When Michael S. Krzywonos used to attend Sunday Mass at the former St. Cecilia's Church in Pawtucket he'd see the same friendly faces sitting in the same pews every week. Other than exchanging passing greetings and a few pleasantries at the end of Mass, it eventually dawned on Krzywonos that he really didn't know who his fellow parishioners were.
"For the longest time they were just faces without names," he says.
In 1999, Krzywonos started taking a closer look at the Catholic men's fraternal organization, the Knights of Columbus, figuring it would be a good way to get to know some of the men in the parish. As luck would have it, the following year, the Knights of Columbus organization granted a charter to Saint Cecilia Council #12613 and on Jan. 19, 2000, 32 charter members were initiated - Krzywonos among them.
Four years later, Krzywonos would become the council's grand knight, a position he holds for a second time now as head of Blessed Pope John Paul II Knights of Columbus Council #12613, which is the same council re-named after St. Cecilia Parish merged with St. Leo's Parish last year.
The Knights of Columbus is the largest Catholic men's fraternal organization in the world with close to 2 million members. The charitable contributions of the organization number in the millions of dollars and thousands of hours each year. As a fraternal society, there is also a world-class benefits arm available to the members and their families.
Krzywonos has done a lot as a Knight in 11 years, saying the fellowship he shares with the council's other 50 members has inspired him to do as much as he can within the organization.
Today, Krzywonos, 56, is a pro-life chairman for the Knights of Columbus. He has also established the 50-50 fundraiser for ultrasound machines for the Gabriel Project, is co-chairman along with Joanne Ciocys for the Diocesan-sponsored 40 Days for Life campaign, and serves on the Human Life Guild Board.
"Once you join you find yourself getting more involved or at least I did," he says. "Not only has becoming a Knight made my faith stronger, it's given me the chance to do things I would have never thought about doing before."
Sean Boudreau of Woonsocket, a cradle Catholic, saw his faith drift off course back in his teens, a rebellious response, he says, to family problems that eventually become a deep crisis in faith. It was a crisis that took years for him to come to terms with.
He was helped on his journey back to the Roman Catholic Church by the woman he would end up marrying. But it was a group of Catholic men he encountered when he got back who not only helped him plant his feet firmly back into his faith - but showed him how that faith can be something real and tangible in the world through daily works of service to his community and fellow man.
"I knew after only five minutes of listening to these guys talk that I wanted to join the Knights of Columbus," says Boudreau, 40, the newest member of Knights of Columbus Woonsocket Council #113.
Boudreau was initiated on Jan. 29 becoming the council's 163rd member. Woonsocket Council #113 based at Sacred Heart Parish is one of the oldest, most prosperous and largest Knights of Columbus councils in the state. The council was instituted on Jan. 27, 1895 in St. Jean Baptiste Hall on High Street.
"I used to be the guy that had all the excuses, but after being away for so long I decided to try again and it began by spending one hour every every week in church," says Boudreau, a parishioner at Saint Joseph's Parish in Woonsocket. "I tell people who have fallen away to make the time no matter what. Since then I have been blessed and everything is wonderful, especially now that I've joined the Knights of Columbus."
From Parish Basement to Worldwide Order
The Knights of Columbus was founded by an Irish-American Catholic priest, The Venerable Father Michael J. McGivney, in New Haven, Connecticut. He gathered a group of men from St. Mary's parish for an organizational meeting on Oct. 2, 1881 and the order was incorporated under the laws of the state of Connecticut on March 29, 1882. Though the first councils were all in that state, the order spread throughout New England and the United States in subsequent years.
The primary motivation for the order was to be a mutual benefit society. As a parish priest in an immigrant community, McGivney saw what could happen to a family when the breadwinner died and wanted to provide insurance to care for the widows and orphans left behind. He himself had to temporarily leave his seminary studies to care for his family when his father died. In the late 19th century, Catholics were regularly excluded from labor unions and other organizations that provided social services.
In addition, Catholics were either barred from many of the popular fraternal organizations, or, as in the case of Freemasonry, forbidden from joining by the Catholic Church itself. McGivney wished to provide them an alternative. He also believed that Catholicism and fraternalism were not incompatible and wished to found a society that would encourage men to be proud of their American-Catholic heritage.
McGivney had originally conceived of the name "Sons of Columbus" but James T. Mullen, who would become the first Supreme Knight, successfully suggested that "Knights of Columbus" would better capture the ritualistic nature of the new organization.
"What a lot of people don't realize is that the Knights of Columbus originally started out as a mutual benefit insurance society," says Michael Lehman, Knights of Columbus general agent for the State of Rhode Island since 2009.
Many early members were recent immigrants who often lived in unsanitary conditions and performed hazardous jobs for poor pay. Since its founding, a primary mission of the Knights of Columbus has been to protect families against the financial ruin caused by the death of the breadwinner. While this method originally was intended to provide a core group of people who would support a widow and her children after the death of their husband and father, it has expanded into much more.
"Today the order offers a modern, professional insurance operation with more than $70 billion of life insurance policies in force," Lehman says.
Today, there are more than 1.7 million Knights of Columbus members in 14,000 councils - 60 in Rhode Island - with nearly 200 councils on college campuses. Membership is limited to "practical Catholic" men aged 18 or older. Councils have been chartered in the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, the Philippines, Guam, Saipan, Japan, Cuba, and most recently in Poland.
Charity, Unity, Fraternity and Patriotism
The Supreme Council is the governing body of the order and is composed of elected representatives from each jurisdiction. The Supreme Council acts in similar manner to shareholders at an annual meeting and each year elects seven members to the Supreme Board of Directors for three year terms. The twenty-one member board then chooses from its own membership the senior operating officials of the order, including the Supreme Knight.
State Councils are led by state deputies and other officers elected at state conventions.
District deputies are appointed by the Supreme Knight upon the recommendation of the State Deputy and oversee several local councils, each of which is led by a grand knight. Other elected council officers include the deputy grand knight, chancellor, warden, recorder, treasurer, advocate, guards and trustees. A chaplain is appointed by the grand knight and a financial secretary by the supreme knight.
Councils are numbered in the order in which they chartered into the order and are named by the local membership. San Salvador Council #1 was named for the first island Columbus landed on in the New World.
The order is dedicated to the principles of "charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism." A First Degree exemplification ceremony, by which a man joins the order, exemplifies the virtue of charity. He is then said to be a First Degree Knight of Columbus and after participating the subsequent degrees, each of which focuses on another virtue, rises to that status. Upon reaching the Third Degree a member is considered a full-member. The Fourth Degree is the highest degree of the order. The primary purpose of the Fourth Degree is to foster the spirit of patriotism and to encourage active Catholic citizenship. A Knight is eligible to join the Fourth Degree after six months from the date of his First Degree, providing he has completed the second and third degrees beforehand.
The Knights of Columbus is a multi-billion dollar non-profit charitable organization. Knights may be seen distributing Tootsie Rolls to raise funds to fight developmental disabilities; volunteering for the Special Olympics and other charitable organizations; erecting pro-life billboards and "Keep Christ in Christmas" signs; conducting blood drives and raising funds for disaster victims; or parading at patriotic events with their bright capes, feathered chapeaux, and ceremonial swords.
"We're not just guys with funny hats," says Jeff Gaulin, 35, a parishioner of All Saints Parish and membership director for Knights of Columbus Woonsocket Council #113. "As an organization, the Knights do a lot of great things for the community, but a lot of it is kept under cover because we're not out seeking publicity," Gaulin says. "Being a Knight has not only provided a vehicle for me to help people, it's really grounded me in my faith."
A Long History of Giving
Charity is the foremost principle of the Knights of Columbus, says David G. Bebyn, financial secretary for Woonsocket Council #113.
"Last year alone, the order gave $154 million directly to charity and performed over 70 million man hours in voluntary service," says Bebyn, a parishioner of Sacred Heart Parish who became a Knight in 2005.
Bebyn is only the 14th financial secretary in the 116 year history of Woonsocket Council #113l. He served as the 82nd Grand Knight of Woonsocket council and currently serves the State Council as the membership director, degree/ceremonial chairman and a member of the State Finance Committee. He was also elected as a delegate from Rhode Island to the 2010 Supreme Convention held in Washington D.C.
Bebyn says the Knights have a long tradition of supporting those with physical and developmental disabilities, adding that more than $382 million has been given over the past three decades to groups and programs that support the intellectually and physically disabled. One of the largest recipients of funds in this area is the Special Olympics, he says.
"Days after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, the Knights of Columbus established the $1 million Heroes Fund where immediate assistance was given to the families of all full-time professional law enforcement personnel, firefighters and emergency medical workers who lost their lives in the rescue and recovery efforts," Bebyn said.
Orderwide, more than $10 million was raised for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. The order also donated more than $500,000 to the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 relief efforts and $50,000 to help victims of Typhoon Durian in the Philippines.
The project that may best exemplify the work of the Knights of Columbus is Project Medishare, which gives prosthetics to Haitian children who lost limbs during the devastating January 2010 earthquake.
"When the earthquake hit Haiti, nearly 800 children lost limbs," Bebyn says. "The Knights of columbus were touched by this and, as a result, the program has
fitted more than 300 amputees with prosthetic limbs and created a state-of-the-art prosthetic lab. This has helped the children in Haiti play again."
The Knights do a lot of work in their own backyards, as well, and few councils do it better than the 166-member Knights of Columbus St. Teresa-Delaney Council #57 in Pawtucket, one of the last councils in the state to be chartered by McGivney, the order's founder. Council #57 is led by Grand Knight Bill Goodwin.
"Locally, we generally tend to run six to eight big events a year, including a breakfast to help fund the Pawtucket fireworks and a Christmas breakfast for the Times fund," says Al Hervieux, a past grand knight and Council #57 member since 2004. "Our main thing is charity so we're always doing something throughout the year from donating food to the Pawtucket soup kitchen to donating Stop & Shop gift cards to the needy at Thanksgiving."
Hervieux, who is also a district deputy for the state, said he joined the Knights because he wanted to help people less fortunate.
"What I found was that the Knights of Columbus were a group of guys doing more charitable work than I could ever do on my own, so it's been a real privilege to be a part of that," he says.
Raymond Riel is the 83rd Grand Knight of Woonsocket Council #113 and has been a knight since 1983. He was chosen by State Deputy Steven Ciolfi to serve as a district deputy from 2008-2010. Under Reil's previous tenure as the Woonsocket council's membership director, the council has achieved its membership quota for the past five fraternal years. The council, he says, averages 10 new members a year.
"What's satisfying to me is to see these new vibrant younger members all ready to go," says Riel, who has helped bring in 25 new members to the council over the years.
The council also has many veteran and experienced members like Robert R. Gallant and Jerry Lesperance, a Knight since 1976, and who has coordinated the council's annual candy drive for the past 20 years, as well as its annual memorial service for deceased members.
"I find it fulfilling because it keeps me Catholic," says Gallant, a district deputy who joined in 1968.
For Bebyn, being a member of the largest Catholic men's fraternal organization in the world has given him the opportunity to really put his faith into practice.
"Faith without action is an empty faith," he says. "Faith in action is what members of the Knights of Columbus strive for each and every day.