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October 21 - November 3, 2012

Knights of Columbus: Connecting men to their faith while serving others

Zen Grodecki leads a Corpus Christi procession at St. Monica Parish on June 9. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

Guadalupe Chavez prays during the Hispanic Charismatic Renewal at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago on April 26, 2008. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

Surrounded by the Knights of Columbus, Cardinal George blessed a new cross following a Mass on June 2 at St. Joseph Parish in Homewood. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

Venerable Father Michael J. McGivney CNS file photo

Hector Ruiz, a member of council 6964, escorts the relics of six Knights of Columbus Mexican Martyrs following a prayer vigil at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Schaumburg on Sept. 17, 2008. These Knights, who joined the ranks of the Mexican Martyrs, were among 25 victims of religious persecution canonized in 2000 by Pope John Paul II. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

In this 2010 file picture, Knights pray near a photo of Captain Joseph Olbinski, a former AAF pilot who was reported MIA in May 1944. Parishioners at Resurrection Parish held a formal funeral service for the deceased soldier who's remains were recently found. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

Pedro Hernandez, a member of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Council 8595, collects money for the group's annual drive in Summit/Argo on Sept. 17, 2011. Council 8595 is one of 12 Spanish-speaking councils in Illinois. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

By Michelle Martin

STAFF WRITER

When a Father Michael McGivney started the Knights of Columbus 130 years ago, things weren’t so different than they are now, said Richard Spada, state deputy for the Illinois State Council of the Knights of Columbus.

Many Catholic immigrants had come into the United States and were working dangerous, low-paying jobs. Families were suffering, especially when a breadwinner was hurt or killed, men were spending so much time trying to provide for their families that they were not very active in their faith, and some were walking away from the church to try to better fit into American society.

So McGivney started what turned out to be the largest Catholic fraternal service organization in the world, with 1.8 million members in 14,000 councils in more than 10 countries. The organization remains true to its roots, Spada said, by continually focusing on the four pillars of charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism.

In Illinois, there are 73,000 members in 450 councils, Spada said. Those are numbers the state council is always trying to increase. Spada said that they don’t separate their numbers out by dioceses but they estimate the Archdiocese of Chicago is home to about 125 councils and between 12,000 and 15,000 Knights.

The goal of the Knights was to involve Catholic men in an organization that would bring them together to serve others, providing them a way to remain active in their parishes, all the while connecting them more closely to their Catholic faith. And, given the anti-Catholicism of the times, they also emphasized their love of their country and took Christopher Columbus as their patron.

The idea was that by connecting men to their faith, they would be “better men, better Catholics, better husbands, better fathers, better bosses and better workers. It all comes under the heading of practicing Christian values,” Spada said.

Spada sees a direct connection to the way many Hispanic immigrants are viewed, and said the Knights of Columbus are focusing recruitment efforts on Hispanic Catholic men. Father Claudio Diaz, pastor of Mision San Juan Diego in Arlington Heights and former director of Hispanic ministry for the Archdiocese of Chicago, is the associate state chaplain, and 10 Knights of Columbus councils in the Archdiocese of Chicago are predominantly Hispanic.

Venerable Father Michael J. McGivney

Born to working-class Irish immigrants in Waterbury, Conn., Father Michael McGivney was no stranger to economic hardship and the havoc that it could wreak on a family. McGivney himself worked as a youth in a Connecticut spoon factory, and then had to interrupt his seminary studies to help provide for his mother and siblings after his father died.

He eventually was ordained in 1877 and celebrated his first Mass at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn. He was still serving at that parish when he convened the first Knights of Columbus Council in the church basement in 1882, looking for a way to help the community provide for widows and orphans and to help men in the parish form a connection to one another and the church.

He was named pastor of St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, Conn., in 1884. He died of pneumonia in 1890 at the age of 38 and was buried in his family’s plot in Waterbury. Nearly all the 57 Knights of Columbus councils that had been formed in his lifetime sent a representative to his funeral.

The Knights of Columbus re-interred him in a sarcophagus in St. Mary’s Church in 1982, in recognition of the organization’s 100th anniversary. His cause for sainthood was opened in 1997, and he was declared venerable in 2008.

Many Chicago-area residents are probably most familiar with the knights from seeing fourth-degree members in colorful hats and capes in solemn liturgical processions or marching in Columbus Day parades, or standing at intersections collecting donations and passing out Tootsie Rolls to benefit programs for the intellectually disabled.

The latter is one of the organization’s largest charitable projects, Spada said, and it reaches back to when the Knights helped fund the beginnings of the Special Olympics. The state council still gives generously to the Special Olympics, Spada said, and many councils also use the proceeds from the Tootsie Roll drive to support local special religious education programs.

However, the largest of the Illinois State Council’s charitable efforts isn’t necessarily as visible. The state council gives more than $200,000 each year to support Newman Centers at the state’s non-Catholic colleges and universities.

Newman Centers provide a place for young people, often living away from home for the first time, to learn about and practice their faith, and allow them to come in contact with people who will reinforce their moral compasses. Many young men have discerned vocations to the priesthood through involvement with their college Newman Centers, Spada said, and many more young men and women have discerned a vocation to a Catholic married and family life.

Other charitable efforts dovetail with the organization’s efforts to promote respect for life, including pro-life baby showers to help support crisis pregnancy centers and a new effort to support homes for single mothers.

The Knights of Columbus also strive to support families, both at the level of individual family units and at the macro-level, where the organization is involved in trying to protect the traditional definition of marriage.

“We’re parish based, but we’re also an international organization, so we have people who are testifying before Congress on laws that affect the family,” Spada said.

On an individual level, parish-based councils are encouraged to hold plenty of family activities such as picnics or service projects open to the whole family, especially during a designated “family week” in August. And “family” does not mean just an active member and his wife and children; it includes parents and other extended family members and the widows and children of members who have died.

Spada said one of the initiatives he is working on, called “Father McGivney’s Dream,” is aimed at finding ways to involve widows. “When we talked to them, a lot of them just said they felt isolated,” Spada said. “Some of them want just to be invited to social things, some of them want to be more involved.”

And, given that the Knights of Columbus is a fraternal benefit society, not a non-profit service organization, their life insurance program also helps, Spada said. While Knights life insurance agents meet all the state criteria for insurance agents, Spada said, their job is not so much to sell insurance policies as to help members plan for their families’ needs, and to help them cope with practical matters after a death.

That’s the outgrowth of Father Mc- Givney’s original effort at passing the hat among his members to provide for the widows and orphans in their midst, Spada said.

“It started with people just putting in nickels and dimes, and knowing there was somewhere they could go if they needed help,” Spada said.