New Haven is home to a lot of weird societies. There are the College’s countless secret societies, there’s the Lawn Club, a Society of Model Engineers, the Board of Aldermen and the Angler’s Journal. And while little is publicly known about many of these societies, the one trustworthy guide to differentiating them all is that the bigger the clubhouse, the weirder the club. Given that, then New Haven’s weirdest society hands down has to be the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic “fraternal service organization,” according to both Wikipedia and a security guard sitting in the building’s lobby.
I mentioned the organization over dinner a few nights ago to see if any of my friends knew anything about it. One sophomore — who asked for anonymity to stay safe from the Knights — said she was familiar.
“I think of them as, like, the Free Masons,” she said. “But you know, they’re less legit.”
The “Order,” as the press materials sometimes refer to the organization, is some sort of large, behemoth conglomerate of “goodwill” headquartered here in our quaint, seedy Elm City. Founded in 1882 by Father Michael McGivney — who was once an assistant pastor at New Haven’s St. Mary’s Church on Hillhouse Avenue — the group claims to be founded on the fundamental values of “charity, unity and brotherhood.”
When I read this on Wednesday afternoon, I thought this group would be nothing more than a glorified Scouts association. And then I realized they own the building on the corner of the Oak Street Connector and Church Street — the 23-floor tower with four concrete columns and a glass-and-steel façade in between, built by Pritzker Prize-winner Kevin Roche in 1969. It’s a pretty scary tower, and it was especially scary yesterday amid the cold and wind: It stood unwavering, refusing to provide shelter, even directing wind through its columns onto innocent passersby and hard-hitting investigative journalists. It seemed disconcerting that this tower was supposed to be the office of the most well-intentioned company in America, eh?
Roche could not be reached for comment on his design.
But we started to get the impression that the Knights of Columbus were a scary, unfriendly bunch. So I picked up the phone and gave them a call Wednesday morning.
“Hello, this is Amir Sharif from the Yale Daily News,” I said demurely into the phone. “I was hoping to speak with someone who can tell me your secrets.”
“I’m sorry,” a voice on the other end of the line replied. It seemed vaguely masculine, vaguely computerized, perhaps the voice of a cyborg. “What, uh, are you hoping for?”
For a moment I thought it was really asking me about my hopes, perhaps with a follow-up question about my dreams. Already, my impression of the organization was changing. And then I realized it wanted me to repeat myself.
“Your secrets —” I earnestly replied. A moment later, the line went dead.
I thought to myself, perhaps the cyborg just ran out of batteries. So I went down in person to speak with a representative with flesh.
If I learned anything from their press materials, it’s that the Order really likes patriarchal nouns: brotherhood, fraternity, Father. So I was somewhat shocked to find out that they also hire women, which I learned while running through their parking lot as the building emptied out yesterday. In fact, the Knights of Columbus uses the help of many women, none of whom would talk to me on the record.
“We really can’t answer any questions,” said one, who was wearing a black trench coat and shiny rocks around her neck the size of water balloons. What did she do at the Knights of Columbus? No comment. Did she like working in the eerie tower? No comment. Was the five carat pink diamond around her neck real, or was it costume jewelry? She wouldn’t even answer that question.
Two rows of cars away in the lot, another lady was trying to unlock her Toyota Camry.
“I would love to talk to you but we have very stringent [public relations] policies,” she said. Though significantly heftier than the first woman, she was dressed somewhat similarly, in a black coat and large, seemingly precious jewels.
Perhaps they have a dress code: “Yes, but ooh, I have to go,” the large woman continued.
Seeing no more potential in the parking lot, I headed indoors, where I was confronted by a large, imposing man who seemed somewhat like the doorkeeper to the underworld, I imagine.
He too proved unfriendly.
“You need an escort or one of these badges to go upstairs,” he said after a few minutes of awkward introductions. Then he smiled, seemingly relishing my defeated expression.
I asked if I could take photographs. The answer: a resounding NO. I asked if I could see the plaque on a flamboyant bust behind his desk. The answer: a silent shake of the head. I asked if I could find out about the Knights’ secrets. The answer: Please leave.
It turns out, the security guard isn’t even employed by the Knights, he’s employed by a third-party security firm that he wouldn’t identify, which in turn supplies the building’s security. It was all so weird.
So I just put it to him plain and simple: “What is this organization for?”
“It’s a life insurance provider.”
I ran out of the building, into the cold street, toward a comfortingly intriguing piece of architecture across the plaza on 1 Church Street. It turned out to be, get this, the Knights of Columbus Museum. I kid you not.
I thought I was having a nightmare. Looking back at the tower, as I ran toward campus, I noticed a small man staring down from the rooftop. I started sprinting through the highway.
Some hours later, showered and warm in my common room, I began to reflect on the experience. And then it all started to make sense.
Maybe the Knights of Columbus is just a well-endowed club, with old members who occasionally like to wear costumes and walk around with swords to praise Jesus. Maybe they really are a normal corporation, with bottom lines and a PR department. Maybe the man on top of the tower was a just taking a smoking break — or maybe he was just a heat duct.
Maybe there’s no mystery at all.
(Knights, please don’t hurt me.)