A multitude of photos and copies of historic records enliven a new history of the largest Catholic men’s organization in the world, “The Knights of Columbus: An Illustrated History,” to be released in March.
“It’s a testament to the power of faith in action,” Andrew Walther, a co-author of the book, told CNA.
Readers will “get a sense of just how many things the Knights have affected in so many different ways for the betterment of communities large and small.”
The book includes hundreds of photos depicting the Catholic men’s organization and its work through the decades alongside a written history of the Knights of Columbus, whose membership now numbers close to 2 million Catholic men around the world.
Walther is vice president for communications and strategic planning at the Knights of Columbus. He co-authored the book with his wife Maureen Walther, a lifelong parishioner at the Connecticut parish where the fraternal order was founded in 1882.
Father Michael J. McGivney, parish priest of New Haven’s St. Mary’s Church, launched the organization to help counter the pressures that Catholic men and their families faced, including peer pressure to leave the faith. If a family’s male breadwinner died, the family tended to be split up by the state for economic reasons and sent to poor houses or to relatives. This prompted McGivney to incorporate an insurance agency into the fraternal order to support its members and their families, and to use any profits from insurance sales to advance Catholic and charitable causes.
McGivney saw the need for an organization designed “to help men grow in faith together” and “to help keep families unified even in the event of tragedy,” Walther said.
“There was a sense that Catholics were second-class citizens, which was an additional level of pressure on these men in their faith,” Walther continued.
“Father McGivney named the organization after Christopher Columbus to make the clear point that a good Catholic could also be a good American, Columbus being the one Catholic hero of American history in the late 19th century.”
The Walthers’ book takes the reader from the founding of the Knights through the present day.
“It’s the first new history of the Knights in decades and it’s the first illustrated history ever,” he said, adding that the photos “really bring these stories to life in a way that people will find inspiring.”
Walther said he was surprised by “the breadth and depth” of the Knights of Columbus in its nearly 150-year history.
From the level of the local council to projects of a global scale, the Knights of Columbus have long been involved in charity work and disaster relief. Knights rallied to support victims of the massive 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, and have aided victims of more recent disasters, like Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and Harvey.
They have also spoken up for the faith in public life. In the early 1900s the order protested anti-Catholic policies in Cuba and the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. Knights objected to a strict French secularism law passed in 1905.
In the 1920s the Knights of Columbus opposed the persecution of the Church in Mexico, where anti-clerical Mexican leaders had made strict laws to hamper the clergy. Priests who were not discreet risked execution. The Knights had “a real impact” on the thinking of the U.S. government, the American people and global opinion, Walther said.
“The Knights of Columbus was an organization decades ahead of its time on the integration issue,” Walther noted. The organization had African-American members in the 19th century and was the only U.S. group to run racially integrated recreation and hospitality centers for soldiers in World War I.
Responding to the exclusion of African-Americans from American history, the Knights commissioned the African-American scholar and civil rights advocate W.E.B. DuBois to write the book “The Gift of Black Folk.”
“We wanted to make sure the contributions of African-Americans were not neglected in the story of the country,” Walther said. The order also commissioned books about Jewish and Hispanic Americans.
“You see the Knights of Columbus having a real impact that was transformative in a lot of ways, and groundbreaking in others,” he added.
In the 1920s, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan empowered its strongly anti-Catholic politics. The Knights worked “to stop the Klan from outlawing Catholic education in Oregon” and funded the court case that led to a Supreme Court victory against a state law that mandated that all children attend public schools.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the organization spoke out against Nazi attacks on Jews and Catholics. Before and during the Cold War, it objected to communist persecutions. The knights backed religious freedom efforts in Poland and gave assistance to Pope John Paul II’s work to promote human rights in communist eastern Europe.
More recently, the Knights have supported persecuted Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East, especially those threatened by the Islamic State group. The order was instrumental in an official U.S. declaration recognizing the persecution as genocide.
In researching the book, Walther said the co-authors rediscovered some prominent people in history whose membership in the Knights of Columbus had been forgotten. This included Jim Thorpe, the athlete and Olympic gold medalist of the early 20th century; John Myon Chang, one of the founding fathers of the modern state of South Korea; and Prime Minister of Canada Louis St. Laurent.
“These men were leading figures and joined the Knights out of their sense of the faith and also because the knights were a really important element in their country and in their communities,” Walther said.
Other prominent men who were well-known Knights of Columbus include Major League Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Babe Ruth, U.S. President John F. Kennedy, National Football League champion coach Vince Lombardi, and poet and World War I soldier Joyce Kilmer.
Charitable figures of the Knights of Columbus are tallied together, representing thousands of local councils and 2 million men who “contribute in an incredible way at this local level that then generates this global impact.
Walther described local councils as “the backbone of the Knights of Columbus.” When Knights pioneered the first national blood drive, this was driven by action in the local councils.
Walther had praise for his co-author and wife Maureen, whose connections to New Haven meant the early history of the Knights was deeply interesting to her as a local.
“She’s just an amazing researcher,” he added. “She found incredible nuggets on so many different elements. She uncovered a lot of things that might otherwise have been missed in the annals of Knights of Columbus.”
“The Knights of Columbus: An Illustrated History” will be released on March 9, and is now available for preorder.
Supreme Knight Carl Anderson has praised the book, saying it is “not simply a record of yesterday’s harvest, but also contains within it the seeds of a future filled with promise.”