History of the Archdiocese of Washington District

One Hundred and Ten Years of Patriotic Service

by SK Dr. Edward M. Sullivan, Ph.D., PSD

One Knight in six--approximately 300,000--becomes a Sir Knight of the Fourth Degree.  When founded in 1882, the Order established three degrees to emphasize charity, unity, and fraternity.  At popular request, an optional fourth degree focused on patriotism was approved in 1899.  The first exemplification was on Washington's Birthday, 1900 in New York City.  Among the 1100 recipients were 11 members of Washington Council #224 of Washington, DC.

Initially each Council had its own Assembly, and the major focus was on public appearances and exemplifications.  In 1910, a Supreme Master, Provinces, and Districts were introduced.  Nearby assemblies were combined into "general assemblies," and on April 1, 1912 Washington General Assembly was instituted for members of the six councils in the area.

The year 1912 also saw the appearance of the bogus "fourth degree oath," distributed to practically every state in the 1912 elections.  On February 13, 1913 a Congressional committee reported that "This Committee cannot condemn too strongly the false and libelous article...the spurious Knights of Columbus oath."  In 1913 and 1914 the Order won criminal libel trials in various sections of the country against purveyors of the "oath."  In California, an impartial committee reviewed the ceremonial, and verified: "The ceremonial of the order teaches a high and noble patriotism, instills a love of country, inculcates a reverence for law and order...and holds up the Constitution of our country as the richest and most precious possession of a Knight of the order."  The bogus "oath" was revived in 1928 and again in 1960, leading Time Magazine on August 22 of that year to report its history and currency in many states as "an old and notorious piece of anti-Catholic propaganda."

About the same time that the bogus "oath" was first circulated in 1912, the Supreme Assembly instigated national free public lectures, conferences, and publications opposing socialism and extreme radicalism, and focusing on the reciprocal duties and responsibilities of capital and labor.  On the eve of World War I, it promoted a nationwide program of public patriotic celebrations sponsored by local assemblies, and addresses to overflowing crowds in 30 of the principal cities.  The Fourth Degree cooperated fully in the Order's justly famous service to military personnel at home and overseas, in the war itself.

Sharing concerns of other patriotic societies about the teaching of history in the postwar years, the Supreme Assembly in 1921 established a K of C Historical Commission, and one future famed historian, Allan J. Nevins, had his first scholarly book published as a result.  Another aspect was "The Knights of Columbus Racial Contribution Series."  Among its publications was "The Gift of Black Folk," by the first African-American scholar to write on black history, W.E.B. DuBois.  Prizes were also given for original research, and in the Fourth Degree Silver Jubilee year, 1924, the Supreme Assembly initiated an essay contest on patriotic and historical subjects, to be held annually in each Fourth Degree District and open to all students in all high schools of the area.

Later, prior to World War II, the Fourth Degree successfully promoted widespread closing of businesses for the three-hour Good Friday observance.  After the war, in April 1950, the 750 Fourth Degree Assemblies in the U.S. were instructed to add "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance.  Supreme Knight Luke Hart, president of the National Fraternal Congress, convinced 110 fraternal societies to adopt it also.  A resolution was introduced in Congress in 1953, and the amended Pledge signed into law by President Eisenhower in 1954.

Locally, in 1938, Washington Assembly, in cooperation with The National Committee of Catholic Societies (representing 150 such groups), it initiated an annual Memorial Mass at Arlington National Cemetery on the Sunday preceding Memorial Day, which achieved some prominence: in 1948, for example, 92 of these societies were represented at the services, featuring the foremost preacher of the day, Msgr. (later Bishop) Fulton J Sheen.  Seven months before Pearl Harbor the Assembly started the annual Pan American Diplomatic Reception, which continued for roughly two decades, growing in the war years.  At the fourth one, on April 17, 1944, sixty-five members of the diplomatic corps and more than four hundred Knights and their ladies were present.  Honoree was Dr. Hector D. Castro, a member of Washington Assembly, and El Salvador's first Ambassador to the U.S.  Excerpts from the program, translated into Spanish, were broadcast throughout Latin America.

In addition to Washington Assembly, Fr. Andrew White Assembly in St. Mary’s County was chartered in 1951, and St. Thomas Manor Assembly in Charles County in 1957.  During the early 60’s new assemblies in Maryland began to appear: Archbishop Curley Assembly in Prince George’s County and Cardinal O'Boyle Assembly in Montgomery County.  In 1969 the Washington District became the Maryland District #2.  In November of 1988, the District was reinstituted as the Archdiocese of Washington District.  Currently the District contains 12 Assemblies, 10 in Maryland and 2 in Washington DC.

On the national scene, in 1965 $500,000 was set aside to establish a dozen undergraduate scholarships at Catholic University, known as the Fourth Degree Pro Deo and Pro Patria ("For God and Country") scholarships.  In 1988 a dozen to other Catholic colleges were added, and in 1992 the number of scholarships to other schools was increased to 50.  A smaller fund of the same name has been established in Canada.  More recently the Fourth Degree gave $1,000,000 in 1987 toward the refurbishment of the Statue of Liberty, and on their centennial the Fourth Degree assemblies held a $500,000 fund-raising campaign for the World War II memorial. 

In 2007, lead by the efforts of the Fourth Degree, the Order committed $1 million for the Incarnation Dome at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.  Over 165 Color Corps from Calvert Province were present for the dedication.  On Veteran’s Day weekend in 2007 the order donated 2000 wheelchairs to Veterans Administration Medical Centers in Texas, Washington DC, Chicago, and Los Angeles.  This program distributed 500 wheelchairs to each location in cooperation with the Wheelchair Foundation.  During the distribution ceremony at the Washington VAMC, the Fourth Degree Choir sang a medley of patriotic songs in a salute to our military services.

The highlight of 2008 was the visit in April of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI.  The Fourth Degree was privileged to serve as a special Honor Guard at the White House meeting of the Holy Father and President Bush. 

As the Nation’s Capital, Washington has been the site of probably the largest appearances ever of uniformed Fourth Degree members and Color Corps members, including:
-4,000 uniformed Fourth Degree members leading the grand parade at the unveiling of the Columbus Memorial at Union Station in 1912;
-Fourth Degree Corps from eight provinces in the parade at the dedication of the Cardinal Gibbons Statue on Park Road and 16th in 1932;
-over 1,000 Color Corps members in attendance at the dedication of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1959; and
-1150 Color Corps at the K of C millennial pilgrimage to the Shrine in April 2000.

Today it is not unusual to see 50, 100, or 150 Sir Knights in Color Corps at liturgical events at the Basilica of the National Shrine.  Many of these events are televised on EWTN.