The Knights of Columbus was the creation of Father Michael McGivney, an Irish-American Catholic priest in New Haven, Connecticut who saw the need for a men’s fraternal order for Catholics. Most existing fraternal orders were formally condemned by the Vatican, which had extended its longtime rejection of Freemasonry to other secret societies during the course of the nineteenth century. The popularity of fraternal benefit societies in 1880s’ America, and the very real advantages of fraternal mutual aid, made it difficult for the Catholic Church to maintain its rejection of fraternalism without providing a replacement.
The Knights of Columbus was Father McGivney’s solution to this problem, and with the approval of his superiors, it was founded in 1888.
The new organization expanded quickly, and had Councils (local lodges) throughout the United States before 1900. In that year it added a new, uniformed degree, the Degree of Patriotism, to the three degrees originally created by Father McGivney and his associates, and in 1904 a burlesque degree modeled on the Shriners, the International Order of Alhambra, was created. The Knights of Columbus currently have a presence in the US, Canada, Mexico, and the Philippines, and is in the process of establishing its first Councils in Poland as of this writing. An organization based on the Knights of Columbus, the Knights of St Columbanus, was founded in Ireland in 1915 and remains active there.
The Knights of Columbus use most of the standard elements of the fraternal societies of the time, but vary them where necessary to meet the requirements of the Catholic Church’s ban on secret orders. Membership in the Catholic faith is a requirement of membership, members do not take oaths, and the promise of secrecy specifically exempts the confessional. Like other fraternal benefit societies, it offers insurance policies to members; as a Catholic organization, it also raises funds for church causes and charitable works. Its founder Father McGivney has recently been proposed for sainthood, though the Vatican has not yet acted on the proposal.