Monday, October 13, 2014

The Knights Who Say Columbus

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

        America is a nation of immigrants but it often has a troubled relationship with them.  During the late-19th century, America experienced a massive influx of immigrants.  Many of them were from predominantly Catholic countries including Italy, Poland and Ireland.  The native born Anglo-Saxon Protestant stock looked upon these new Americans with fear and distrust.  They formed explicitly anti-Catholic fraternal organization including the Junior Order of United American Mechanics and the Scottish Rite Masons.

Father McGivney

             In response, Catholics formed their own society.  The Knights of Columbus were founded by Father Michael McGivney in the spring of 1882 in New Haven, Connecticut.  Their goal was to unite American Catholics and provide financial security to the dependents of workers killed or injured on the job.  In order bolster their patriotic credentials they named themselves after Christopher Columbus, who was both a Catholic and the first white explorer to colonize the Americas. 

Elmira Council centennial program, 1997

            The Knight’s initial growth was slow but by the early 1900s they had chapters in every state in the Union, plus Canada, Mexico, Panama, Cuba and the Philippines.  The Elmira Council #229 of the Knights of Columbus was formed in 1897.  The chapter’s founders included a number of prominent Catholic citizens like Daniel Sheehan (mayor) and Edward J. Dunn (financier and philanthropist).  The Elmira Council hosted New York State Convention in 1911, 1932, 1944 and 1958.  Since their founding, they have been actively involved in charitable giving both locally and nationally.  Members were involved in the creation of St. Joseph’s Church, the Arctic League and the Catholic Charities of Chemung County. 
Daniel Sheehan, 1st Grand Knight of Elmira Council

       Over the years, the Knights of Columbus have been involved in a number of different causes.  My personal favorite is their anti-discrimination work during the 1920s.  During this time, the Ku Klux Klan was on the rise, even in Elmira (see ThingsWe Don’t Like to Talk About for details).  The Klan smeared the Knights of Columbus claiming that they were a violent anti-Protestant group and pushed for an end to parochial schools.  The Knights joined forces with Jews, Blacks and other minorities to protest Klan activities.  They sponsored lecture tours and demonstrations, and by published books on the accomplishments and contributions of Catholic-, Jewish- and African-Americans.  On one occasion, an inter-racial group led by the Knights stormed and broke up a Klan rally in New Jersey. 

             Unfortunately, I have to do a lot more digging before I can say whether or not the Elmira Council of the Knights of Columbus was involved in any anti-Klan activities.  Stay tuned for future blog posts to see if I ever get around to doing that research.

Postcard issued by The Knights of Columbus during World War I