Washington Assembly 151:

A Century of Service


One hundred and five years ago, on March 29, 1882 the Knights of Columbus was chartered in New Haven, Connecticut. On May 15, 1882, the first council, named San Salvador Council in keeping with the Columbian theme, was Instituted, with 24 charter members, and the first initiation was held on June 15. The charter members averaged 34 years of age, and were mainly native born of Irish immigrant stock.

Their generation had experienced the severe anti- Catholicism of the 1850s, the waste and destruction of the Civil War, reunion and reconstruction, the depression of the mid-1870s, and the national Centennial of 1876.

While it would be another year before completion of the rituals, the Columbian theme was already strongly emphasized. Concerned about the dangers of losing Catholics to condemned secret societies and the desirability of a Catholic alternative, as well as the needs of families for protection in case of sickness or death, Fr. Michael McGivney, the founder, was also determined to see that the new Order encourage pride in the American Catholic heritage. Thus, from the beginning, there was an emphasis on American patriotism.

The motto of the Order was “Unity and Charity” until 1885, when “Fraternity” was added. In the spring of 1882 when the Order was established, James

T. Mullen, the first Supreme Knight, had requested Daniel Colwell to develop ceremonials in three sections, in line with the “Trinity of Virtues, Charity, Unity, arid Brotherly Love.” The first section of the initiation ceremonial had been prepared prior to the initiation of San Salvador Council (No. 1) that May, but the entire ritual was not completed until the following year. At Fr. McGivney’s urging, it was then laid before the bishop for his approval. However, there are indications that the Third Degree was experimental until 1891, when a specific ceremony for “Fraternity” was adopted,

Establishment of the Fourth Degree

Then in 1899, the Supreme Council elected a new Supreme Knight, Edward Hearn, who decided to move ahead by appointing a committee to draft a plan and a ceremonial for a Fourth Degree. The theme of the new degree was to be Patriotism enlightened by religion, and it would emphasize the duties of citizenship. The emphasis on patriotism and citizenship was probably due in part to the desire of these immigrant-stock Catholics, still in a minority status, to demonstrate further their loyalty to country, following up on their strong backing of the Government in the recent Spanish-American War effort (February 15 – December 10, 1898) after hostilities began.

The first exemplification of the new Degree was on Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1900, in New York City, which was the center of interest in a new degree Washington Council was the only D.C. council established long enough for members to qualify, and sent its full quota of 10 men, plus Bernard M. Bridget, the man who had started the Knights in D.C. and who was then serving as its first State Deputy, to receive the new Degree. Over a hundred times that many (1,100 candidates) were initiated in that first exemplification of the Fourth Degree. Several months later, on May 8, another 750 were initiated in an exemplification In Boston.


The uniform of the Fourth Degree was the full evening dress of the day, with sword and baldric. In those pretelevision days, parades and public gatherings were more important than today, and the role of the uniformed Knights an impressive one.

The Fourth Degree in the Washington Area

The same 1899 Supreme Council meeting that saw the appointment of the committee that developed the new Degree also heard Rev. Dr. Philip Garrigan, Vice Rector of Catholic University and a leader in instituting Keane Council in D.C., make a request to his brother Knights for assistance in the establishment of a K. of C. Chair in American History at the University to help offset the Protestant-oriented approach to American history then current. The Order accepted the challenge, and over a period of five years raised over $50,000 for the purpose. Over 10,000 Knights and their families were present on April 13, 1904 when a giant check, ten feet long and four feet wide, was presented to Cardinal Gibbons for the University. Today, that check proudly hangs in McGivney Hall on campus. We can be sure that members of the five Washington-area assemblies played an active role on that historic occasion.

Another significant public event for Knights in the Washington area was the jubilee celebration on June 6, 1911 of Cardinal Gibbons, their Archbishop. It was his fiftieth year as a priest and twenty-fifth as a cardinal. So prominent an American was he that the Senate adjourned at 2 p.m. so members could go to Baltimore, the seat of the diocese (which then included the District of Columbia), for the festivities. Most cabinet officers went on the President’s special train. Among the 15,000 taking part in the festivities were President William Howard Taft, Vice President James S. Sherman, Chief Justice Edward D. White, Former President Theodore Roosevelt, and many others.

Establishment of the Washington General Assembly

In 1910 the Fourth Degree was reorganized and given the greater structure that exists today, with a Supreme Master, provinces, and districts. In areas where there were nearby councils, the council assemblies were combined into general assemblies, the remaining assemblies affiliated with individual councils being termed local assemblies. (The designations “general” and “local” were dropped in more recent years.)

As a result of that reorganization, the Washington General Assembly (No. 151) was established on April 1, 1912, which has since been celebrated as the birthday of the Assembly. The new General Assembly drew its membership from all councils in D.C. and councils in Northern Virginia as far away as Winchester. (There were no council in suburban Maryland until 1920 when Rosensteel and Patuxent Councils were instituted.)

A little more than two months later, the unveiling of the national Columbus Memorial and Fountain in front of Union Station took place, with its great weekend celebration involving thousands of Knights from all over the country, as treated in more length on the preceding pages,

Putting Patriotism and Civic Responsibility into Action

In 1917 the Fourth Degree Supreme Assembly arranged celebrations of Washington’s Birthday in 30 important cities, making available Catholic speakers of national reputation. It donated considerable funds to the war relief work of the Knights, for athletic entertainment of soldiers, and for distribution of the K. of C. edition of the “Catholic Encyclopedia” in camps.

After the war, in 1921 the Supreme Assembly of the Fourth Degree also initiated a plan to combat the falsification of American history, a program that was subsequently taken over by the Order itself when Fourth Degree funds had been exhausted on the project. This program involved the establishment of an historical commission of learned men to see to the publication of pamphlets correcting historical errors and omissions and preserving national history, which were to be distributed free to schools, colleges, universities, libraries, etc. Prizes were offered for the best studies, based on original research of primary sources.

The program also included “The Knights of Columbus Racial Contribution Series.” In the words of its originator, “This series is unlike any heretofore published, since it gives the actual history of racial contributions to the making of the United States, not from the isolated viewpoint of a single race, concerning other races, but from the viewpoint of each race concerning itself.” There were three publications before the series ended: “The Gift of Black Folk” (by W.E.B. DuBois, the first African- American history scholar to write on black history), “The Jews in the Making of America” (by George Cohen, writing under a group of Jewish editors), and “The Germans in the Making of America” (by Frederick Franklin Schrader, who did a popular synthesis of secondary works). DuBois’ work has since been republished by the Order.

In the Silver Jubilee year of the Fourth Degree (1924), the Supreme Assembly Initiated an essay contest, to be conducted by each Master in his District on an annual basis. The theme was to be patriotic and historical subjects. All students, male and female, in all high schools, public and private, within each District were eligible, with cash prizes to be awarded within the District. Later, national cash prizes were added.

Another activity in which the Fourth Degree took the lead on a national basis was the urging of the closing of businesses for the three-hour observance on Good Friday. A program of developing local committees (including Protestant leaders) and approaching mayors and governors to issue proclamations, and urging merchants to close for three hours on Good Friday, and people to attend church services, brought about widespread Good Friday observance in the years prior to World War II.

Fourth Degree Activities in the Washington Area

Of both national and local significance was the blessing of the site of the proposed National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception—property donated by Catholic University adjacent to its campus—on May 23, 1920, and the laying of the cornerstone the following September 23. For the first event, 1,500 Knights from New York joined the Washington Knights. Top-hatted Fourth Degree Knights formed a special guard of honor for Cardinal Gibbons at the laying of the cornerstone.

It was a little later, in 1926, that the longest- running K. of C. charity in the Washington area was initiated, the annual Pound Party for the Little Sisters of the Poor. It was sponsored by the Washington Assembly. As the name indicates, in the early years the idea was to bring a pound of food as a Christmas gift to the work of the Little Sisters, but the emphasis later shifted to cash donations. Later there was an annual fund drive by mail conducted by Knights, followed by an Open House Party before Christmas, with Fourth Degree members in uniform serving as tour guides at the Open House. In addition to the Pound Party and its fund-raising drive, in the 1970s and 80s Knights provided chauffeuring and other services to the Sisters on request throughout the year.

The Golden Anniversary of the Order, the two hundredth birthday of George Washington, and the first Supreme Convention in Washington, D.C. all took place in 1932, and the Washington Assembly had full participation, especially in the public ceremonies. These included the unveiling on Sunday afternoon, August 14, of a memorial statue erected by the Knights to Cardinal Gibbons. (The statue is in front of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart at 16th and Park Road, N.W.) Despite the Depression, there were over 20,000 Knights participating, including Fourth Degree corps from eight provinces. President Hoover made a speech to the assembled crowd.

At this time, in addition to its official regalia of full evening dress with sword and baldric, the Fourth Degree had a uniform for day parades consisting of cutaway frock coat, silk hat, sword and baldric, although the Master had authority to permit official dress with sword and baldric in lieu of the day uniform.

In 1938 an annual Memorial Mass at Arlington National Cemetery was initiated on the Sunday preceding Memorial Day, under the sponsorship of Washington Assembly in cooperation with The National Committee of Catholic Societies, representing 150 societies). This became a prominent annual event. In 1948, for example, 92 of these societies were represented at the services, at which the foremost preacher of the day, Msgr. (later Bishop) Fulton J. Sheen, preached. Today, Assembly members annually participate in a Memorial Day Mass at Mt. Olivet Cemetery.

On May 19, 1941, seven months before Pearl Harbor, Washington Assembly initiated another annual event that lasted for roughly two decades, the Pan American Diplomatic Reception. Its purpose was to express goodwill and friendliness to members of the diplomatic corps from Central and South America, and to let them know that American Catholics wanted to further their government’s policy of fostering better relations. The undertaking grew in the war years. For example, at the fourth one, on April 17, 1944, sixty- five members of the diplomatic corps and more than four hundred members of the Order and their ladies were present. Honoree was Dr. Hector David Castro, a member of Washington Assembly who had recently been promoted from his position of Minister of El Salvador, which he had held for twenty years, to become its first Ambassador to the United States. At the time, there were 21 American republics. Excerpts of the program were translated into Spanish and broadcast throughout Latin America.

So impressed was the Supreme Master with this program of the Washington Assembly that he circulated a detailed description of it throughout the Fourth Degree as an exemplary Fourth Degree activity. In 1946 the format was changed to a reception and a dinner, and so it remained for many years.

On the broader national scene, one of the civic contributions made by the Knights of Columbus was the addition of the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. The movement started with the adoption of a resolution by the Supreme Board of Directors in April, 1950 that the 750 Fourth Degree Assemblies in the U.S. use the amended pledge at their meetings. The President, Vice-President, and Speaker of the House were sent copies of the resolution, and Supreme Knight Luke Hart, then president of the National Fraternal Congress, was successful in getting 110 fraternal societies to adopt it. A resolution to amend the Pledge was introduced in Congress in 1953, and the amended Pledge was later approved and signed into law by President Eisenhower on Flag Day, June 14, 1954.

Growth of Columbianism in the Washington Area

The 1950s saw great growth in the Knights of Columbus in this area Fr. Andrew White Assembly was established in Leonardown, Maryland on June 30, 1951, and St. Thomas Manor Assembly in La Plata on December 10, 1957. Within D.C., Bishop Patrick J. Byrne Council (No. 3877), was chartered on June 23, 1954. The Washington Assembly in 1960 drew its membership from the following councils:

  • Washington Council (No. 224), D.C.
  • Keane Council (No. 353), D.C.
  • Carroll Council (No. 377), D.C.
  • Spalding Council (No. 417), D.C.
  • Potomac Council (No. 433), D.C.
  • Fitzgerald Council (No. 459), Alexandria,Va.
  • Fr. Rosensteel Council (No. 2169), Silver Spring, Md.
  • Montgomery Council (No. 2322), Gaithersburg, Md.
  • Edward D. White Council (No. 2473), Arlington, Va.
  • Rock Creek Council (No. 2797), Bethesda, Md.
  • Prince Georges Council (No. 2809), Hyattsville, Md.
  • Great Falls Council (No. 3022), Glen Echo, Md.
  • Byrne Council (No. 3877), D.C.
  • St. Pius X Council (No. 4076), Forestville, Md.
  • Immaculate Conception Shrine Council (No. 4944), D.C.

The new Immaculate Conception Shrine Council, founded (as Keane Council had originally been) mainly by men associated in one way or another with Catholic University, was chartered March 24, 1960 and named In honor of the National Shrine, adjacent to the C.U.A. campus, which had just been dedicated the preceding November. That had been the largest ecclesiastical ceremony in the history of the American Church, presided over by Cardinal Spellman, in the presence of four other Cardinals and over 200 Archbishops and Bishops, and with an honor guard of 1,000 Fourth Degree Knights.

Washington Assembly had by now become one of the largest, if not the largest, Assembly in the Fourth Degree, with over 1,000 members. The time had come for its breakup. Archbishop Michael J. Curley Assembly (No. 383) was chartered in College Park, Md. on July 7, 1960, and Cardinal O’Boyle Assembly (No. 386) In Montgomery County, Md. on December 16, 1962. Eight years later, on November 29, 1970, Bishop James E. Walsh Assembly (No. 1548) was chartered in Forestville, Md., and, after another eight years, St. John N. Neumann Assembly (No. 1763) in Bowie, Md. an October 1, 1978, giving a total of seven assemblies in the Archdiocese of Washington (geographically the same as Maryland District No. 2 of Calvert Province, of the Fourth Degree).

One new initiative on the part of the Assembly about the beginning of the 1970s was its support for the Scouting and Campfire programs, which later took the form of contributing medals for leaders in these important youth programs.

In its seventy-fifth anniversary year, 1987, Washington Assembly numbered over 400 members, approximately one-third of the total number of Knights of Columbus belonging to the eight District of Columbia councils in DC at the time. (Today there are 20 councils.)

Washington Assembly celebrated its 75th anniversary with a special Mass at the Shrine celebrated by Cardinal Hickey, followed by a dinner attended by His Eminence, along with Auxiliary Bishop Corrada, at Byrne Manor. A special program book included a fairly extensive history of the Assembly, from which much of the foreging has been drawn. Master of Ceremonies was PFN J. Kemp Cook, a past state deputy who served for many years as director of the Choir of the Fourth Degree District—a unique choir in that it has from that time until the present day always numbered among its members at least three past state deputies and at times also a sitting state deputy, all from DC—and originally all from Washington Assembly.

A year after its 75th, at the urging of local Knights, Cardinal Hickey brought about a quick reversal of a decision that had been made at New Haven to incorporate all of the assemblies in the Archdiocese of Washington (then known as “Maryland District 2”) into the Maryland District of the Fourth Degree—and the “Archdiocese of Washington District,” as it is known today, was born following his intervention.

Ten years later, on June 15, 1998, Prince of the Church Assembly 2534 was instituted as a second assembly in DC, and the councils in the southern part of DC, plus the two college councils (CUA and GU) then in DC, were affiliated with the new assembly, the others remaining with Washington Assembly.

Washington Assembly Today

In recent years, some time-honored projects of Washington Assembly ‘s involvement have lapsed for various reasons unrelated to Washington Assembly, such as the annual Labor Day Mass at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, the annual fund-raising and Pound Party for the Little Sisters of the Poor, and the annual Cardinal’s Charity Ball to benefit the Kennedy Institute.

The most conspicuously visible component of the Fourth Degree is the Color Corps, which serves as honor guard at all kinds of Church and civic ceremonies. These range from the annual events like the Columbus Day wreath-laying at the Columbus Monument, and the annual Memorial Day Masses, to various ceremonies or episcopal appearances (such as Confirmations) in the Archdiocese at which their presence is requested. Washington Assembly’s Color Corps has in its history received many compliments on its performance.

For a number of years in fact the Color Corps was the most active component of Washington Assembly, adding dignity and solemnity not only to local events but also to the many national ones that take place in this national capital area. Among these were the following:

  • The annual Columbus Day celebrations at the Columbus Memorial and Fountain in front of Union Station, including the opening of the Order-wide Quincentenary celebration in 1991 with the Supreme officers and Board of Directors present, and last year’s centennial anniversary of the Memorial
  • Five supreme conventions–in 1985, 1993, 2003, and 2010
  • 1983 dedication of the second century of the Order to the Blessed Virgin at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, with 350 Color Corps members present
  • The huge K of C millennial pilgrimage to the National Shrine on April 1, 2000 (11,000 people, and over 1,100 Color Corps), when Cardinal Hickey received the prestigious “Gaudium et Spes” award from the Order
  • The national K of C-sponsored memorial observance at the Shrine on the first anniversary of the 9-11-2001 terrorist attacks
  • The dedication of the K of C-donated $1-million “Incarnation Dome” at the Shrine on November 16, 2006
  • The dedication of the McGivney Building on the CUA campus on September 8, 2008 (refurbished by the Knights for $8 million)
  • The celebration of the special traditional Latin High Mass at the Shrine on April 24, 2010, which attracted an overflowing crowd
  • The visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979 and the papal Mass on the Mall
  • The visit of Pope John Paul II to Baltimore in October 1995
  • The visit of Pope Benedict XVI in 2011 and the papal Mass at Nationals’ Stadium