The Knights of Columbus was founded in 1882 by a 29-year-old parish priest, Father Michael J. McGivney, in the basement of St. Mary's Church in New Haven, Connecticut. Today, more than a century later, the Knights of Columbus has become the largest lay organization in the Catholic Church.
People who knew Father McGivney in this period were impressed by his energy and intensity. Father Gordian Daley later recalled, "I saw him but once, and yet I remember this pale, beautiful face as if I saw it only yesterday. It was a "priest's face" and that explains everything. It was a face of wonderful repose. There was nothing harsh in that countenance although there was everything that was strong. William Geary, one of the Order's charter members, said that at the first council meeting in 1882, he was "acclaimed as founder by 24 men with hearts full of joy and thanksgiving, recognizing that without his optimism, his will to succeed, his counsel and advice they would have failed."
Father McGivney had suggested Sons of Columbus as a name for the Order. This would bind Catholicism and Americanism together through the faith and bold vision of the New World's discoverer.
The word "knights" replaced "sons" because key members of the organizing group who were Irish-born Civil War veterans felt it would help to apply a noble ritual in support of the emerging cause of Catholic civil liberty.
In the first public reference to the Order on February 8, 1882, the New Haven Morning Journal and Courier said the Knights of Columbus' initial meeting had been held the night before.
On March 29, the Connecticut legislature granted a charter to the Knights of Columbus, formally establishing it as a legal corporation. The Order's principles in 1882 were "Unity" and "Charity." The concepts of "Fraternity" and "Patriotism" were added later. Each of these ideals played a major role in ceremonials from the beginning. The Columbus-linked themes, says historian Christopher J. Kauffman, "reverberated with pride in the American promise of liberty, equality and opportunity."
The Order has been called "the strong right arm of the Church," and has been praised by popes, presidents and other world leaders, for support of the Church, programs of evangelization and Catholic education, civic involvement and aid to those in need. As recently as 1992, Mother Teresa of Calcutta praised the Knights in a speech on the occasion of her reception of the first Knights of Columbus Gaudium et Spes Award.
Thanks to the inspired work of Father McGivney as well as that of millions of other Knights over the past century the Knights of Columbus now stands at its pinnacle of membership, benefits and service. Currently, there are over 1.6 million Knights of Columbus more than ever before in our Order's history. Together with their families, the Knights are nearly 6 million strong. In addition, from the first local council in New Haven, the Order has grown to more than 12,000 councils in the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Panama, the Virgin Islands, Guatemala, Guam and Saipan. Each year, the Order continues this strong growth.