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Borderlands: Texas Knights of Columbus Began in El Paso 23 (2004-2005)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Texas Knights of Columbus Began in El Paso

Article first published in Vol. 23 (2004-2005)

By Karima Garcia, Ernest Mijares, Vanessa Torres and Kazstelia Vasquez

On Flag Day, June 14, 2004, the U. S. Supreme Court preserved the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance when it ruled that a California atheist could not challenge the phrase on behalf of his daughter because he is not the custodial parent. But how did the words "under God" become part of the pledge? In 1953, the Knights of Columbus began a campaign to add the phrase, helping to convince Congress to add it to the Pledge of Allegiance. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill 50 years ago on Flag Day, June 14, 1954.


Image caption: Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus from Assembly 2828, Our Lady of the Americas. From left to right: David Luna, Mario Mallari, Danny Colango, Refugio (Cuco) Ceballos, Frank Ortiz, Edward Granado and Jesus Carrasco. Photo by Liz Granado.

While most Americans know the Pledge of Allegiance, many know nothing about the Knights of Columbus. This is a Catholic fraternal organization that has helped the nation for 120 years. The knights protect Catholic heritage and culture while serving their community through various programs. Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson heads the organization today, but Father Michael J. McGivney founded the society.

Father McGivney was born in the industrial slums of Waterbury, Connecticut, on August 12, 1852, to an Irish immigrant family. He attended St. Hyacinthe College in Quebec, Canada, for four years and was later ordained in Baltimore's historic Cathedral of the Assumption by Archbishop James Gibbons on December 22, 1877.

In 1881, he discussed his dream of a fraternal benefit society with a group of laymen from St. Mary's Church in New Haven, Connecticut. The group would assist widows and orphans of deceased members and boost a sense of pride among its members to counter the anti-Catholic climate of 19th Century America. Nativist sentiment  --  associated with anti-Catholic prejudice and preferential treatment for those born in America  -- experienced a revival in the 1880s, in response to new waves of immigration from European Catholic countries. This prejudice was involved in several anti-Catholic riots in the late 19th century, including the Philadelphia nativist riots.

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Father McGivney wrote a letter to the priests of the Diocese of Hartford, Connecticut, explaining the society's goals. The first was to dissuade Catholics from joining secret societies by offering them more advantages. The second, in his own words, was to "aid each other in time of sickness; to provide for decent burial, and to render pecuniary assistance to families of deceased members."

Father McGivney named his organization after Christopher Columbus, who brought Christianity to the New World. The term "Knights" emphasized the members' service to God and country like knights centuries before. On March 29, 1882, the Connecticut Legislature recognized the Knights of Columbus as a legal corporation. 

Father McGivney worked for the organization until his death. Always frail, he caught pneumonia in January 1890. Doctors attempted many treatments, but on August 14, 1890, he died at the young age of 38, beloved by thousands of people as both a parish priest and the founder of the largest society of Catholic men in the world. He was buried in Waterbury, Conn.

The first Knights of Columbus council in Texas was established in El Paso in 1902. Michael Burke, a member from Indiana, who was in El Paso to build the electric streetcar line, began discussing the organization with local businessmen, James Clifford and E. V. Berrien. After numerous preliminary meetings, the El Paso Council No. 638 of the Knights of Columbus was established on April 12, 1902. D. P. Beckham served as the first Grand Knight. The Denver and Albuquerque councils assisted in the ceremonies at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, 118 N. Campbell St.

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This first Texas council embarked on a train trip throughout Texas in 1903, organizing councils in Dallas, Fort Worth, Galveston and San Antonio. They organized a council in Houston in 1905. The El Pasoans also helped organize other councils in the Southwest.

A 1966 El Paso Times article describes a commemorative tablet, presented by the State National Bank, that was dedicated during the annual convention of the Texas Knights of Columbus. The inscription describes the founding meeting in 1902. The tablet was installed on the front wall of the Immaculate Conception Church.

After Pancho Villa's raid on Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916, President Wilson stationed troops along the Mexico- U.S. border. Council 638 organized recreation centers providing soldiers with candy, cigarettes and cigars and a place where they could write letters to their families. One of the men leading this operation was Grand Knight Joseph Ignatius Driscoll.

William H. Oberste, in a history of the Knights in Texas, writes that Driscoll served nine successive terms as State Deputy, the highest state office of the organization. Driscoll helped expand these centers or "huts," as soldiers called them, during World War I. With their slogan, "Everybody Welcome, Everything Free," the huts became a national project of the Knights of Columbus. Approved by General Pershing, huts were established at army stations at home and abroad, including France, Germany, Italy and Siberia. The order raised more than $14 million on its own to support this program.

When the war ended, the local Knights donated all the recreational centers at Camp Pershing, Camp Cotton and Camp Stewart to the Catholic Church for use in educational endeavors.

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Knights also contributed to adult education when veterans had a difficult time finding jobs after the war. Members devoted hours conducting or arranging training in English, bookkeeping and other commercial skills. They also provided financial assistance through scholarships and a loan fund to benefit students at Catholic colleges in Texas.

In the 1920s, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in El Paso reinforced the Council's determination to fight Catholic defamation by educating people about Catholicism and encouraging Catholics to be proud of their faith. Attorney William H. Fryer, member of the Knights of Columbus, led the successful struggle to rid the El Paso School Board of Klansmen. Also in the 1920s, Texas State Deputy Joseph Driscoll helped Catholics in Mexico by attracting worldwide attention to their religious persecution under Mexican president Plutarco Calles.


Image caption: Sword presented to 4th degree Knight of Columbus Jose G. Alvarez in 1934.  Photo courtesy of the Alvarez family.

The Knights of Columbus operate under four principles or degrees: charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism. The initiation ceremonies of each of these degrees are the only aspects of the society that are kept within the membership. The fourth degree, patriotism, is known as the "visible" degree because its members are allowed to wear the degree's regalia, including cape, chapeau and sword, at public functions.

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In recent years, the Knights have focused on social issues like fighting for the words "under God" to remain in the Pledge of Allegiance and supporting pro-life activities. The Knights of Columbus maintain the same charity programs they began a century ago, helping the poor and sick, and hungry and homeless children.

More than 12,000 councils exist in the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Philippines, Guam, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Panama and other countries, with 1.6 million members. The organization's website indicates that today the Knights of Columbus still provides insurance to more than one million members, and the Knights had about $43 billion of life insurance in force as of 2003.

According to Council 638 Faithful Comptroller Refugio Ceballos, the Diocese of El Paso today has 29 councils, 18 of which are in El Paso. Council 638, the "Mother Council of Texas," plays a big role in the Special Olympics by providing a color guard in full regalia, which they also do for the bishop on trips to Mount Cristo Rey and on Memorial Day at Mount Carmel Cemetery. The Knights continue to help poorer parishes by sponsoring fundraisers or competing with other organizations, like the Shriners, to see who can raise the most money for community charities.

In 2002, Council 638 celebrated its 100th anniversary in grand style at the Civic Center. More than 3,000 Knights from Texas and other states joined the festivities.

The international headquarters of the Knights of Columbus in New Haven features four 320-foot towers reflecting the order's four principles of unity, charity, fraternity and patriotism. Father McGivney's remains were reinterred at St. Mary's Church in New Haven in 1982, the 100th anniversary of the society. His life is currently being studied for the possibility of sainthood. Father McGivney's vision for assuring the financial security of Catholic families and aiding their communities has become a reality for millions.

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