything is first class and the commander at Rome is untiring in his work for the boys who pass in and out. Thirty had been in the evening before and about fifteen had slept there. He is well known at the Vatican where he goes personally to get the rosaries, medals, etc., blessed by His Holiness for the soldiers who specially ask for them. … The Knights of Columbus have done a fine work and nobody at home can do better than send his dollars along to help them on with it.”

(Catholic World, Volume 108, March 1919, pg. 863-4.
Published by the Paulist Fathers.)

Sports: a Necessary Diversion

Sports were a part of the Knights of Columbus since the organization’s inception. Father McGivney himself was a great sports enthusiast, and the first top medal in modern Olympic Games went to James Connolly, a member of the Knights of Columbus. But it was during World War I that sports became an important activity at Knights of Columbus huts, as part of their care for the mental and physical well-being of the troops. Athletics helped men put aside the horrors of trench warfare and stay active when hostilities ended. The Knights organized many sporting events overseas, bringing some of the premiere athletes from the United States as both Knights of Columbus secretaries and coaches.