I have one distinct memory of the Knights of Columbus. On the occasional Sunday after 8 a.m. mass, some men with kind faces and receding hairlines would stand outside the doors of Saint Luke’s and give Tootsie Rolls to kids as they walked down the church steps. They wore green poncho-like garments over their clothes that had deep pockets filled with candy. I remember looking up as one of the men chatted with my mother and my dad gave me sideways looks in hopes that I would pass him one of my hard-earned Tootsie Rolls.
It was this image that came to mind when I found out the Knights of Columbus had their international headquarters in New Haven — in a colossal building downtown that resembles the Kline Biology Tower, only somehow even uglier. I was vaguely aware that the knights were some sort of all-male Catholic group with a clubhouse in my hometown, but this seemed out of sync with the type of organization that would have a skyline-dominating building to host its offices. So when I walked past the Knights of Columbus Museum on the way to Union Station one day, I figured that it would probably be the best place to figure out how and why these Tootsie-Roll-toting men owned a skyscraper in New Haven.
To prep for my visit, I checked out the online reviews. The museum has 4.5 stars — the same rating as Yale University — and a Certificate of Excellence on TripAdvisor, with the most popular descriptors among the 128 reviews being “interesting” and “free.” One review promised a great time for “Catholics, non-Catholics and atheists alike.” I headed to the museum on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, jazzed for an interesting, free and religiously-inclusive experience at the number seven destination in New Haven.
As far as I could tell, I was the only visitor that afternoon. I was greeted at the front desk by a friendly man named Jon who talked me through the museum’s exhibits and filled my hands with flyers. He gave me a Spark Notes version of the history of the Knights, explaining that the group was founded as a Catholic fraternal organization in New Haven by Father John McGivney in 1882. (There was a whole room devoted to McGivney, with no fewer than 11 portraits and two sculptures of the literal founding Father.) Now, the Knights of Columbus has almost 2 million members and branches in 18 countries. Also, it’s a thriving insurance business? I still don’t really get how that fits into the picture, but I guess it explains the skyscraper. So basically, the Knights of Columbus is a frat for grown ups who love God and life insurance. “Make sure you take a look at the cross hanging above the stairwell,” Jon said, flashing me knowing smile as I walked toward the first exhibit. “It’s really the best piece in the museum.”
I did stop to take a look at the giant metal cross, which looked like it was salvaged from a scrapyard, before spending the next hour wandering the various galleries. The galleries take up two floors surrounding a lush courtyard in the middle. The place as a whole was something of a white pride museum. Or maybe that’s unfair. A white Catholic pride museum, possibly? If aliens were to land on the New Haven Green and visit the K of C museum to learn about our planet, they would assume that humanity is 80 percent white, 90 percent male, and ruled by the Pope. The Papal Gallery was my personal highlight because I got a great selfie with a giant photo of Pope Francis that I most definitely sent to my mom. Beyond that was the Hall of History which featured artifacts from Knights history including images of all the past Supreme Knights, which, yes, is what group actually and genuinely calls its leader. I was surprised to see a placard with the title “Social Justice” among the densely packed display, but it just covered anti-abortion advocacy.
The real kicker was the Columbus Gallery. It turns out the Knights took their name to honor the one and only Christopher Columbus, the sole perpetrator of genocide to have his own national holiday. The gallery featured all sorts of Columbus memorabilia, from portraits of him looking heroically off into the distance, to portraits of him looking heroically at navigation equipment, to a cute little teapot in the shape of his head. The text in the exhibit celebrated his achievement of helping to “remove a veil of mystery from much of the world” and to “realize that there was another world than that which was already known to civilization.” Apparently, “it is eminently appropriate that the Catholic people of America celebrate the event in which the Catholic Church is so deeply concerned.” Seems to me like the Vatican needs a new PR person.
At first the Columbus Gallery was funny, but I grew unsettled as I stared at painting after painting of his smugly genocidal face. History is not just something that happens; it is also constructed, and so often we rely on museums and archives to build this framework through which we understand the past. We grant a certain authority to the words and objects that are shared by these institutions. I was furious that this exhibit had so badly abused this trust. For all the mentions of Columbus’s discovery of the New World, there was no reference to the people who already occupied this land, only a statue of a woman in feather headdress with an exposed breast lying at this Catholic hero’s feet.
So I guess that the Knights of Columbus are continuing the legacy of the explorer from whom they take their name. By erasing the history of America’s native people, the Knights are willful inheritors of the violence that Columbus initiated over five hundred years ago. But although the history that this museum presents is overly simple, I refused to let my visit fall into this same trap. Among the galleries, I also saw refrains of charity and peace and forgiveness, ideas that in this case were buttressed by religion, but also stand on their own as some of the most profound and beautiful thoughts that have entered human minds. The Knights give almost 200 million dollars and 75 thousand volunteer hours in the service of others each year, and many members have sacrificed even more than that. A hat belonging to the first victim of the 9-11 attacks to be recovered from the World Trade Center has its own solemn display in the museum. Its owner was Father Mychal Judge, a Knight and New York Fire Department chaplain who was killed by debri in the South Tower.
I don’t know how to reconcile these separate truths, these separate realities of both profound violence and profound service. It would be easier to not confront this. Why do you think I haven’t been to mass on a normal Sunday in almost two years? Because confrontation is always difficult. It will always be easier when there is no reconciliation to be done. When I spend my Sundays sleeping in instead of going to Mass, I don’t have to face the messages of love that are shared from the lectern that exist alongside the deep flaws of the institution on which that pulpit was built. But Catholics are good at atonement, skilled at staring down love and sin in one unflinching gaze. Maybe I was just never cut out for it.
When I had circled back to the front desk, I asked Jon if anyone’s ever made comments about the Columbus exhibit. He looked like he was about to start thinking before answering no. The genuine smile that curled the edges of his lips made me feel like I had to explain myself.
“Well I guess it’s just that on campus we think about these things a little, uh, differently,” I stammered. Jon blinked.
I thanked Jon on my way out, and he reminded me that the Christmas in Europe exhibit would be opening next month. I nodded, but I don’t plan on going back. At the moment, I was just feeling ready and anxious to get to work on some reading that I had to complete. It would be a fifteen minute walk back to the library and I really needed to finish an excerpt on the business of empire before an in-class discussion on American imperialism in Central America. This irony was not lost on me as I skipped down the steps back into the light October rain.
Elizabeth Hopkinson | firstname.lastname@example.org