Creation

In the late-19th century United States, Catholics were considered outsiders and Catholic immigrants, in particular, were targets of nativist hostility. Many Protestant Americans suggested that Catholics were anti-republican and had dubious loyalties to America because of their supposed subservience to the Pope’s spiritual and political authority.

To counteract such a disparaging categorization, an Irish-American priest, Father Michael J. McGivney (1852–90), along with eight laymen, established the Knights of Columbus in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1882. McGivney is particularly highly regarded amongst both the Knights and the Catholic Church today. In 2008, the Holy See bestowed the title of Venerable upon McGivney, meaning he is one step closer to sainthood. McGivney himself has a Canadian connection; as a young man he studied at Séminaire de Saint-Hyacinthe and spent time as a seminarian at St. Mary’s College in Montréal. Along with McGivney, the first Knights chose Christopher Columbus as their patron because they wanted to remind their opponents that the 15th-century explorer who had helped establish permanent European settlement and Christianity in the Americas was himself a Catholic. As such, the Knights stressed that Catholicism was inextricably tied to the foundations of American history and that Catholics were good citizens, loyal to God and country.

Membership and Organizational Structure

Since its foundation, only two requirements have needed to be met to be included among the Knights’ ranks: a man must be 18 or older and a practicing Catholic in good standing with the Church. Successful entrants join local councils, which are usually associated with local parishes. Many local councils are grouped together to form districts and state councils that assist with managing regional activities. Overseeing everything is the Supreme Council, responsible for defining the Knights’ rules and regulations, advancing and promoting its core values, and administering its insurance program. While the Knights are a self-governing institution, they are submissive to the Church hierarchy and tend to work with priests and bishops to achieve common aims. Working closely with the Knights in their social and volunteer activities are the Daughters of Isabella, who take their name from Queen Isabella of Castile, who sponsored Columbus’s 1492 expedition. They were first organized as an auxiliary to the New Haven Knights in 1897, but, after their 1907 incorporation, they became an independent body with the power to enact their own constitution and bylaws. The first new chapter outside of the United States was established in Québec in 1924. In 1925, the Knights established a junior organization called the Columbian Squires to instill character formation and to prepare boys aged 10–18 for entry into the knighthood.

Principles and Symbols

The Knights of Columbus are committed to four core principles or “degrees” in the parlance of their order: charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism. Members are expected to learn about, practise and embrace these degrees, advancing through initiation ceremonies to foster a sense of community brotherhood. The organization’s emblem consists of a blue shield affixed with an anchor (reflecting its affiliation with the navigator Christopher Columbus), a dagger (representing a link to the medieval period and historically a means to express their willingness to militantly combat anti-Catholicism) and a fasces (demonstrating respect for authority). In the background is a red and white Formée Cross. Together, the red, white and blue of the emblem are symbolically representing the colours of the American flag, further showcasing the Knights’ patriotism.

Growth and Expansion in Canada

By the beginning of the 20th century, the Knights of Columbus had established councils across the United States. Canada was the first country to charter a council beyond the American border, when, in 1897, Council 284 was founded in Montréal. A former Liberal minister in the Québec Legislative Assembly and a future mayor of the city, Dr. James John Guerin was elected the first Grand Knight and J.P. Kavanaugh was named District Deputy. New councils were organized quickly: Québec City in 1899; Ottawa and Sherbrooke in 1900; Kingston, Cornwall and Peterborough in 1903; Charlottetown in 1903; Saint John in 1904; Sydney in 1905; and Toronto in 1909. The Knights were found in every Canadian province and in Newfoundland by 1909. Yet such early growth was not guaranteed. Indeed, some members of the Catholic hierarchy, including Archbishops Paul Bruchési in Montréal and Denis O’Connor in Toronto, had reservations about secret societies and the number of Catholic associations already in operation in their archdioceses. The Knights persisted through these difficulties, and Toronto and Montréal soon had the largest councils in their respective provinces. By 1910, there were about 9,000 Knights across the country. Numbers grew to about 19,000 by 1917, 33,000 by 1939, and 66,000 by 1947.

While French-speaking Knights are found across Canada, the province of Québec is home to the largest contingent of francophone members. English-speaking Irish Catholics had initially constituted the majority of members in Québec (see English-Speaking Quebecers). However, by 1907, Francophones outnumbered Anglophones throughout the province, and initiations and State Congresses were conducted exclusively in French after 1913. Mounting nationalism coupled with the Knights’ growing renown through the Second World War helped spur a membership boom in Québec; numbers skyrocketed from about 15,000 in the 1930s to about 70,000 in 1959. Recognizing their importance, though also in part to quell a separatist movement, the Knights of Columbus in Québec was officially renamed l’Ordre des Chevaliers de Colomb in 1953.

Key Activities

Canadian members of the Knights of Columbus have shown active engagement in and support for a wide variety of causes. Their most important efforts — both historically and currently — have included performing charitable works, serving the Church, providing mutual aid and insurance services, and showcasing their Catholic patriotism. Since their foundation, the Knights have provided financial support to members and their families during times of illness, and have helped to defray funeral or burial costs in the event of a member’s death. With about $100 billion of life insurance in force, in 2015, the Knight of Columbus earned its 40th consecutive A++ rating from AM Best for its insurance system. Other initiatives have included fundraising for Catholic educational institutions, evangelization through Catholic publications, and participating in social and charitable events such as food drives and church suppers. More recently, Canadian Knights have been active in blood drives, assisting with financial support for those pursuing Catholic vocations, educational outreach, fundraising for the disabled (especially through the Special Olympics) and providing disaster relief.

Attempts to cultivate unity and patriotism have also been prominent, if not always successful. In the first few decades of the 20th century, the Knights worked to acculturate European Catholic immigrants to Canadian life by establishing an immigrant aid bureau to coordinate information gathering and dissemination. Some Knights also sought to overcome ethno-linguistic divisions in Canada by hosting lectures and cooperating on large projects. During the First and Second World War, Knights from across Canada showcased their patriotism by actively recruiting men for military enlistment and supporting veterans’ rehabilitation. Perhaps most famously, in 1917–18, they established Army Huts for troops to have access to recreation, entertainment, accommodation and religious services when on leave from active duty. Yet French-English tensions connected to the Ontario Schools Question, war and conscription ensured that the Knights remained linguistically divided.

The Knights’ institutional principles forbid direct endorsement of political parties. Instead, Canadian members have promoted public policy positions that reflect the Catholic Church. For example, Knights have historically supported anti-communist efforts because of the ideology’s perceived threat to religious freedom. More recently, they have promoted a socially conservative and pro-life agenda, including opposition to doctor-assisted dying, euthanasia, same-sex marriage and abortion.

Today, the Knights of Columbus are the world’s largest body of lay Catholic men with members in North America, Central America, Europe, South Korea and the Philippines. Of the nearly 2 million Knights around the world, there are about 230,000 in Canada. These men proudly declare their national identity and the role that Catholics have played in the nation’s history.