The Knights of Columbus: An Illustrated History

By Andrew T. Walther and Maureen H. Walther

Square one Publishers, 2020

296 pages; $34.95 

To order: KnightsGear.com/history

 

In a little over a century and a quarter, the Knights of Columbus grew from its first meeting in the basement of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Connecticut, to become the world’s largest fraternal organization nearly 2 million members strong.

The unique history comes to life in The Knights of Columbus: An Illustrated History by Andrew T. Walther and Maureen H. Walther. This book is not only for Knights and their families, but for anyone interested in learning what the organization has done for untold millions of people throughout the world through the efforts of its members.

This fascinating, informative book highlights what the Knights do so generously and faithfully.

The authors follow the story, vision and growth of the Knights chronologically; lavishly illustrated, it is chock-full of colorful photos and loads of other visuals, like posters and reproductions.

Naturally, at the beginning is a brief biography of the founder, Venerable Father Michael J. McGivney, who will soon be beatified, all the more enhanced by original photos of him at his high-school graduation and in the seminary. Soon after he was ordained, he held in New Haven the first official meeting in 1882.

The Walthers keep interest high by presenting how quickly the Knights began to grow, as did their outreaches beyond each council. Although the original members were all Irish Americans, the order aimed to unify American Catholic citizens of every race and national origin.

“In future years, the Knights would often find themselves working to overcome racial or religious intolerance,” the Walthers write. “Long before the Civil Rights Movement, it was the Knights of Columbus who took the initiative to insure that neither race nor creed meant exclusion from American history books, from charity, or from other key aspects of American life.”

The Walthers reveal so many of the Knights’ outstanding works, such as their remarkable presence and help which made a  huge difference for weary soldiers during World War I with their “hut” program whose banner-motto proclaimed, “Everybody Welcome, Everything Free.” The Knights provided everything from candy, gum and stationary to food and entertainment, and Knights’ chaplains were available to hear confessions and say Mass.

Throughout their storied history, Knights never shied from battling for religious freedom and the marginalized. The Walthers detail the historical clash between the Knights and the anti-Catholic and Knight-hating Ku Klux Klan, which was against everything the organization stood for. Furthermore, with Catholics in Mexico being persecuted, the Knights took the major lead in diplomacy to bring an end to that horrendous situation in the 1920s known as the Cristero War. Six martyred Mexican Knight-priests are now canonized saints. Also learn about St. Rafael Guizar Valencia, the first bishop/Knight to be declared a saint.

As the history progressed, “Renewed vigor and a unique blend of charity and patriotism characterized the Knights’ work during and after World War II,” the Walthers explain. Its work with troops and the USO “had again reaffirmed the Knights’ patriotism and its commitment to those fighting for freedom. … While not shying away from their wartime duties, the Knights also took time to lead prayers for peace, urging the world to embrace a peace based on rights as transcendent gifts from God. Consistent with this, throughout the 1940s, the Order continued its strong advocacy for civil rights, religious freedom, and religious principles.”

Sprinkled among the pages and interspersed with highlights of the history are cameos of “Notable Knights” and their accomplishments, done without fanfare in most cases. Learn about a heroic military chaplain, Jesuit Father Robert Graham, who, for decades, was a major “spy catcher,” detecting countless attempts by the Soviets and others trying to disrupt the Church.

Also included: a who’s-who of active Knights from the past. Among these are poet Joyce Kilmer, baseball legend Babe Ruth, the first Catholic nominee for president of a major political party, Gov. Alfred E. Smith, and John Edward Reagan, the father of President Ronald Reagan. Other notables include President John F. Kennedy, heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson and legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi. Blessed Carlos Rodriguez, the first Puerto Rican to be beatified, was also an active member.

The order’s reach has been everywhere around the globe, bringing help and hope. “The Knights took a particular interest in people with intellectual disabilities — often excluded or looked down on by society generally, and later, often the targets of abortion,” the Walthers explain. “From the famous Tootsie Roll drives to the Order-wide support for the Special Olympics, Knights at every level helped others to live — with dignity.”

Readers learn about the Global Wheelchair Mission, the order’s work supporting family, pro-life efforts and religious vocations, and their efforts in co-sponsoring major religious events such as the First International Marian Congress dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. The book also examines the Knights’ aid to Christians in the war-torn Middle East.

As the Walthers conclude, “Great things have been done, but the next chapters, yet unwritten, could be the Order’s greatest work.”

Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.