Knights of Columbus

Knights of Columbus


On October 2, 1881, Father Michael J. McGivney, 29-year-old assistant pastor at St. Mary's Church in New Haven, Connecticut, brought together a group of laymen with whom he discussed his dream for a Catholic fraternal benefit society. It not only would assist widows and orphans of deceased members through its life insurance program, but also would boost members' sense of pride in their Catholic religion, then frequently challenged in the anti-Catholic climate of 19th-century America. Father McGivney and his associates met several more times over the next several months to continue planning, and the new organization —the Knights of Columbus — was formally launched in early February, 1882.


The officers of the new Catholic organization chose the name Knights of Columbus to honor Christopher Columbus, the Catholic discoverer of America. The word knights is also significant. We are ever mindful of the knightly qualities of spirituality and service to church that is embodied in the Knights of Columbus. The Order has evolved into a service organization with a strong family orientation. By the end of 1897 the Order was thoroughly rooted in New England, along the upper Atlantic seaboard and into Canada. Within the next eight years it branched out from Quebec to California, and from Florida to Washington.


The Knights of Columbus remains headquartered in New Haven, but is now present with nearly 12000 Councils in the United States, Canada, the Philippines, Mexico, and several other countries. One of the primary missions of the Knights of Columbus is to support local charities. The Knights are a familiar sight around town during the annual Tootsie Roll® drive, which raises funds for charities that support the retarded and handicapped. We also support other fund raising drives to aid local parishes and charities. The Knights of Columbus promotes family values by providing numerous activities throughout the year that the entire family can participate in. Additionally, the organization provides an opportunity to ensure that a knight's family is provided for in the event of his death.

Supreme Office, New Haven, CT

Return to Top

Hierarchical Structure of the Knights of Columbus

All members of the Knights of Columbus are Brothers, and belong to a local Council, and any group of at least thirty men may apply to found a new Council in their area. The highest elected officer of each Council is the Grand Knight, who, with the other Council Officers, is elected by the membership each year. The Grand Knight appoints various Program Directors and Chairmen to run the Council's activities for the year. All Council activities except Membership activities, fall into one of five Program Areas, each with a Director. The five Directors of Church Activities, Community Activities, Council Activities, Family Activities and Youth Activities report to a General Programs Director, who in turn reports to the Grand Knight. Several Councils within the same geographic area are grouped together in a District under the guidance of the District Deputy and his assistant, the District Warden.

The District Officers are appointed by the State Deputy, the highest elected officer of the State Council. State Officers and Program Chairmen are analogous to those at the Council level and coordinate the activities of all the Councils throughout the State. Each Spring, the State Deputy hosts a Convention to elect officers and conduct other State business. Every Grand Knight and one elected Delegate represent every Council in the state at this Convention. The highest level within the Knights of Columbus is the Supreme Council, headed by the Supreme Knight. At the Supreme Convention each summer, State Deputies and Representatives from each State, Territory, or Country meet to conduct business concerning the international operation of the Order.

Return to Top

Ceremonials of the Order

There are four "Degrees" of Knighthood within the Knights of Columbus. The initiation ceremonies into each of these Degrees (the ceremonies themselves are also called "Degrees") are the only facets of the Order which are not made known to non-members.

Each of the Degrees is designed to exemplify one of the four Principals of the Order: Charity, Unity, Fraternity and Patriotism. The Degrees must be taken in order. Every applicant must take the First, or Membership, Degree before he can be considered a Member of the Knights of Columbus. Once he has taken his First Degree, he becomes a member in good standing in the Order. To reach full Knighthood, members must also take the Second and Third Degrees, and all members are strongly encouraged to do so.

Members must have taken the Third degree to be elected to Council offices or to enter into the Fourth Degree. Once a man has been a member of the Knights of Columbus for a year and has taken his Third Degree, he is eligible to join a Fourth Degree Assembly. The Fourth Degree has its own structure separate from that of the Council. Fourth Degree Assemblies gain their membership from Third Degree members of several Councils within a larger geographic area. The most visible members of the Order are often the Fourth Degree Color Corps, with their colorful capes, chapeaux and sabers.

Return to Top

The Fourth or Patriotic Degree


Another degree open to members of the Knights of Columbus is that of the Fourth (or Patriotic) Degree. On February 22, 1900, the first exemplification of that degree was held in New York City. The ritual added patriotism to the three original principles of the Order: Charity, Unity and Fraternity. Any Third Degree member in good standing, one year after the anniversary of his First Degree, is eligible for membership in the Fourth Degree. The primary purpose of the Fourth Degree is to foster the spirit of patriotism by promoting responsible citizenship and a love of and loyalty to the Knights' respective countries through active membership in local Fourth Degree groups called assemblies. Fourth Degree members must retain their membership as Third Degree members in the local council to remain in good standing. Certain members of the Fourth Degree serve as honor guards at civic and religious functions, an activity which has brought worldwide recognition to the Knights of Columbus organization.

Return to Top

Robes and Jewels of Council Officers


Each Council Officer has his own ceremonial robe and a metal emblem called a jewel worn on a ribbon around the neck. Officers' robes are all of the general design called the Columbus Robe. It is a flowing robe with inserted yoke, usually white. The opening is in the back with invisible clasps. There are inner or coat sleeves and outer or flowing sleeves. There is a standing collar, open in front, and a cowl or hood. Three belt straps are provided around the waist for a cincture or belt containing two tabs. The cincture is worn so that the tabs hang down along the left side of the body, but not on the hip. The tabs are ended in fringe. The mantle, as prescribed for the State Deputy, Grand Knight and Chancellor, is a sleeveless coat with large arm holes, and is worn over the Columbus Robe.

Return to Top

Council Officers


The Chaplain provides spiritual guidance to the Council. His emblem is the Cross, worn on a black ribbon. The robe, too, is black with black trimming and yoke with white projecting collar. The cincture is black with silver fringe.


The Grand Knight is the Chief Executive Officer of the Council and is responsible for all aspects of Council operation. He presides over Council meetings and is ex-officio member of all committees. His emblem, the Anchor carried on a purple ribbon, is indicative of Columbus, the Mariner. It has also been a variant form of the Cross for centuries. His is a royal purple robe with white cincture with silver fringe. A purple mantle with white roll collar is also worn.


The Deputy Grand Knight acts on behalf of the Grand Knight in his absence and also serves as General Programs Director at Fr. Rosensteel Council. His emblem, the Compass, was also used by Columbus, the Mariner. The Knights of Columbus Compass, with its points being Charity, Unity, Fraternity and Patriotism, is known as the Compass of Virtue; its 32 flame-like rays represent the 32 virtues which may be possessed by men. It is hung from a purple ribbon. His robe is the same as the Grand Knight, but without the mantle.


The Chancellor is the third ranking Council Officer. He is in charge of Vocations and indoctrinating new members into Council activities. At Fr. Rosensteel Council, the Chancellor usually acts as Council Activities Chairman as well. His emblem is the Isabella Cross, with Skull and Crossbones; it is worn on a black over white ribbon. The Cross is self-explanatory, while the Skull and Crossed Bones are symbolic of man's mortality. The Chancellor wears a black robe trimmed with white and a white cincture with silver fringe. He also wears a black mantle with white roll collar.


The Financial Secretary records all money transactions, issues and collects bills, issues membership cards, and is otherwise responsible for all financial matters of the Council except those allocated to the Treasurer. His emblem is a Crossed Key and Quill. The Key has always been associated with an office concerned with money, safekeeping and secrecy. The Quill is the symbol of a scribe - a record keeper - one who writes letters, documents, etc. This jewel is worn on a white over yellow ribbon. His robe is black, trimmed with black, and a white cincture with silver fringe.


The Treasurer keeps all funds, maintains the accounts of the Council, and issues Council checks upon receipt of a proper voucher from the Financial Secretary. Crossed Keys worn on a blue ribbon are symbolic of his complete authority over funds, particularly responsibility for their safekeeping. His robe is black, trimmed with black, and a white cincture with silver fringe.


The Warden assures that all members at meetings possess the current membership card. He is custodian of all Council property except funds and is in charge of properly setting up the Council Chamber. He directs the activities of the Inside and Outside Guards. His emblem, an Axe Bound with Rods, known as a Faces, was traditionally carried by the guards or protectors of Roman magistrates as a symbol of authority. The Warden ideally has and exercises that authority. The ribbon is colored red over black. His robe is black trimmed with scarlet with a scarlet cincture with silver fringe.


The Recorder keeps the minutes of the meetings, conducts correspondence as directed by the Grand Knight, and keeps official historic documents of the Council. In the absence of the Grand Knight and Deputy Grand Knight, he presides at Council meetings. Crossed Quills hung from a white over yellow ribbon are symbolic of his responsibilities for letter and document (records) writing and preservation. His robe is black, trimmed with black, with a white cincture with silver fringe.


The Lecturer provides entertainment for the members after meetings, particularly the second meeting of the month, which is the social meeting, and handles certain other major social events of the Council such as Family Dinners. His emblem consists of Lyre and Scroll. These are traditionally symbols of music and literature and the arts. Hence, the Lecturer is in charge of entertainment. His ribbon is white over blue. The Lecturer wears a black robe with national blue trimming and blue cincture with silver fringe.


The Advocate is the Chief Legal Officer of the Council, resolving procedural matters, acting as parliamentarian, and otherwise handling all legal activities. His emblem is the Scroll with Crossed Sword hung from a yellow ribbon. The Scroll is emblematic of legal literature and law, while the Sword indicates the power to defend and enforce the law. The Advocate's robe is black with golden yellow trim and yellow cincture with silver fringe.


The Trustees (three in number) oversee the financial transactions of the Council, review all bills and financial reports and audit the Council's financial records semi-annually. Their emblems, Crossed Key and Sword, indicate this financial authority and are worn on green ribbons. Trustees wear black robes trimmed in green.


The Inside Guard (1) and Outside Guards (2) are charged with the security of the Council Chamber and assist the Warden in meeting the duties of his Office. Their emblems, Crossed Key and Axe hung from a white ribbon, represent their power as sentries at the door. Their robes are gray with black trim and yoke. The cincture is also black with silver fringe.

Return to Top

College Councils

Not only are the Knights of Columbus concerned about young adults being able to attend college, as demonstrated through the scholarship and student loan programs, but they have implemented a plan to allow Catholic young men to associate with others through membership in a Knights of Columbus council on their college campus. Membership in one of the nearly 140 college councils offers the student an opportunity to associate with fellow Catholics, to participate in an active campus organization and thereby accept positions of responsibility.

It also enables him to become involved in the college and local community through the activities and projects sponsored by the council. A national conference of representatives meets annually to discuss the particular situation of college councils and makes recommendations for the growth and improvement of the college council program. Members in college councils are encouraged to transfer their membership to the community council in which they locate after graduation. Their field of education and their experience as an active knight on the college campus can be of substantial benefit to the local council into which they transfer.

Return to Top

The Fraternal Survey

Each year, reports of the annual survey of fraternal activity conducted for the National Fraternal Congress of America reveal an impressive Knights of Columbus donation of time, money and energy. In one recent year alone, for example, with approximately 78% of all units reporting, the Order generated $100 million and 43 million volunteer hours of service for charitable causes. In the category of charitable or benevolent disbursements, including assistance to the sick, handicapped, disaster victims, hospitals and other institutions, civic and community projects, schools and libraries, the Knights contribute in the area of $80 million, in addition to substantial amounts from the Supreme Council.

Another $48 million is spent on activities, in addition to $12 million for work with young people. The Knights also average 4.3 million visits to the sick and bereaved, give 300,000 donations of blood, contribute 43.3 million volunteer hours of community service and 6.2 million hours of labor for sick or disabled members.

In a world where the golden rule - "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" - sometimes becomes "Do unto others before they do unto you," the Knights of Columbus stands out as an organization that takes fraternity seriously.

The dictionary defines fraternity as "the state or quality of being brothers."

lt also describes it as a "group of men joined together by common interests" or "a group of people with the same beliefs, interest, work." The Knights of Columbus form real fraternity in all three senses. As practical Catholics, Knights carry fraternity to the limits of love: unselfish service to their Church, country, community and council.

Faith, fellowship, philanthropy. These are the distinguishing marks of the Knights. This brief record of some of their achievements shows that they have remained true to their heritage and that they have continued to build on it for future generations.

Return to Top


Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License