The Knights of Columbus is the world’s largest Catholic fraternal service organization. Founded by the Venerable Father Michael J. McGivney in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1882, it was named in honor of the mariner Christopher Columbus. Originally serving as a mutual benefit society to low-income immigrant Catholics, it developed into a fraternal benefit society dedicated to providing charitable services, promoting Catholic education and actively defending Catholicism in various nations.
There are more than 1.85 million members in nearly 15,000 councils, with nearly 200 councils on college campuses. Membership is limited to “practical” Catholic men aged 18 or older. Membership consists of four different degrees, each exemplifying a different principle of the Order. The Order is a member of the International Alliance of Catholic Knights.
Councils have been chartered in the United States (including some territories), Canada, the Philippines, Mexico, Poland, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama, the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, Cuba, Guatemala, Guam, Saipan, South Korea, and on US military bases around the world. The Knights’ official junior organization, the Columbian Squires, has over 5,000 circles and the Order’s patriotic arm, the Fourth Degree, has more than 2,500 assemblies.
For their support for the Church and local communities, as well as for their philanthropic efforts, St. Pope John Paul II referred to the Order as a “strong right arm of the Church.” In 2013, the Order gave over US $170.1 million directly to charity and performed over 70.5 million man-hours of voluntary service. Over 413,000 pints of blood were donated in 2010. The Order’s insurance program has more than $90 billion of life insurance policies in force, backed up by $19.8 billion in assets, and holds the highest insurance ratings given by A. M. Best and the Insurance Marketplace Standards Association. Within the United States on the national and state level, the Order is active in the political arena lobbying for laws and positions that uphold the Catholic Church’s positions on public policy and social issues.
An Irish-American Catholic priest, Fr. Michael J. McGivney, founded the Knights of Columbus in New Haven, Connecticut. He gathered a group of men from St. Mary’s Parish for an organizational meeting on October 2, 1881 and the Order was incorporated under the laws of the state of Connecticut on March 29, 1882. Although the first councils were all in that state, the Order spread throughout New England and the United States in subsequent years. By 1889, there were 300 councils comprising 40,000 knights. Ten years later, in 1909, there were 230,000 knights in 1,300 councils.
In 1997, the cause for McGivney’s canonization was opened in the Archdiocese of Hartford, and then was placed before the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in 2000. The Father Michael J. McGivney Guild was formed in 1997 to promote his cause and currently has more than 140,000 members. Membership in the Knights of Columbus does not automatically make one a member of the guild, nor is membership restricted to Knights; members must elect to join.
On March 15, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI approved a decree recognizing McGivney’s “heroic virtue,” significantly advancing the priest’s process toward sainthood. McGivney can now be referred to as the “Venerable Servant of God.” If the cause is successful, he will be the first priest born in the United States to be canonized as a saint.