August 2000 Print

The Knights of Columbus, Part 2


Conduits of Patriotism and Heresy (1882-1932)

Part 2

Dr. Justin Walsh

The Knights of Columbus originated...emphasizing not so much Old World ties as loyalty to the new republic....This ardent assimilationism, this devoted Americanism—in an era when "Americanism" was in many Catholic circles a code word for heresy—accounts for the continuous expansion of the Knights....

A second excursion into Americanist Catholicism by Supreme Knight Hearn began in October 1908 when a Council in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, offered a week of instruction about Catholicism for non-Catholics. Bishop James J. Keane of Cheyenne, Wyoming, presented the lectures "to overflowing audiences." Christopher Kauffman wrote tellingly that "Because Keane was a Minnesota priest consecrated bishop by Archbishop John Ireland, and was 'Americanist' in spirit, he was an appropriate choice as a Catholic spokesman to a broadly ecumenical audience." If Kauffman is correct in characterizing Keane as "Americanist," it means that ideas condemned as heretical by Pope Leo XIII were presented as authentic Catholicism under the auspices of the Knights of Columbus. The secular newspaper in Cedar Rapids said the Knights displayed a "lofty idea of brotherly love" by the way they presented the bishop from Wyoming.

Keane repeated his performance in January 1909 with a week-long series in Colorado. Council 539 offered the presentation "as an intellectual and educational gift to the people of Denver, with the spirit of fostering an era of good feelings among all religious bodies in the city." Historian Kauffman described the opening talk:

Bishop Keane expressed his "Americanist" nonpolemic spirit when he stated that "I have not come prepared to show any man that he is wrong, but to bring us all closer to Almighty God."

Councils in Milwaukee, Buffalo, Los Angeles, and Houston, followed suit later with talks by Bishop Keane. Through the Knights of Columbus "nonpolemic" Americanist indifferentism was spreading throughout the United States.

Hearn was ecstatic about Keane's lectures:

For this kind of work I believe our Order is especially equipped. To utilize the great resources of this Order in the cause of Catholic education, and to raise its mighty voice in the cause of Catholic truth, is especially its mission.

It must be emphasized that the "Catholic truth" propounded by Bishop Keane and championed by Supreme Knight Hearn was the "truth" of the Americanist heresy whereby the Church accommodates to Protestants instead of converting them. At least the preponderance of evidence points to this conclusion.

Past Supreme Knight Hearn wrote about the "splendid results" of Knights of Columbus lectures in the Catholic Encyclopedia in 1912:  "They have led to a better understanding of the Catholic faith on the part of non-Catholics, and a more friendly attitude towards it; they have shown that bigotry is on the wane, and that the non-Catholic mind is open to conviction."1 Unfortunately for integral Catholicism—and again this must be emphasized—lectures sponsored by the Knights opened the non-Catholic mind only to the conviction that Catholics can be good Americans, and not to a conviction that non-Catholics must convert if they would be saved.

Edward Hearn's talk of a "more friendly attitude" toward the Faith because "bigotry is on the wane" proved to be wishful thinking. The election of 1912 witnessed an upsurge of nativist hostility, much of it directed against the 300,000 members of the Knights of Columbus. Knights were depicted as the vanguard for the Roman conquest of America, men who took a bogus oath actually authored by a Mason named William C. Black:


I_________ , now in the presence of Almighty God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Blessed St. John the Baptist, the Holy Apostles St. Peter and St. Paul...and you, my Ghostly Father, the superior general of the Society of Jesus, ...declare and swear that His Holiness, the Pope...hath power to depose heretical kings, princes, States, Commonwealths and Governments, and they may be safely destroyed.

According to the fabricated oath, which prints out to two book-length pages, each Knight swore further to "wage relentless war... against all heretics, Protestants and Masons [and] hang, burn, waste, boil, flay, strangle and bury alive those infamous heretics, rip up the stomachs and wombs of their women and crash their infants' heads against the walls in order to annihilate their execrable race." If this were not enough, the spurious oath had Knights promise further to wage war by "the poisonous cup, the strangulation cord, the steel of the poniard, or the leaden bullet." Should any Knight prove false to this oath he agreed to have his Brothers "cut off my hands and feet and my throat from ear to ear, my belly opened and sulphur burned therein."2 Christopher Kauffman suggested one reason for the resurgence of anti-Catholicism during 1912 was the respectableness accorded Knights by governmental officials. Columbus Day, October 12, was a holiday in 30 states due to Knights of Columbus lobbying. In 1907 Congress established a Columbus Memorial Commission and appropriated $100,000 to construct a suitable monument. Secretaries of State Elihu Root (1907-1909) and Philander Knox (1909-1913), both of whom were Masons, served on the Commission along with Supreme Knights Hearn (1907-1909) and James A. Flaherty (1909-1927). The real importance of the Memorial was not that it helped make the Knights "respectable," as Kauffman suggested. Rather it afforded the most grandiose opportunity yet for officers of the Supreme Council to parade their respectability publicly as they rubbed elbows with officials at the highest levels of government.

The Memorial, conveniently located right across from Union Station in Washington, D.C., was dedicated on June 8, 1912. Past Supreme Knight Hearn presided in the presence of President William Howard Taft, most of the cabinet, and several senators, representatives, and Supreme Court justices. The rector of the Catholic University of America offered the invocation, after which President Taft, a Mason, lauded "the courage of Columbus." The President's speech was followed by a parade of 2,500 soldiers and sailors past the reviewing stand. Then, in the words of Columbiad, "nineteen or twenty thousand [Knights] and from first to last they made a showing...which must have been a source of pride and pleasure as well to every Catholic who viewed them."

Twelve hundred dignitaries attended the banquet that evening. Guests included James Cardinal Gibbons and Speaker of the House Champ Clark, a Missouri Democrat and a Mason. The Washington Star reported that the festivities marked "the important position of the an Order in the social fabric of the nation." Past Supreme Knight Hearn, speaking to Christian ecumenism with obvious pride, said "Never in the history of the Nation's Capital...has any civic demonstration equalled, in point of numbers, genteel appearance and orderly demeanor, the patriotic display made by the Knights of Columbus." He added "The spectacle of 20,000 men representing the flower and chivalry of Catholic manhood, marching in well ordered ranks through the streets...would thrill and gladden the heart of any Christian man."3

The Memorial was unveiled during the Presidential campaign of 1912, won by Democrat Woodrow Wilson. On the eve of his inauguration in 1913 the new President declared, "I feel myself perfectly competent to handle domestic policy." In one of the supreme ironies of American history this former professor who entered office proclaiming his competence in domestic matters was destined to spend most of his Presidency dealing with World War I. Eventually Wilson sent 1.5 million Americans to France where they fought to help save the French Republic.

In the half-century prior to 1914 a peculiar affinity had developed between liberal Catholics in France and Catholic Americanists in the United States. The Frenchmen, anti-monarchist and insistent that the Church must adapt to republicanism and revolution, all but canonized Isaac Hecker in the 1890s. For their part the Americanists, led by James Cardinal Gibbons and Archbishop John Ireland, were unflinching in their support of Masonic French republicanism and clerical liberalism. Ireland perhaps gave the best voice to Americanist love for republican France when he addressed the Students' Club of Paris on June 28, 1892:

Before me is French youth, behind me the flags of the sister Republics of France and the United States. Yes, these two Republics love one another, and I pray this evening that they may love one another always. If the demon of discord is to make trouble among the nations of the earth, may there never be any trouble between France and the United States.4

Ireland spoke these words twenty-two years to the day before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand of Austria touched off the Great War of 1914-1918. During that war the "demon of discord" made more trouble than the earth had witnessed within human memory. By the end of 1916 the Allied Powers (France, England, Italy, and Russia) were in stalemate with the Central Powers (Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey). Neither side could win and both had paid too terrible a price in manpower and treasure to lose. Stalemate and its attendant carnage promised to continue indefinitely unless the United States entered the war and broke the deadlock. At the end of 1916, however, belligerency seemed unlikely for Americans; they had just re-elected Woodrow Wilson because "He Kept Us Out of War!"

Early in 1917 Germany angered the United States in ways that persuaded President Wilson to join the Allies. He saw his chance when the Romanov dynasty in Russia succumbed to a provisional government that was democratic. In Wilson's eyes this changed the war into a conflict between progressive democracies (France, England, and Russia) and reactionary monarchies (Imperial Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Ottoman Turkey). On April 2 President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany "in order to make the world safe for Democracy." That reason alone sufficed to make Americanists support the war. But Wilson concluded with an even grander aim: America, proclaimed the President, must fight "A War To End All Wars!" Catholic Americanists, presented with previously undreamed of opportunities to practice the kind of patriotism promulgated by the Knights of Columbus, became giddy with anticipation.

James Cardinal Gibbons issued a statement supporting the war effort almost as soon as he read Wilson's message. "[I]t behooves every American citizen to do his duty, and to uphold the hands of the President," said the Cardinal. "The primary duty of a citizen is loyalty...manifested more by acts than by words; by solemn service rather than by empty declaration. It is exhibited by an absolute and unreserved obedience to his country's call." The Cardinal, who refused "absolute and unreserved obedience" to Rome on such matters as secret societies and Americanism, nonetheless sought unqualified support from Catholics for the President. He seems to have not considered the possible import of America entering a conflict which in its origins had nothing to do with democracy and which in its end would destroy the Catholic House of Habsburg, defenders of the Faith in Vienna since the 13th century. In 1955 MonsignorJohn Tracy Ellis recalled Gibbons's stance. According to this liberal historian at the Catholic University, "This statement from the dean of the American hierarchy was indicative...of the peerless leadership that the great cardinal had for years given to American Catholic affairs."5

Shortly after Wilson's war message, Supreme Knight James Flaherty wrote to the President about the "devotion of 400,000 members" who were determined "to protect the country's honor and its ideals of humanity and right." In a second letter Flaherty told the President about plans to establish centers "for the recreation and spiritual comfort not only of members of the Order and Catholics, but for all [soldiers] regardless of creed." These centers would be patterned after ones established by Knights along the border in 1915 when U.S. troops chased Pancho Villa into Mexico. "To illustrate the nondiscriminatory character of the effort," wrote Christopher Kauffman, "several centers displayed signs which read KNIGHTS OF COLUMBUS FIELD HEADQUARTERS—ALL WELCOME."6

Patrick Henry Callahan, a member from Boston who was active in the Democratic party, worked through Secretary of War Newton D. Baker to get the centers approved. Callahan assured Baker, "There will not be any propaganda or the remotest sort of proselyting [sic]." In return Baker gave the Knights the same privileges that the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) had to establish nonsectarian service clubs. Between June 1917 and June 1919 hundreds of centers were established in the United States, France, Belgium, Italy, and Germany—places where thousands of Catholics received the sacraments and enjoyed recreational amenities. These canteens were affectionately called "Caseys" by additional thousands of non-Catholic servicemen who received succor and "spiritual comfort without evangelization" in the spirit for which the Order was well known.7

The importance of this program and its ecumenical approach was spelled out by Cardinal Gibbons on July 4, 1917. "I want to congratulate the Order for...caring for the temporal and spiritual wants of the soldiers, regardless of their creed or membership in your Order," Gibbons wrote to Supreme [Knight James Flaherty]. "Your [service center program] should forever stamp [you] as men of practical forethought, timely patriotism, and true Christian charity." In 1918 Bishop Peter J. Muldoon of Rockford, chairman of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC), was charged with co-ordination of all war work by the Church. Bishop Muldoon was even more effusive in praising the service program, telling Supreme [Knight James Flaherty]:

[You] are the most important body of Catholic laymen that has ever existed in this country....The Catholic Church is looking to you to make a record, you Grand Knights of the Gospel of Jesus....The Knights of Columbus are doing a sacred work, a truly priestly work ....You are one in Christ and in His Prayer. You have behind you a united Catholic people. Therefore go forth for Jesus Christ and the Glory of the Church.8

Such praise was sufficient to convince doubting Knights that the Order truly worked on behalf of God and Country. So after the Armistice in 1918 the Knights expanded their overseas operation to include occupation forces in Belgium, Italy, and Germany. Over the July 4 holiday in 1919 an ecumenical series of musical shows was presented in Antwerp. The theater was provided by the Catholic Knights, the entertainment by the Protestant YMCA, and the orchestra by the Jewish Welfare Board. It was said at the time that the YMCA gained fame through its canteen service, the Salvation Army through its coffee and donuts, and the Knights of Columbus through its sponsorship of athletic contests (boxing matches, basketball, and softball). In 1920 Secretary of War Newton Baker, a Mason, awarded the Distinguished Service Cross to Supreme Knight James Flaherty in recognition of contributions to the war effort by the Order.9

The experience in France led to the establishment of a teen auxiliary, the Columbian Squires, in 1922-1923. The Squires program was intended as "a sort of Catholic YMCA" in the words of Christopher Kauffman. "Besides competing with Protestant youth organizations," he added, "the Order was emulating the Scottish Rite Masons, whose junior order, the DeMolay organization, had been established recently and had experienced rapid growth."10

Following the Scottish Rite in establishing a DeMolay-like youth group was not the only area where the Knights of Columbus seemed to emulate Masonry. As a quasi-secret society, the Order had been ambivalent toward Freemasonry from the beginning. Like the Craft, it thrived upon secrecy, arcane symbols, esoteric signs, passwords, and outlandish regalia. As early as 1892 German-American Catholics said the Order was "a pernicious secret society." And as Christopher Kauffman points out, the suspicions were not limited to German Catholics: "The ceremonial character...was particularly offensive to conservative Catholics...striking them as pseudo-Masonry in Catholic garb."11

The reluctance to confront American Masonry was shown in 1907 when the Supreme Council ordered an investigation to see if Freemasonry was a source of anti-Catholicism in France and Italy. Fr. Thomas P. Phelan (New York state chaplain), John M. Cleary of the Kansas City Council, and James E. Reilly, past State Deputy of Rhode Island, comprised the committee to investigate. In 1908 they reported that in France Masonry was "anti-Christian and anti-religious" while in America "the Masonic Lodges are regarded as fraternal and social organizations." The report apparently made no reference to Masonry in Italy, where the Craft had been literally at war with the Papacy for more than a century.12

The question of affinity with Freemasonry came to a head after the Order's national convention in 1919.The Supreme Council decided to commemorate "the glorious deeds of the American and French armies" in the recent war and voted unanimously to present a statue of the Marquis de Lafayette—"the French defender of American liberty"—to Lafayette's hometown of Metz. When the French government and the city accepted the offer, charges of Catholic Masonry erupted, first in the German-American community, and then amongst Knights of German extraction. Soon disaffection over Masonry threatened to spread to other ethnic groups inside and outside of the Order.

It was a foregone conclusion that the Knights would ignore complaints originating with German Americans. Since John Ireland and James Gibbons first warred against German "refusal" to Americanize in the 1880s and 1890s, Irish Americanists had been openly hostile to German brethren in the Faith. Hostility turned to near-hatred during World War I when animosity was fanned by a U.S. government that spewed forth a steady stream of hate against "the Hun." Wilson's Committee on Public Information (CPI), a thinly disguised Ministry of Propaganda, drilled the populace with song—"Germany began this war, poor Belgium had no chance"—and film—Kaiser Bill, the Beast of Berlin featuring the withered arm of Wilhelm II. One of the staples of CPI propaganda that was pro-French apocryphally told how a tear-bedimmed General John J. Pershing, upon arriving in Paris, went straight to Lafayette's tomb, where he knelt reverently, kissed the ground, and whispered, "Lafayette, nous voilà!" In 1919 most Americans were leery of all things Germanic and receptive to all things French.

This was the situation when German-American newspapers questioned whether a Catholic Order should honor Lafayette, "a notorious Mason." The proposed pilgrimage to Metz "was a disgrace to true Catholic feelings," declared J. M. Weinzapfel, a Knight from Texas who wrote to the Supreme Council demanding an explanation. In his response Supreme Secretary William J. McGinley explained that the statue was intended "to express appreciation of the aid and assistance given by France to the struggling colonies, in which LaFayette was a leader, standing beside Washington almost from the beginning." As historian Kauffman commented, "McGinley also could have pointed out that there was strong precedent for the Order honoring Freemasons, as most of the heroes of the American revolution were enrolled in Masonic lodges" [emphasis added].

On August 5, 1920, Supreme Knight James Flaherty and 235 Knights embarked for France. They were headed for the most pompous demonstration of Columbianism yet, accompanied by a bronze equestrian statue more than seventeen feet in length and height. The statue was described by the Supreme Master of the Fourth Degree:

[T]he whole image appears to [be] a life-like, living, breathing object. Lafayette's face sharp featured, intelligent, aristocratic. The bas-reliefs are finished in Tennessee marble and the front of the pedestal pictures General Pershing [a Mason] at the tomb, uttering the famous words "Lafayette, we are here." The back depicts Columbus discovering America. One side shows President Wilson delivering his...war speech to Congress, the other Marshal Foch, whose...genius made possible the victory over Prussianism.

Thousands welcomed the Knights on the day of presentation, August 21. The American ambassador opened the festivities, the statue was unveiled, and Flaherty presented Foch with a marshal's baton from Tiffany's that cost $15,000. Then Foch, a Freemason, embraced a fully-costumed Supreme Knight while stammering emotionally "I welcome you, Knights of Columbus, as the representatives of America. I know your merits because of what you have done in the war. The sentiments that led Lafayette to go to America to fight have prompted you to come to Metz to reassure France that America is ever ready to do her part." At the banquet that evening more than 400 guests enjoyed food and drink amidst constant reassertions of Franco-American unity.13

The Knights of Columbus gained 400,000 new members between 1917 and 1923. In the 1920s it performed especially yeoman service by fighting the Ku Klux Klan; indeed, it led the way in overturning a Klan law in Oregon that outlawed parochial schools.14 By 1928, when Brother Al Smith ran for President, there were more than 800,000 members. In addition to the Knights themselves, there were at least three auxiliaries: the Daughters of Isabella for wives, mothers, and other adult females; the Columbian Squires for teenaged boys; and the Catholic Daughters of America for teenaged girls. Collectively they numbered nearly 2,000,000 Catholics out of a total Catholic population of 20,000,000. Of equal importance, out of 27,864 priests in the United States in 1930, better than 6,000 either belonged to the order or served as chaplain to a Council.15

These laymen and priests were strategically located in nearly every parish in America, from whence they could influence the school as well as spiritual and social groups. What did this portend? Catholics who follow Al Smith's advice and "take a look at the record" might reasonably conclude that the Knights of Columbus and its auxiliaries represented ten percent of the Catholic population who acted as conduits for an otherwise quiescent Americanism. It could hardly be otherwise for an Order that always propagated the same Faith: good Catholics are, first of all, good Americans because America is the best thing that ever happened to the Roman Catholic Church.


Dr. Justin Walsh has an undergraduate degree in Journalism and a Master's degree in History from Marquette University and a doctorate in History from Indiana University. He currently teaches at the Society of Saint Pius X's St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, Winona, MN, USA.

1. Hearn statements and programs, Christopher J. Kauffman, Faith and Fraternalism: The History of the Knights of Columbus, 1882-1982 (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 164-165.

2. For the complete text of the oath, ibid., pp. 169-171. With the outbreak of the World War in 1914, both nativists and Knights diverted their attention to war-related issues. The bogus oath, however, was resurrected in the 1920s by the Ku Klux Klan, and used to great effect against Presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith in 1928. See Paul A. Fisher, Behind the Lodge Door: Church, State and Freemasonry in America (Rockford, Ill.: TAN Books, Inc., 1994), pp. 92-95.

3. For the Memorial see Kauffman, Faith and Fraternalism, pp. 162-163. Members of the Fourth Degree do appear somewhat pompous when they march at public functions with graven visage, attired in naval officers' parade dress of Columbus's era: plumed Commodore's helmet, navy blue uniform with gold epaulets, red cummerbund, bejeweled sword and scabbard.

4. Ireland as quoted by Charles Maignen, Father Hecker: Is He A Saint? (English Edition, London, Burns and Oates, 1898), Preface, p. xii.

5. John Tracy Ellis, American Catholicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), pp. 136-137. Ellis's words are evidence that liberals rarely learn the lessons of history. From the perspective of 40 years he should have perceived that the war did not make the world safe for democracy but led instead to Communist and Fascist dictatorships. Ellis should also have seen that the war hardly ended all wars as witnessed by World War II and Korea. The liberal monsignor was so busy lauding the Americanist Cardinal and the wartime work of such Catholic organizations as the Knights that he failed to notice the broader implications of American participation for the Church and Christian civilization.

6. Kauffman, Faith and Fraternalism, pp. 190-192.

7. Ibid., pp. 197-198.

8. Ibid., letter from Gibbons, p. 210, letter from Muldoon, p. 219.

9. Ibid., post-Armistice program, p. 221, award to Flaherty, p. 223.

10. Ibid., p. 256. The YMCA originated in England and America during the second half of the 19th century. It was one of Masonry's "Associated Organizations" that Pope Leo XIII warned Catholics to shun.

11. Ibid., pp. 93-94.

12. Ibid., p. 175.

13. Ibid., pp. 231-233.

14. For the Order in the 1920s, see ibid., pp. 261-286.

15. For statistics see Theodore Roemer, The Catholic Church in the United States (St. Louis: B. Herder Co., 1950), pp. 353-354.

Part I