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Profiles in Citizenship

Wednesday, May 1, 1996

In the fall of 1881, Father Michael J. McGivney gathered a small group of men in the basement of St. Mary's Church in New Haven, Connecticut, to start an association to help his Irish immigrant parishioners in their new homeland. No one could have imagined that he was founding what would become one of the largest and most successful private philanthropic service organizations in the world.

          As a young assistant pastor, McGivney was not only the spiritual but also the civic leader of his church community. Like many clergymen during the great 19th-century wave of immigration, he was deeply concerned about the unique social burdens and heavy economic pressures faced by his ever-growing immigrant flock. He was equally troubled by the rise of American "secret societies" that tended to be both anti-foreigner and anti-religious.

          The son of poor Irish workers, McGivney believed that, to be successful, immigrants had to assimilate into American society without weakening their religious identity and strong sense of family. He had long been active with the youth of his parish, and had earlier organized a total-abstinence society to combat alcoholism.

          At the age of 29, McGivney set out to establish a Catholic men's organization that would draw immigrants into American society while strengthening their Catholic faith and pride -- a transforming institution that would loosen Old World ties and build new civic bonds informed by a Catholic heritage.

          The result was the Knights of Columbus. McGivney named the organization after Christopher Columbus, the Catholic discoverer of the New World, to emphasize the Catholic contribution to America. Members called themselves "knights" to emphasize their service to God and country.

          The economic backbone of the organization was a program for life insurance and sick benefits that helped meet the basic expenses of families overwhelmed by illness or the death of the breadwinner. Early membership dues supported a benevolent fund that paid members $5 a week during illness, and a levy of $1 a head funded an endowment that paid $1,000 to a member's family upon his death. These benefits attracted new members and provided financial stability for the organization.

          The Knights of Columbus were built upon four principles -- Charity, Unity, Fraternity, and Patriotism -- that are reflected in their activities to this day. They defend their faith in a pluralistic nation while welcoming all nationalities and building fellowship by means of their religious, social, and educational activities.

          Over the years, the Knights have promoted American and Catholic history, and have supported Church activities and programs throughout the world (such as Pope John Paul II's recent trip to the United States). They encourage patriotism and loyalty to the country that defends their liberties. At the same time, they will fight for religious freedom (leading a 1922 battle to overturn Oregon's ban on private and parochial schools) and civic piety (spearheading a petition drive in 1954 to add the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance).

          But the heart of the organization, as McGivney intended, has always been charity: supporting members and the community through private benevolence. In 1884, the Knights had 429 members and a budget of $168.60. Today, the Knights number more than 1.5 million members in 10,000 local councils and assemblies, mostly in the United States but also in Canada, the Philippines, Mexico, and several Central American and Caribbean countries. In 1994, the Knights gave more than $100 million in charitable contributions and 48.8 million hours in volunteer service. Over the last 20 years, their philanthropy worldwide has totaled $1.2 billion in contributions and 438 million hours of service.

          The vast majority of charitable activities and community projects -- from food distribution, blood drives, and helping the elderly and retarded to pancake breakfasts and bowling leagues -- are designed and led by the local councils and assemblies and tailored to local needs. All this is accomplished without government aid.

          McGivney insisted that the organization be business-like and financially stable. "Make all returns regularly, promptly, and correctly," he directed. "Invest all surplus funds profitably, safely, and legally." Today, the once-meager insurance program is a thriving enterprise with $6 billion in assets and $30 billion in policy coverage. The profits from invested assets provide a solid base ($20 million in 1994) for annual charitable programs. The rest -- $80 million in 1994 -- is raised each year.

          Born in Waterbury, Connecticut, McGivney was the oldest of 13 children, six of whom died in childhood. He was never of strong health, and died of consumption at the age of 38.

          His 13 busy years as a priest have resulted so far in 114 years of good works and community service. "He was a man of the people," wrote one close associate. "He was ever zealous for the people's welfare and all the kindliness of his priestly soul asserted itself most strongly in his unceasing efforts for the betterment of their condition."