Descendants of Irish immigrants who arrived in America in the decades following the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1852) may well have letters and other documents attesting to the open discrimination their ancestors encountered in their new country. In 1877, Father Michael J. McGivney, a young, newly ordained son of Irish immigrants, became pastor of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Connecticut. It was the first Catholic parish in that city and its membership was composed of first and second generation, Irish. They were not welcome in New Haven and, in fact, St. Mary’s was labeled a “blemish” on the city’s landscape. Nonetheless, Father McGivney struggled to serve his congregation.
Three years later, Father McGivney conceived the idea of establishing a fraternal benefit society to help strengthen Catholic faith and to provide financially for many of the desperately poor Irish families left destitute either through illness or death of their “breadwinners.” Toward this end, he conferred with priests in Hartford and Boston who had founded similar benefit societies. In 1882, Father McGivney and 24 other men met in the basement of St. Mary’s and formed the “Sons of Columbus” fraternal organization, so named to “bind Catholicism and Americanism through the same faith and bold vision of Christopher Columbus.” Soon thereafter, “Sons” was replaced with “Knights” to “apply noble ritual to support the emerging cause of Catholic civil liberty.” The principles of unity and charity were the charism of the Knights of Columbus (“fraternity” and “patriotism” would be added later) upon which the Connecticut legislature granted a charter.
From these humble beginnings, the Knights of Columbus (KOC) spread nationally and internationally. According to the Texas State Historical Society, the first KOC council formed in Texas in Dallas in 1907. Today there are 80 KOC councils comprising 10,500 Knights in the Archdiocese of San Antonio. These local councils serve the Church and community in the spirit initiated by Father McGivney. The San Antonio People of Faith Historical Museum, located in the St. Paul Community Center at 1201 Donaldson Avenue, has designated a room that will eventually honor our local Knights and Father McGivney. They are seeking donations of KOC memorabilia, especially that from the early years of the councils in San Antonio–photos, postcards, programs, newspaper articles and such that can be displayed are welcome. Call Martha Gonzales at (210) 733-7152 for further information. You are also welcome to visit the museum during normal office hours to enjoy other faith-based displays that are already completed.
This article was originally published in the August 17 issue of Today’s Catholic Newspaper.