The Knights of Columbus is a fraternal and beneficent society of Catholic men, founded in New Haven, Connecticut, 2 February, 1882, and incorporated under the laws of Connecticut, 29 March, 1882.
The organizers and incorporators were the Reverend M.J. McGivney, the Reverend P.P. Lawlor, James T. Mullen, Cornelius T. Driscoll, Dr. M.C. O'Connor, Daniel Colwell, William M. Geary, John T. Kerrigan, Bartholomew Healey, and Michael Curran. The purpose of the society is to develop a practical Catholicity among its members, to promote Catholic education and charity, and, through its insurance department, to furnish at least temporary financial aid to the families of deceased members.
On 15 May, 1882, the organizers, as a Supreme Committee, instituted the first subordinate council, San Salvador, No. 1, New Haven. From this time on, subordinate councils were organized in the different cities and towns throughout the State of Connecticut, but it was not until 15 April, 1885, when a subordinate council was established at Westerly, Rhode Island, that the order was extended beyond the borders of the parent state. The Supreme Committee then enacted a law providing that a Supreme Council should be established, composed of the Supreme Committee and delegates from the subordinate councils, each council being entitled to one delegate for each fifty members. The number of delegates under this arrangement proving too large, the Supreme Council, on 14 May, 1886, resolved itself into a Board of Government, composed of the Board of Directors, formerly the Supreme Committee, and the Grand Knight and a Past Grand Knight of each subordinate council of the society.
Owing to the rapid growth of the society, the Board of Government, in 1892, provided for the organization of State Councils, composed of two delegates from each subordinate council in the state. On 29 April, 1893, the Board of Government was succeeded by the National Council, composed of the State Deputy and last Past State Deputy of each State Council, and by one delegate from every thousand members of the insurance class. In October, 1893, associate members were first admitted to the order. The establishment of the associate class was intended for those advanced in years, or unable to pass a physical examination, but has gradually been extended to comprehend all eligible men not desiring the insurance feature. On 22 February, 1900, the first instance of the fourth degree took place in New York City, when more than twelve hundred candidates from all parts of the United States received this degree.
The order is now established in every state and territory of the United States, in every province of Canada, in Newfoundland, the Philippine Islands, Mexico, Cuba, Panama. Councils are to be established in Puerto Rico and in South America. The membership, divided into two classes, insurance and associate, included, on 1 March, 1910, 74,909 insurance members, and 160,703 associate members, a total of 235,612. Insurance policies are issued for $1000, $2000, and $3000, to desirable risks between the ages of 18 and 60. The rate of each member increases every five years until the age of 60 is attained, after which he pays a level premium based upon his age at initiation. The society has paid to the beneficiaries of deceased members $4,438,728.74.
The Knights of Columbus have done notable work in promoting Catholic education and charity, providing education and homes for Catholic orphans, endowing scholarships in Catholic colleges, providing lectures on Catholic doctrine, endowing hospital beds, providing sanitoria for its sick members, maintaining employment bureaux, and, in general, performing the work of the apostolate of the laity. In 1904 the order presented to the Catholic University at Washington $50,000 for a chair of American History, besides several thousand dollars for library purposes, and is at present engaged in raising $500,000 to endow 50 scholarships in the University.
The work of lectures to non-Catholics on questions of Catholic teaching and belief has always appealed to the spirit of the order, and of late years has been taken up with no little success. Splendid results have attended the lectures so far delivered. They have led to a better understanding of the Catholic faith on the part of non-Catholics, and a more friendly attitude towards it; they have shown that bigotry is on the wane, and that the non-Catholic mind is open to conviction. The series of lectures delivered by the Right Reverend Bishop J.J. Keane of Cheyenne, Wyoming, in Denver, in 1909, inaugurated the work. At Cedar Rapids, Iowa, eighty-five per cent of the audience, at the lecture under the auspices of the Knights of Columbus, was non-Catholic. The work has been taken up successfully in Buffalo, Milwaukee, Houston, Los Angeles. It is a movement which does not aim at attacking any man's belief, but at building up charity among men "and", in the words of Bishop Keane, "bringing us all closer to God Almighty". In several cities the Knights have established Catholic libraries, and in many others have catalogued the Catholic books in the public libraries.
The erection of a memorial to Christopher Columbus, in the City of Washington, by the United States Government, is due in a measure to the work of the Knights of Columbus. "Columbus Day" (12 October), which is observed at present in fifteen states of the Union ( California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island), was instituted largely through the efforts of the Knights, who are now striving to make it a national holiday.