IT INCLUDES 1,800 of America's most well-connected Catholics, but the American Association of the Order of Malta may be “the best-kept secret in the Church,” says William Flynn, the group's president.

Even where the Knights are known, he admits, they have suffered from an elitist image of being affluent Catholics who don ornate uniforms and love to socialize.

That was never the reality, he insisted.

The Knights of Malta, as they are popularly known, have long been generous contributors to charity, particularly in recent years with its support of Americares, the international relief agency.

“People are not aware of what the Knights of Malta do for the defense of the poor and the defense of the Church,” he says during an interview at his office high above New York's Park Avenue. Speaking with quiet confidence, Flynn added: “We intend to change that."

Flynn, the board chairman of Mutual of America Life Insurance and retired chief executive of that company, is committed to developing a new image for the Knights. He wants to position the organization as a group of Catholic movers-and-shakers dedicated to helping society's most vulnerable, particularly children and the unborn.

The Knights, he says, want to defend “the people who will be under attack" in the near future. They plan to be more active in promoting pregnancy centers and homes for the elderly, as well as “seeing [to it] that young people are being dealt with properly,” he said.

Flynn, who became president of the Knights’ American Association in January, wants the organization to focus on local projects. That was the direction in which J. Peter Grace, the industrialist, had been leading the Knights when he died last year, after serving nearly two decades as the head of the organization. “This is really an extension of what Peter Grace began,” notes Flynn.

The Knights of Malta date from the year 1099, when a monastic community administered a hospice infirmary serving Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land during the first Crusade. It later expanded to include lay people and, at one point in its history, was involved in defending Christians from hostile Muslims.

After European Christians were permanently expelled from the Holy Land, members of the order settled in Cyprus, fighting various battles against Muslim invaders. The Knights got there name after successfully defending Malta against a Turkish invasion in 1523. The international organization is now devoted to aiding victims of natural disasters and wars.

The American Association of the Order was founded in 1927. Membership has recently been opened to women. Each member pays annual dues of about $1,000 and new members are admitted only upon the recommendation of current members.

In recent years, Flynn has worked to mediate peace among factions in Northern Ireland and was recognized for that by being named grand marshal at last year's New York St. Patrick's Day Parade. He has also served as chairman of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and as a board member of the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation; Boston University; the Elie Weisel Foundation for Humanity; and at Fordham University, the school from which he graduated after service in the Korean War.

The son of Irish immigrants, Flynn was raised in Queens, N.Y. He was a student at Brooklyn's diocesan seminary before deciding to enter the business world. He has been married for 43 years to Margaret Flynn. They have four children and eight grandchildren and live in Garden City, Long Island.

One of his first actions as head of the Knights was to open up board meetings to collect input from non-members. At its last meeting in June, the Knights’ board met with Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities. As a result of that encounter, the Knights generated $500,000 in support of the educational program of the bishops’pro-life office.

Flynn says he wants the organization to broaden its base. He is especially eager to attract more women—who now constitute 5 percent of the group's members—and to increase membership among minorities. Currently the organization has few Hispanic members and no African-Americans. “We want to change that. It's not right. We want to cater to people of all colors,” he says, promising that ethnic diversity will be a hallmark of the Knights of the future.

He would like to see more geographic diversity as well. Most Knights reside along the eastern corridor, between Boston and Washington, D.C. Flynn hopes to bring in more members from the Midwest, West and South and to work with two independent associations of the order, one based in San Francisco, Calif. and the other in Washington, D.C.

Changes in the organization's bylaws will help revitalize the Knights, Flynn believes. He has proposed that the number of board members be reduced from 30 to 24, while a new rotation plan would elect eight new members each year.

He would like to see his own job of president be limited to six years of service so that the organization can benefit from new, and, he hopes, younger leadership. The end result, he says, should be a Knights group even more committed to serving the poor and defending the Church.

If he succeeds, the organization will no longer be the Church's best kept secret.

Peter Feuerherd is based in New York.