MSGR. Francis J. Byrne Council 5476, and Its Related History

Richmond Roots

Twenty Catholic men of the City of Richmond and “such other persons as they shall associate with them” were “constituted a body corporate under the name of McGill Catholic Union” by an act of the General Assembly of Virginia, approved February 21, 1893. The Union was named in honor of Right Reverend John McGill who served as Bishop of Richmond from 1850-1872, and was founded by the Bishop of Richmond, the Right Reverend John J. Keane in 1886. Paragraph 3 of the charter read “the object of the said McGill Catholic Union shall be the cultivation and promotion of literary pursuits and social intercourse among its members.”

The McGill Catholic Union was located in the old St. Peter’s Parochial Boys School at 9th and Marshall Streets, and was staffed by the Xaverian Brothers for over 50 years. Because of the growing membership, the quarters at St. Peters soon became inadequate. On November 26, 1903, the McGill Catholic Union purchased the Allen House, located on the southeast corner of Franklin and 6th street, home in July of 1908 to Dr. George Ben Johnston, a member of the McGill Catholic Union and Co-Founder of the Johnston-Willis Hospital. The building became the original site of this Hospital.

Knghts of Columbus Founding

The Knights of Columbus began in the basement of St. Mary’s Church in 1882 in New Haven, Connecticut, when Father Michael J. McGivney called together a small group of Catholic laymen and founded a society designed to unite Catholic men in their faith and provide financial assistance to the widows and orphans of its members. The Order quickly grew into an organization of Catholic men and their families dedicated to the principles of UNITY as a group of people with similar values and beliefs, CHARITY towards your fellow man in hopes of building a better world, FRATERNITY toward your bother Knights and PATRIOTISM that shows their loyalty toward their country of birth.

The Knights in Richmond, VA

Richmond Council 395, Knights of Columbus was chartered on February 26, 1899 with seventy nine charter members and included a large number of the founders and members of the McGill Catholic Union. It was the second council formed in Virginia, having been preceded by Norfolk Council 376. It met in Belvedere Hall located on the southeast corner of Main and Belvedere where it grew for the next ten years. Recognizing that Richmond Council 395 and teh McGill Catholic Union had many mutual interests with many Knights who were members of both organizations, an agreement was signed on April 30, 1908 to jointly occupy the McGill Catholic Union Building. They met there for the next sixty years, next to St. Peter’s Rectory.

First Founding of Council 5476

The population of Richmond and its suburbs greatly increased after the Second World War. In the latter part of 1963, a new Knights of Columbus Council was formed in Richmond’s far west end, and was named Father Robert W. McDonald Council 5476. It was chartered on December 1, 1963 with forty charter members. Elmer A. (Sonny) Barrett was the charter Grand Knight. The council was named for Fr. McDonald who had served as assistant pastor of Saint Bridget Catholic Church. Msgr. Francis J. Byrne, founding pastor of St. Bridget Church, permitted the new council to meet in the parish rectory for several years until a council home could be built.

Richmond Council 395 bought 16 acres of land on Francistown Road in the 1960’s, and Council 5476 purchased approximately 23 acres on Pump Road. Each Council had plans to build new quarters. Councils of Knights of Columbus were not permitted to hold title to real estate, and therefore McGill Catholic Union and the Father Robert W. McDonald Columbian Center acquired the land for Councils 395 and 5476 respectively. In March 1969 the two Councils voted to merge. As a result, Fr. Robert W. McDonald Council 395 emerged with Joseph D. Benedetti as its first Grand Knight. It combined the name of Council 5476 with the lower, more historic Council 395 number. Work soon began for a new home on the Pump Road site in Henrico County. The Columbian Community Center was completed in December 1969. In the late 1980’s, the land on Francistown Road was sold to the Diocese of Richmond. Due to deterioration conditions, the Columbian Center was raised in 2010 and a new building constructed on a reduced parcel of the land. The excess lands were sold to a local church for their new building.

Re-Chartering Council 5476 Today

In 2005 a group of Knights and male parishioners as Saint Bridget Catholic Church felt a need for a new council to serve the church, its parishioners and the community. They included local Knights and others who had relocated to Richmond from as far as New York and the Carolinas. With the support of Pastor Msgr. William H. Carr and the Virginia Knights of Columbus, Council 5476 was revived and named Msgr. Francis j. Byrne Council. Msgr. Byrne had not only been the founding pastor of Saint Bridget Church, a charter member of the originial Council at St. Bridget Church. Several Knights from other Councils in Richmond, including Council 395, had transferred to the newly formed Council so that the minimum thirty member requirement could be met.

Msgr. Francis J. Byrne Council 5476 was re-chartered May 10, 2006. Carl G. Barrafato was elected Grand Knight. He served though June 2008 when Richard A. Willig was elected Grand Knight and served for two years.  In 2009, Msgr. Francis J. Byrne Council 5476 received the prestigious Double Star Council Award. By July 2010, George Alan Serafim, a graduate of St. Bridget School, assumed the position as Grand Knight. The Council had grown to over fifty Brother Knights. Under his leadership, the Council worked to develop a campus approach in cooperation with St. Bridget Church and St. Bridget School. The Council has been well recognized by parishioners as the “go-to” organization whenever they seek assistance.

Council 5476 is a strong supporter of the Special Olympics, Pro-life and “Choose Life” Activities, Knights of Virginia Assisting the Intellectually Challenged, Catholic Charities Food Bank, McGuire VA Medical Center, disaster relief, Virginia Blood Services and many other noteworthy causes. The Knights at St. Bridger Church maintain a Kiosk of CDs on the “Teaching of the Church” in St. Bridget Church Commons.

In 2012, Msgr. William H. Carr re-established the Knight’s Meeting Hall in the lower level of the church rectory. Please contact us if you would like more information on this worthy ministry, or simply a tour of our facilities at St Bridget Catholic Church.

[Last updated 3-31-2017]

Knights’ success built on founder’s desire for charity:

   Father McGivney formed the Knights of Columbus in 1882; now it is the world’s largest Catholic men’s organization

 OSV Newsweekly

Knights’ success built on founder’s desire for charity

In many ways, Father Michael J. McGivney was just one more of that band of hardworking Irish-American priests who spent themselves building up the Church in America in the latter years of the 19th century. But in one truly extraordinary respect, he was unique: Before he was 30, Michael McGivney had founded what was to become the largest Catholic men’s organization in the world: the Knights of Columbus.

That happened, largely unnoticed, in early February 1882 in New Haven, Conn., in the basement of St. Mary’s Church. The young curate had assembled 80 Catholic laymen — Irish-Americans like himself — who voted to launch the new group. No one, least of all Father McGivney, suspected that 132 years later the Knights of Columbus would grow to be an international body of 1.84 million Catholic men, with assets totaling more than $20 billion and an influence for good to match.

“Father McGivney is too modest to assume to himself any honor,” one of his lay associates later said. “But if this Order succeeds … the honor as its founder will be his.” History seconds that judgment.

Catholic boom

Father McGivney’s achievement is best appreciated in the context of 19th century Catholic immigration to the United States, including especially the newcomers’ sometimes desperate struggle to survive and flourish in the face of nativist hostility. The collision of these two powerful forces — immigration and anti-Catholicism — was central to much that happened in American Catholicism in those years.

In 1820, the Catholic population of the United States numbered only a modest 120,000. Then the great explosion began. Over the half-century that followed, 2.7 million Catholic immigrants poured into the country. By 1900, there were 12 million American Catholics — a hundred-fold increase.

Not all of the immigrants came from Ireland, but many did. Their numbers rose rapidly — 52,000 in the 1820s, 171,000 in the 1830s, 656,000 in the decade that followed, more than a million in the 1850s. The first of the Irish were relatively well-off and mostly Protestant. But by mid-century, with Ireland in the grip of famine and dire poverty, the newcomers were overwhelmingly Catholic and poor.

They struggled to put down roots, and in time they succeeded. In a sermon in 1871 Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, the Irish-American leader of the U.S. bishops, hailed the Irish diaspora as an expression of God’s plan that the Irish play an important role in “the establishment and prosperity of the greatest Republic in the world.”

In 1834, an Ursuline convent outside Boston was burned to the ground by an angry mob. In the years that followed, anti-Catholic, anti-Irish violence flared in other cities. Launching a new anti-Catholic group in 1842, Protestant ministers summed up widely-held sentiments in declaring Catholic principles to be “subversive of civil and religious liberty.” When priests like Michael McGivney sought to promote the interests of their Church and their people, they had their work cut out.

Knights formed

Father McGivney was born Aug. 12, 1852, in Waterbury, Conn., oldest of 13 children of an immigrant couple named Patrick and Mary Lynch McGivney. Six of his brothers and sisters died in infancy or childhood. His father worked in a Waterbury brass mill.

A quick learner, young Michael felt an early attraction to the priesthood and prepared for the seminary. Following studies at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, he was ordained in December 1877 by Archbishop (later Cardinal) Gibbons. His first assignment was at St. Mary’s in New Haven.

There he became convinced that a benevolent organization for Catholic men was required as a means of providing their families with financial support in times of need while also keeping the men themselves out of the clutches of anti-Catholic secret societies. The priest and his lay associates explored various options, including establishing a local branch of some already existing group. Eventually, though, they decided to launch a brand new organization — a “cooperative benefit order” to be called the Knights of Columbus.


The choice of that name was significant. “Columbus” was a response to bigots who sought to deny Catholics a place in America — a verbal reminder that it was a Catholic, Christopher Columbus, who had discovered America in the first place. “Knights” was an affirmation of members’ chivalrous loyalty to the Church in the face of anti-Catholic, anti-Irish sentiment.

The young priest accepted the office of secretary in the new group, though later he took the less time-consuming post of Supreme Chaplain. In his book “Faith and Fraternalism: The History of the Knights of Columbus,” Church historian Christopher J. Kauffman notes in the early days the Knights’ leaders “confronted severe criticism, experienced deep disillusionment and seriously doubted the value of their efforts.” He credits the group’s survival to Father McGivney’s “persistence and optimism.”

Two years after the founding, Father McGivney was named pastor of St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, Conn. Responsibility for a second parish also came with the job. Working alone, he carried a backbreaking pastoral load while managing to stay active in defending and promoting the Knights. Never physically robust, in January 1890 he contracted pneumonia. His health declined during the following months, and on Aug. 14 he died. He was only 38. His funeral and the burial in his hometown of Waterbury were major public events.

The process that could one day lead the Church to recognize Father McGivney as a saint was formally opened in 1996. At present he has the title “Venerable.” Last August, Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson reported to the group’s annual convention that a possible miracle worked through his intercession is now being studied by the Vatican’s congregation for saints.

Order’s growth

And little short of miraculous has been the growth of the Knights of Columbus itself. Overwhelmingly Irish in the early days, the nearly 2 million Knights today are an ethnically and racially diverse body, with members in the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Philippines, the Caribbean, Central America and lately Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania.

As of last year, besides its $20 billion in assets, the K of C boasted $4.86 billion of insurance in force on members and members’ families under its top-rated insurance program. The Knights ranked 929th in Fortune magazine’s most recent list of America’s 1,000 largest companies.

This material success fuels an impressive program of charity and good works. At the national and international levels, the group gives away millions of dollars every year, including several million annually to the pope and the Holy See. But the record is even more remarkable at the grassroots. In the 2012-2013 fraternal year, members gave nearly $1.7 million besides contributing more than 70 million hours in volunteer time. At all levels, the Knights of Columbus is a major source of financial and human support for countless good causes.

Strong beliefs

From the start, patriotism has been a major part of the K of C program. In fact, it’s the special theme of the group’s Fourth Degree — those men in capes and plumed hats who are a highly visible presence at numerous Church events. According to Kauffman, this emphasis on patriotism is a reminder that the group in its early days “provided first- and second-generation immigrants a ‘rite of passage’ into American society” and is “a classic instance of a minority’s drive to assimilate.”

Undoubtedly true. Yet in recent years people familiar with the group have sensed a change, with fidelity to Catholic beliefs and values increasingly causing the Knights of Columbus to take a countercultural stance toward secular culture. This is especially true on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, where their strongly held commitment to human life makes the Knights an important part of the pro-life movement and their support for traditional marriage places them in opposition to other versions.

It seems likely Father McGivney would have expected no less of his Knights.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Knights of Columbus at St. Bridget Catholic Church, Richmond, VA 23226

%d bloggers like this: