The Legacy of the Past, The Reality of the Present, The Hope for the Future

(A History of the Knights of Columbus — Nationally & In Mississippi)

Delivered by Dennis Riecke, PGK, Madison Council 9543
at the 2004 Mississippi State Council Convention Social.

Humble Beginnings.

Fr. Michael McGivney, one of 13 children, 6 of whom died in infancy or childhood was the eldest child of Irish immigrants. He left school at the age of 13 to go to work in a brass factory making spoons. He left work when he was 16 and entered college, planning to be a priest. He attended various seminaries in New York, Montreal and Baltimore.  He was ordained on December 22, 1877.  Anti-Catholic feelings have been present in American society since colonial days but they peaked during the mid 19th century, as waves of immigrants came to America. American Protestants began to fear these immigrants, particularly the Irish Catholics in the mid-Atlantic and New England states, were a threat to the established society. As immigration increased so did the number of American Catholics. Social and political oppressions were imposed on Catholics and the church publicly critized these efforts. This led to the popularity of fraternal organizations that aimed to give protection to their members. 

Fr. McGivney recognized this and desired a way to strengthen religious faith and also provide for the financial needs of families facing illness or death of the breadwinner. With the approval of his bishop Fr. McGivney met with the men of his parish to discuss forming a fraternal benefit society. They dedided to organize society similar to the Massachusetts Catholic Order of Foresters. The decision was then to call themselves the Connecticut Catholic Order of Foresters. But the original members unanimously voted to call themselves the Knights of Columbus. Fr. McGivney wanted to name the new society the “Sons of Columbus” but since many founding members were Irish-born Civil War veteranss, they felt it would help to apply a noble ritual in support of the emerging cause of Catholic civil liberty. The chose Columbus because they felt they “were entitled to all rights and privileges due to such a discovery by one of our faith.” The K of C were established with a four fold mission of Charity, Unity, Fraternity and Patriotism.

San Salvadaor Council #1 was established on May 15, 1882 being named for the first island Christopher Columbus landed on. These men wished to found an organizaiton that would be a stroong protector and promoter of both the Catholic Church and American society as a whole. The first council faced conflict within and indifference from without.  Many considered the Knights of Columbus a mock form of Catholic Masonry and Fr. McGivney was derided by critics who distrusted his motives. Many of the original members became disillusioned and thought about disbanding and joining another fraternal organization. But Dr. O’Connor the Supreme Physician told his fellow members that “if we are going down, let it be with honor .... and I said, there was no necessity for any such action, but if we kept up our courage, worked shoulder to shoulder, success would crown our efforts.” Their unity was vitally important. Instilled with pride and restored desire, they all voted to stick together. A few months later they received a note from another town in Connecticut asking for information on how to establish a council.  Eight years later in 1890 when Fr. McGivney died from an 8-month battle with pneumonia, there were over 300 councils with 40,000 Knights. 

Under Supreme Knight Edward Hearn’s term (1899-1909) membership reached 230,000 in 1,300 councils. He began to promote the idea of adding a fourth degree and the first exemplification took place in New York City on February 22, 1900.

By 1910 there were 6 councils and 957 Knights in Mississippi.


The recognition and influence of the K of C in the Church and in the civic realm increased when they funded a chair in American History and later a 500,000 dollar endowment to help rescue Catholic University of America. The K of C lobbied Congress to establish a Christopher Columbus Memorial in Washington, D.C. When it was unveiled in 1912, 20,000 Knights attended. The first council in Mexico (Mexico City) was chartered in 1905. The Mississippi State Council was chartered in 1906.

In 1917 the Supreme Council, recognizing the imminent entry of the United States into WWI, sent a resolution to the President and Congress reaffirming the patriotic devotion of 400,000 Knights, pledges unconditional support of their efforts to protect the Nation’s honor and the ideals of humanity and right. The Supreme Officers issued an appeal to the Board of Directors to approve a million dollar KC War Camp Fund to establish recreation facilities on bases to promote morale. American Cardinals promoted it and the War Dept. accepted. Clubhouses or huts were established with the motto “Everyone Welcome, Everything Free”. Knights raised 14 million for this effort was allocated another 30 million from a national fund drive. This visibilty  and charity had an tremendously positive impact on veterans as membership increased by 400,000 between 1917-1923. ........................Charity and Fraternity


In 1920 there were 1884 Mississippi Knights in 11 councils.

In the 1920's the Knights of Columbus extended their charitable work to Rome, fought defamation by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and converted the youth program into the Columbian Squires in 1925.  The most pressing issue concerned the persecution of the Catholic Church in Mexico. Relations between the bolchevic revolutionary government and the church were very strained. The Knights of Columbus established an educational campaign to inform the American public of the atrocities inflicted on the Church in Mexico. A 1926 KC pamphlet clearly describes the status of Mexican Catholics and their clergy:

In Mexico today the enemies of Jesus Christ would blot out His Church. The Church is forbidden to maintain convents, to conduct primary schools, to possess invested funds, to own church buildings, to direct charitable institutions, to hold religious ceremonies outside of church buildings. Priests are debarred from wearing clerical dress. They may not vote, hold office, or assemble for political purposes. This is but a partial record of the oppression that has been devised by the Mexican Government. 

Pope Pius XI stated that “members of the Knights of Columbus have been taken to prison, handcuffed through the public streets, surrounded by armed soldiers, locked up in foul jails, harshly treated, and punished with prison sentences or fines. Many of the Mexican Knights even sacrificed their lives for their faith and Church.

Pope Pius XI also stated “A word of very special praise is due those Catholic organizations, which during all these trying times have stood like soldiers side to side with the Clergy..... First we mention the Knights of Columbus, an organization which found in all the states of the Republic and which fortunately is made up of active and industrious members who, because of their practical lives and open profession of the Faith, as well as by their zeal in assisting the Church, have brought great honor upon themselves.”

In 1930 K of C membership declined by 600 Knights to 1,205 in 11 councils.


At the end of the decade the stock market crashed and panic gripped the nation. Unemployment reached 25% and Louisiana councils sent letters to Mississippi councils saying that jobs were available and no Knight was out of work for more than 2 weeks. Unity and Fraternity.

The K of C in Mississippi struggles to expand, losing a council and only showing a net gain in membership of 25 from 1930. There are 10 councils and 1,230 Mississippi Knights in 1940.


In WWII the U.S. Catholic bishops created the National Catholic Community Service under direct control of the USO. Knights sold and purchased 92 million dollars worth of war bonds. Canadian Knights revived the popular clubhouse program. In 1944 the K of C established the 1 million dollar Educational Trust Fund to provide a college education to children of members who were killed or permanently and totally disabled in WWII. Later this benefit covers children of veterans of other wars, law enforcement officers and fireman.

The Cold War begins and the K of C’s enlisted to continue their anti-communism work and to defend the Church in the face of anti-Catholic defamation. The K of C’s are directly attacked when the group Potestants and Other Americans for the Separation of Church and State claim “societies such as the Knights of Columbus were, like communist cells, in filtrating secular organizations and representing the advance of creeping Vaticanism.” Knights were able to show lack of truth in such claims. To combat communism, Knights operated speakers’ bureaus, funded anti-Communism advertisements and radio addresses and publish pro-freedom materials.

In 1950 there were 13 Mississippi Councils and 2,380 Knights, which surpassed the number in 1920.


In the 1950's Supreme Knight Luke Hart pushes modernization of the leadership structure. All business operations are moved to New Haven and the Board of Directors were given  the power to elect Supreme Council Officers. In 1953 as an investment, the K of C acquired title to the land on which Yankee Stadium would be built for 2.5 million. It is leased  back for 182,000/year  for the first 28 years. In 1954 President Eisenhower signs a bill which adds the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. That effort was initiated and promoted by the K of C.

Supreme Knight Luke Hart institutes proactive rather than reactive educational programs. He states that the advertising program was designed to “bring Catholic teaching right out into the open, where people may accept or reject as they wish ...... but where no person of common sense and fairness can misunderstand or misinterpret it.” The Knights found the Vatican Film Library.

During this period, race relations dominate American society and a KC historian noted the Knights of Columbus was the only American Catholic fraternal society which did not, by its constitution, prohibit Negro membership. Supreme Knight Hart adopts a gradual change theory on race, as do most other institutions. When a black candidate was rejected for membership and six officers resigned in protest, the event receives national attention and the need for change is evident. Hart dies and changes were left for Supreme Knight John McDevitt to implement. He does so.

In 1953, the Priest’s Education Fund was established.

In 1960, there were 17 Mississippi councils and 2,881 Knights.


The Order moved to promote active participation in the healing of the country.  The Order thus remained progressive on social issues but conservative on cultural issues, particularly those related to the authority of the Church.  The Order began to promote programs related to the Holy See, especially in the area of Vatican communications. The Second Vatican Council was held and with the introduction of oral contraceptives, prolife efforts increased. Sir Knight John F. Kennedy, Jr. was elected President of the United States.

In 1970, there were 19 Mississippi councils and 2,800 Knights.


Virgil Dechant becomes the Supreme Knight in 1977 and membership expands with the Order’s financial security and prosperity. Abortion during any trimester becomes legal in 1973. The Order champions the Church’s teaching on divorce, birth control, abortion and pornography.

In 1976, Jesse Quinn Jr., PSD and Dave Atteberry, PSD established the Mentally Handicapped Fund known as the Tootsie Roll Fund. It it’s early years it obtained 300% matching funds to construct 3 facilities in Mississippi.

By 1980, 7 new Mississippi councils were formed and membership increased by 800 for a total of 3,600 Knights.


The Order finances several restoration projects at the Vatican and increases media coverage of the Pope’s travels and masses. The Supreme council fosters devotion to the Church, Our Blessed Mother and pledges support and deep loyalty to the Holy Father.

The 1980's are the greatest growth period for our Order in Mississippi. By 1990, 19 new councils are formed (45 total) and membership tops 4,700.


The financial growth of the order is used to expand prolife and vocation programs. Knights are one of the biggest participants in the Annual March for Life, donating over 5,000 “The Natural Choice is Life” signs. Local councils erect over 1,700 memorials to the unborn. The Order has always sought to promote and protect strong Catholic life. In doing that we are encouraging vocations. By 1999 it was estimated that 60% of seminarians received some form of financial support from the Knights of Columbus.  Our goal is 100% support.  The Order is granted the status of an Non-governmental organization from the United Nations and thus can help protect the Vatican’s Permanent Observer Status at the United Nations.

In the late 1990's the Keep Christ in Christmas, Christmas Card program was offered statewide and it continues to grow with more councils participating each year.

In 2000, members of Madison Council are successful in getting the Convention Delegates to establish the Mississippi Memorial Prolife Fund.

By 2000, 10 new Mississippi councils are formed (55 total) and membership increases to 5,900.

The Reality of Present

 The reality of the present is that today, in this age of relativism, tolerance and aversion to authority, it appears merely saying the word “God” is claimed to constitute a violation of the separation of church and state clause and any display of a religious symbol is questioned because it might offend someone. Everything seems to represent an “establishment of religion”. But the media never mentions that the next term in Amendment 1 of our Constitution says “Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion”. At a time when vague phrases (fetus is Latin for baby) are used to obscure actions in an effort to enlist public acceptance, the Order exposes the truth in simple terms. At a time when the concept of marriage is being so redefined based on the desire for government benefits, and societal recognition, I read a logical argument on why you could be granted a civil union with your pet, the Order defends the idea that one of the primary purposes of marriage is to produce children. It has never been easy to be a Knight, it is now harder than ever. We must continue to follow and express our Catholic Values. We Mississippi Knight can be justifiably proud of our past 100 years and look forward to great accomplishments in the years to come. Since 1953 we have contributed 1.2 million dollars to educate seminarians for our state. Since 1976 we have raised 5.1 million dollars to assist our mentally-challenged citizens and sponsor the Mississippi Special Olympics.

Since 2000 we have raised and donated $7,400 for prolife activities chose by our bishops.

 The Promise of the Future

The promise of the future is for each one of us to rededicate ourselves to the principles of our Order.......................... Charity, ..............................Unity ........................ Fraternity

Where do we learn those principles as expressed by Fr. McGivney? At our degree ceremonies. Let each Knight commit to rededicate themselves to the principles of our order each year by attending as many degree ceremonies as possible.


Knights of Columbus - Supreme Council Website

“Onward Christian Soldiers...:The Origins and Evolution of the Knights of Columbus” by John Barry Waters, Georgetown University, Final Paper for the course Catholicism & Society, May 10, 2000 at History