Less than 40 years after its humble beginnings in New Haven, Connecticut, the Knights of Columbus was invited by Pope Benedict XV to establish a permanent presence in Rome.
The Knights celebrated the 100th anniversary of their charitable work in the Eternal City with an audience with Pope Francis Feb. 10 and a press event Feb. 11, reflecting on the fraternal organization's past achievements and ongoing projects.
Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson told reporters that the Knights had a temporary presence in Rome During World War I when it set up and ran a hospitality center for U.S. troops at the Hotel Minerva.
At the time, he said, it was the only charitable organization for U.S. troops that did not segregate according to race and provided "racially integrated" services for soldiers, decades before segregation was abolished.
After 1920, when Pope Benedict XV invited them to have a permanent presence, the Knights set up sports centers and other activities for young people in Rome.
During World War II, Anderson said, the United States and Italy found themselves fighting on opposing sides, leading the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to try to close down the Knights' facilities.
But the people in Rome protested and the organization was able to continue its work, which was particularly critical in the aftermath of the war, he said.
Over time, the Knights expanded the kind of assistance they offered to include helping the Vatican's radio and television centers to broadcast major events at the Vatican around the world as well as help purchase needed high-tech equipment.
Anderson said they provide this help to Vatican communications "so no one is excluded" from hearing the Gospel preached by the Holy Father.
They continue to help subsidize a number of initiatives with the Pontifical Commission for Latin America and they sponsor a large number of projects for restoring and repairing parts of St. Peter's Basilica, its chapels and priceless works of art and sacred objects.
Soon, Anderson said, they will help fund a project that is still in the planning stages: improving the lighting and visitor experience of touring the underground excavations of the necropolis and St. Peter's tomb.
Alongside their efforts helping the universal church, the Knights still support projects in the city of Rome, including their sports center, which hosts Special Olympics events and does outreach for the large Filipino community in the city.
"We see these actions as preaching the Gospel through faith in action," he said, adding that they were proud to be able to help every pope since 1920.
"As I promised Pope Francis yesterday, in the century to come, the Knights of Columbus will continue to work tirelessly serving those in need and being a beacon of charity, unity and fraternity to our members, to the church and to the world," he said.