As the Knights of Columbus hold their 133rd Supreme Convention in Philadelphia this week, it might do well to call to mind one of their most distinguished leaders, Philadelphia lawyer James Flaherty (1853- 1937).
The Knights of Columbus was founded in Hartford, Conn. as a Catholic men’s fraternal benefit society in 1882 by Father (now Venerable) Michael McGivney. It was still very young when Philadelphia Council No. 196 was established in 1896 with Flaherty as the charter grand knight.
He went on to become the first Pennsylvania state deputy for the Knights and in 1909 he was elected to lead the entire organization as supreme knight, a post he held for the next 18 years.
During his remarkable term the Knights of Columbus became the most influential Catholic lay organization it the country and beyond. At one point, Pope Pius XI referred to him as “the Bishop of the Knights of Columbus.”
A first major accomplishment came in 1916 during a period of tension along the Mexican border, when the Knights, as did the Young Men’s Christian Association, opened a number of canteens along the border where the soldiers were stationed.
This service expanded when the U.S. entered World War I, when the Knights, along with the YMCA and Red Cross, provided recreational facilities and social services for the troops at home and abroad.
The Knights’ program was especially successful. Their huts spread out from Fort Dix, N.J., to Vladivostok in Russia with the motto, “Everyone Welcome, Everything Free.” The huts were staffed by paid field agents who usually were nicknamed “Caseys” by the doughboys.
In addition the Knights paid 150 priests to serve as chaplains because there was an insufficient number of Catholic military chaplains. In World War II the military canteens were superseded by the U.S.O.
After World War I, partially by using excess funds raised during the war, the Knights established an education program for returning soldiers that really was a forerunner to the government’s G.I. Bill after World War II.
They also established employment agencies to help ease the young veterans back into the workforce. In Philadelphia alone there were six teams of 10 Knights each engaged in this effort. Clearly the war and postwar works of the Knights was an impetus for the growth of the organization in that era.
It was also under Flaherty’s administration that the K. of C.’s official publication “Columbia” was launched. In those early years it wasn’t just a journal of the doings of the Knights; articles appeared under the byline of such notables of the time as G.K. Chesterton, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Dykes, Hilaire Belloc and Westbrook Pegler.
In this era the Knights also helped fund the successful court appeal of the infamous 1922 Oregon School Law that required all children to attend public schools. The law, which was clearly aimed at Catholic schools although it also affected other sectarian and private schools, was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1925.
Flaherty voluntarily retired in 1927 at which time the Supreme Council created a new title for him, “Supreme Counselor.”
Flaherty was so admired by his brother Knights in Philadelphia that in 1903 they commissioned a portrait to be painted of him by the city’s most celebrated artist, Thomas Eakins. It remained in their headquarters for years but was eventually donated to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, where it was hung along with other Eakins portraits until recently when they were placed for sale with Christie’s auction house in New York.
Truthfully, many of those who sat for Eakins disliked the finished portrait; he rarely flattered his subjects. Looking at the Flaherty portrait he doesn’t appear happy. But that’s the price you may have to pay when you have a museum-quality portrait painted of you that will live for centuries to come.