The white-feathered hats, red capes and ceremonial swords are history. As of July, Knights of Columbus leaders are donning blue blazers, white shirts, berets and sashes.
Likewise, the once-ubiquitous Knights of Columbus social halls have been shutting their doors as the Catholic men’s organization offers online memberships and a tighter focus on family and church activities.
Such are the changes unfolding with the Knights of Columbus, which held its annual convention in Minneapolis this week. More than 3,000 people from a dozen countries attended, offering a rare look at the group’s global reach, its efforts to invigorate its often-stodgy image, and new charity projects that include humanitarian aid for refugees on the southern U.S. border.
“We’ve been around a long time,” said Carl Anderson, the Supreme Knight and CEO of the organization that started in 1882 in Connecticut. “The question is: How do we continue to be relevant year after year?”
The organization’s challenges, and opportunities, were evident during the gathering, starting with Anderson’s annual report to membership.
There are nearly 2 million Knights of Columbus globally, making it the largest fraternal group in the world, Anderson told a packed conference hall. The United States, Canada and the Philippines have the largest numbers. The group donated $185 million and 76 million volunteer hours last year for projects ranging from disaster relief to Special Olympics to food packages.
Its Knights of Columbus Insurance reached nearly $9 billion in annual sales and has more than $26 billion in assets under management, he said. And it just launched another financial tool for members.
But a glance around the conference hall showed one of the biggest challenges behind the accomplishments: an aging, predominantly white membership.
Attracting new faces
Attracting more and younger members is a priority. Following research and focus groups, the group made several changes to attract new faces, including ditching the feathered-hat uniform and offering online memberships that let men join without going through a long initiation process.
“Young people like myself don’t want to get dressed up in a cape and feathered chapeau,” said Jeremy Hadash, a 32-year-old member from Mounds View.
But the rituals still attract some, leaders said, and the organization will need to both modernize and maintain its rituals.
That pomp and ceremony was evident at the mass that opened the convention. The massive meeting hall at the Minneapolis Convention Center looked like a cathedral, thanks to billboard-sized images of stained-glass windows projected across walls in the room.
As trumpets sounded, a solemn procession emerged from the back. Following a large crucifix, dozens of knights, 75 robed bishops and nearly 120 priests filed to the altar on the front stage. St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop Bernard Hebda led the liturgy.
“How beautifully you have transformed this space into a cathedral,” Hebda said, looking over the scene.
The mass was a reminder that this is a Catholic-only organization. Members must be at least 18, practicing Catholics, and follow in the footsteps of the group’s founder, the Rev. Michael McGivney, a Connecticut priest who supported needy families.
That focus on families has long been a hallmark of the group, but it may have gotten diluted in the past. Marc Peters, the Minnesota state deputy for the knights, has been a knight 30 years and has watched the organizational shift.
“It’s night and day,” Peters said. “When we had all the [social] halls, the guys would go to a meeting, then get a drink, play cards. Now we’re very family-oriented. We belong more to the parish.”
Today, the 41,000 Minnesota knights sponsor fun runs and soccer challenges and work on Habitat for Humanity houses in addition to longtime projects such as supporting Catholic education and parish and clergy needs.
Defending Catholic positions
The knights also are defenders of Catholic positions on social issues. They fund Catholic media outlets and think tanks, legislative initiatives to ban same-sex marriage, and legislation and organizations that oppose abortion. The group has donated more than 1,000 ultrasound machines nationally in the past decade to pregnancy centers that discourage women from having abortions, Anderson said.
The Catholic Church also has long supported immigrants, and Anderson announced that the knights will make a $250,000 starter donation to support refugees at the Texas border and will expand to other states. It’s a “natural extension” of the knights’ work with global refugees, he said.
“This is not a political statement,” Anderson said. “This is about helping people who need our help right now.”
Another new initiative, he said, is more outreach to American Indians. The knights will fund a shrine in New Mexico to Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, the first American Indian saint.
The group also is boosting its financial services, this year launching the Knights of Columbus Charitable Fund to help members and Catholic groups direct charitable giving.
All this sounds good to younger knights such as Hadash. But he has a more basic goal this year: “We need to get creative about what we do,” he said. “I think we need to just talk to younger families and ask, ‘What do you want?’ Just ask.”