By Jacob Buckenmeyer
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — As the Knights of Columbus celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, a growing number of young men have been joining its ranks through councils on their college campuses.
Whether they are attracted by the group’s dedication to volunteer service, the camaraderie of other young Catholic men or the chance to become leaders in their local church communities, these young councils are constantly replenished by recruiting freshmen each year.
College councils are able not only to develop fresh ideas for ministry projects and service trips, but to implement them as well, said Stephen Walther, coordinator for the college councils for the Knights of Columbus.
“This is a hands-on kind of organization, which I think college students are very into,” he said. “When they see a hands-on thing they can do and not necessarily send money somewhere and hope it gets to somebody, but they can actually go out and change society themselves, they can relate to that.”
Walther said the younger members of college councils allow the groups’ activities to be more diversified than parish-centered councils of the Knights of Columbus and many have coordinated service trips to help victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
Since 2003, the number of members serving on college campuses has grown by an average of more than 1,600 each year. Even with members graduating and leaving their college councils to serve elsewhere, the net gain of these councils’ membership has been more than 6,000 in the last five years. The number of college councils around the world has grown from 162 in 2003 to 215 in 2007.
Grand Knight Alan Guanella, of the Brother Elzear Council 5202 at St. Mary’s University in Minnesota, has been a Knight for almost two years and will be a junior at St. Mary’s this fall. He said the college setting allows Knights to experience the universal church because it is an international group. They can feel that they are truly serving among their peers, more than they might feel in a parish council of the Knights.
“You’re allowed to be in these leadership positions in a full council even when you’re 18, 19, 20 years old,” he said in a phone interview with Catholic News Service. “Most of the time in a parish setting, a 20-year-old is not going to be elected as head of the council.”
Guanella said the constant turnover of members and leadership in college councils can have a positive effect because it allows these councils to recruit freshmen — sometimes dozens — every year and welcome more new members than a council at a parish.
“The down side of that is that you always have seniors who are graduating, so it’s always a balancing act to make sure those who are leaving are replaced by those who are coming in,” he said.
This year, Council 5202 at St. Mary’s gained 20 new members and received the Participant’s Award from the Minnesota State Council for excellence in its programs, recruitment and organization.
Once Knights graduate from college, some remain in the area as members of their college council, but many more transfer to another council when they join a parish after college, Guanella said. Some members become inactive once they leave college, Guanella said, but “once you’re a Knight, you’re always a Knight.”
Pat Alessi, a Knight with the College of the Holy Cross Council 2706 of Worcester, Mass., graduated from Holy Cross in May. Now he serves as chair of the council’s retentions committee, a new program that contacts alumni and encourages them to continue their participation in the Knights of Columbus.
He described himself as a “late starter” because he didn’t join the Knights until he was 21 and a junior at Holy Cross. In an organization where the minimum age requirement is 18, Alessi still has plenty of time ahead of him, and not many members would blame him for the three years he missed.
The council at Holy Cross has nearly 300 members, but only 50 of them are current students, he said. The other members have graduated and are spread across the country and the world.
Guanella described the experience of being a Knight as one that bridges geographical and cultural gaps between young men in the church.
“I can go practically anywhere in the country and meet and talk with Knights of Columbus,” he said. “I may have nothing in common with them, but what we do have in common is that we are Knights, and that allows us to have this unity and fraternity. Those lessons that we learn are truly lived in our lives.”
Founded in 1882, the Knights of Columbus is the largest fraternal organization in the world, with 1.7 million members in 13,000 councils in 13 countries including the United States, Canada, the Philippines and Mexico.
In 1910, the University of Notre Dame in Indiana became the first university to institute a college council. The next was Mount St. Mary’s in Maryland in 1919. Now, more than 16,000 Knights serve in nearly 200 college-campus councils in the United States and other countries. While most councils exist on the campuses of Catholic universities, many are also present on public and private non-Catholic campuses.
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Contributing to this story was Kaitlynn Riely.