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CHARITY IN ACTION – Financial Security for Catholic Families

Tony Slagle, Texas State Council Historian

In February 1882, eleven men were examined for life insurance at St Mary’s Parish in New Haven, Connecticut.

This was the humble beginnings of the Knights of Columbus insurance program.  It has grown from those initial eleven men in 1882 to an enterprise with more than $105 billion of life insurance in force in 2016.  When the Knights of Columbus announced that it surpassed $100 billion of life insurance in force in 2015, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson tied that accomplishment to our mission, “The $100 billion milestone is not simply a number. It highlights the fact that each year we are protecting the future of more Catholic families, continuing the mission of our founder, Venerable Father Michael J. McGivney.” 

Protecting the future of Catholic families. It is important not to underestimate this mission, as it is a fundamental reason for the Order’s existence. Fr. McGivney saw first-hand the struggles of his parishioners who were widows and orphans. They were often left with no sure means of support and little to no prospects for a future in which the family could afford to stay together. This was a major reason Fr. McGivney invited those men to meet in the basement of St Mary’s. In the early days of the Order, when Fr. McGivney was working tirelessly to encourage the growth of this fledgling Catholic fraternal organization, he would often focus on that particular aspect of its charter. In a letter to pastors throughout Connecticut, Fr McGivney wrote, “Our object is to unite men of our faith throughout the Diocese of Hartford that we may thereby gain strength to aid each other in time of sickness; to provide for decent burial; and to render pecuniary assistance to the families of deceased members.”

Obtaining insurance through our Order is a voluntary choice. One of the things that distinguished the Knights from other fraternal organization of that era was the development of the “associate membership” status.  As early as March 1885, members of the Order were advocating making the insurance plan optional. The second Supreme Knight of the Order, John Phelan, embraced this policy, which he believed would strengthen the emphasis on the moral purpose of the Order. This choice was to have a significant impact on the growth of the Knights. As Christopher J. Kaufman writes in his historical account of the Order’s first 100 years Faith and Fraternalism, “the creation of the associate membership…had the greatest impact upon the character and appeal of the K. of C.” and opened the doors of membership to all “practical Catholics.”

Fr. McGivney also believed that the Knight could be the catalyst to empower the laity of the Church to concretely express its spirituality through good works and deeds, and understood that building the Knights on a foundation of moral and faithful men would be the key to its survival. Yet Fr. McGivney also understood the necessity of providing for both the spiritual and temporal welfare of those Catholics most in need.  Unlike commercial insurance companies, the Knights of Columbus insurance program was never motivated by profit. Rather, the insurance program was built on the founding principle of our Order: charity. As Fr. McGivney so eloquently put it when discussing that particular aspect of membership in the Knights, “The object of [the Order] is to promote the principles of unity and charity…so that in our unity we may gain strength to bestow charity on each other.”  Profound words to recall as we embody that mission today.

By ensuring the insurance program was established with charity in mind, and not profit, the Knights of Columbus has been able to take care of both the spiritual and the temporal needs of its members and their families. But this charity extends beyond the membership of the Order. The Knights of Columbus has long included the Church Loan program among the investments supporting its insurance policyholders. Since the first church loan in 1896 to St. Rose of Lima Parish in Meriden, CT, Church Loan has become a leader in Catholic project financing in the United States and Canada, with more than $600 million of low-interest loans to Catholic churches and schools. The success of the Order’s insurance programs make this and other charitable outreach possible.  Because of the foresight of Fr. McGivney, the network of support and charity established by the Knights of Columbus insurance program has been able to go beyond the borders of Connecticut and reach across the globe, touching Catholic families and Catholic communities around the world.  


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