The Knights of Columbus’ distinctive feather-crowned admiral chapeau (it was never referred to as a hat) has just gone the way of the tri-corn headgear of George Washington’s Continental Army.
At the Knights’ annual convention this summer, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson announced, “The Board of Directors has decided that the time is right for a modernization of the Fourth Degree Uniform.”
Now, the basic uniform for a Knight is a black tuxedo with black tie. Traditionally, the Fourth Degree uniform for Knights known as the Color Corps includes a black cape lined with brightly colored satin, the feathered chapeau, a red, white, and blue sash worn over the chest from the right shoulder to the left hip, white gloves, and a sword. I have seen the Color Corps serving as an honor guard during outdoor processions, and when a deceased bishop or pastor was lying in state in his church. They are an impressive and colorful presence.
As it happens, this summer I submitted an application to join the Knights at my parish here in Connecticut. I’ve never been a joiner, yet here I am at age 61 asking to become a Knight of Columbus. Initially, my reasons were local — I liked the Knights I’d met at church. They are interesting, friendly, accomplished men. They are devout without ever being cloyingly pious. They do good work in the parish and the town, but they are low-key about it. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that their good work extends far beyond their home base in the USA. This summer, I learned that the Knights had put up $2 million to rebuild Christian villages in Iraq that had been targeted and destroyed by ISIS.
I had only one reservation about joining: I couldn’t see myself ever wearing the Color Corps uniform. It’s much too flashy for me. Don’t get me wrong — I respect the tradition, but it’s a tradition to which I’m not well-suited. Besides, I have no ambitions for my “career” in the Knights of Columbus. I look forward to working on local projects with the Knights that can make a difference for our neighbors, and to hanging with these guys, and to spending some time in church praying with them. Ascending through the ranks, however, doesn’t matter to me. If I could sign up as a mere Squire of Columbus, I’d do that.
Now about the revised uniform: it consists of gray trousers, a navy blazer, the traditional sash, and a military-style beret emblazoned with the Fourth Degree Knight emblem. The ceremonial sword has been retained, although I have yet to see a photo of a Knight in the new garb with a sword at his side. I’ve never imagined pairing a sword with a blazer, so it will be interesting to see it.
The Knights were founded in 1882 by Father Michael McGivney of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Connecticut. It was established as an aid society for immigrant and working class Catholics, and as a fraternal organization for Catholic men. This was the golden age of fraternal societies in America, when about a quarter of adult males in the U.S. were members of at least one fraternal organization. Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., explained their appeal. “The plain citizen sometimes wearied of his plainness,” he wrote, “and, wanting rites as well as rights, hankered for ceremonials, grandiloquent titles and the exotic costumes of a mystic brotherhood.” A man might be a butcher, a store clerk, or a farmer during the working day, but one night a week at his lodge, or hall, or temple, he was someone noble and exalted.
And new organizations sprang up all the time. In 1893, a group of men approached General Lew Wallace, author of the best-selling novel, Ben-Hur, to ask his permission to found a new secret society whose rituals would be inspired by scenes from the general’s epic. They called themselves “The Supreme Tribe of Ben-Hur,” and their most solemn ritual was a re-enactment of the novel’s famous chariot race.
The Tribe of Ben-Hur vanished long ago — how long can a group of guys keep up such silliness? But the Knights of Columbus, with their quiet faith and practical good works, continue to flourish. According to Matthew Bunson, historian, author, and walking encyclopedia of all things Catholic, the Knights have “15,000 councils [their term for chapters] in the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Panama, the Virgin Islands, Guatemala, Guam, Saipan and Poland.” Two years ago, the first councils were opened in South Korea.
Not all Knights welcome the change in apparel. There is a twitter campaign — #KeepOurRegalia. To their credit, the Knights’ leadership is not being ham-fisted about the change. “On a limited basis,” Anderson said, “Assemblies may choose to continue using the traditional cape and chapeau for Color Corps at public events and Honor Guards in liturgical processions. However, the preferred dress for the Fourth Degree, including Color Corps and Honor Guards, is the new uniform of jacket and beret.”
Personally, I prefer the low-key look of the blazer-based uniform. But I doubt I’ll change my mind about striving to rise through the Knights’ ranks. Whether it’s a feathered chapeau or a beret, I’ve never looked good in a hat.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of the newly released 101 Places to Pray Before You Die: A Roamin’ Catholic’s Guide.