When John Viscosi was inducted into the Knights of Columbus more than 50 years ago, he said it was a very moving experience - as well as an event he kept to himself.
Grand Knight Frank DeMaio of Gloversville said the largest lay Catholic family service organization formed in 1882 no longer has a secret side.
It sponsors two $500 scholarships, covered-dish socials and basketball free-throw contests to get youths involved in athletics.
The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan
Grand Knight Frank DeMaio, of the Gloversville Knights of Columbus 265, conducts the group’s monthly meeting on North Main Street Wednesday.
The international organization has more than 12,000 fraternal councils with 1.7 million Knights who contributed more than $144 million in charitable donations and 68 million hours of service to charitable causes, according to local District Deputy Frank Attreed.
Among these contributions was $10 million in relief assistance to Gulf Coast residents and Catholic organizations affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Other prominent charities annually supported by the Knights are Special Olympics and the Wheelchair Foundation.
Yet, as Viscosi recalled the ceremony inducting him into the third degree of the fraternal organization, he said he was pretty sure where the term "getting the third degree" came from.
"It was when Bishop Burke School was first opened," Viscosi said Wednesday. "A group of us were packed into a room shoulder to shoulder and told we would be brought out one at a time for the ceremony."
Viscosi said one of the group was a young priest who said he was claustrophobic and passed out on the floor with blood coming from his mouth.
Frantic pounding on the door brought aid from those leading the ceremony. The inductees burst from the room and the "priest," later revealed to be a "plant" got up and wiped the theatrical prop blood from his mouth.
"They said it was to teach us that in this world things aren't always what they seem to be," Viscosi said. "I expected the ceremony to be a bunch of baloney, but it was very moving."
Viscosi said he doesn't participate as much as he once did with the group. DeMaio said this is the case with much of the aging fraternal organization and a reason for his reaching out to the Catholic community to try and get more local members involved.
"We have about 100 members, but often only a dozen to 15 who attend a monthly meeting," DeMaio said. "There are four degrees of the organization."
DeMaio said the four degrees are based on the four principals put forth by founding Father Michael J. McGivney: charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism.
The third degree is needed for full membership, with the fourth degree conferring the honor of ceremonial dress and sword worn for parades and special events.
"They are somewhat like the military color guard," DeMaio said. "But our main focus has always been on charity."
Viscosi, founder of Cherry Valley Memorials that makes monuments for graves and other purposes, said he was honored to have the contract from the group to erect a monument to unborn children at the Auriesville Shrine in 1994. He said the Catholic Church has always regarded life as beginning from conception.
"The Knights of Columbus supports pro-life programs and events, defending life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death," he said.
Gerard Killoran is the financial secretary for the Northville K of C and explained that each group is a separate council.
"We are all under the umbrella of the New Haven headquarters," Killoran said. "Each state has an office with 560 councils in New York state."
Killoran said each council usually has a special charitable project with youth being the focus of local councils.
"We support youth soccer, and we have a 'Christmas Joy' program with toys for needy children," he said.
According to the K of C Web site, the Knights of Columbus was formed to render financial aid to members and their families. Mutual aid and assistance are offered to sick, disabled and needy members and their families. Social and intellectual fellowship is promoted among members and their families through educational, charitable, religious, social welfare, war relief and public relief works.
As a fraternal benefit society, the Knights of Columbus provides its members a variety of life insurance products for the financial stability of their families. In North America, the K of C has more than $62 billion of life insurance in force and consistently earns the industry's highest ratings for fiscal management and ethical business practices. It is one of only four insurance companies in North America to receive the highest possible ratings - AAA - from Standard & Poor's according to the K of C Web site.
Among the many notable Knights over the past 125 years were sports legends Babe Ruth, Connie Mack, Vince Lombardi, Floyd Patterson and Ron Guidry and statesmen Al Smith, Henry Hyde, John F. Kennedy, Jeb Bush and Sargent Shriver.
DeMaio said most members were asked to join by other members of the organization.
"Probably 98 percent of the group were asked by another member," DeMaio said.
At the Gloversville K of C meeting Wednesday, former Grand Knight Harry Van Steenburgh said that was true of his membership.
"I've been a member for 18 or 19 years," Van Steenburgh said. "Somebody asked me if I'd like to join."
The 92-year-old said he had attained fourth-degree membership, but didn't care about the sword and ceremonial hat he was allowed to wear.
"We're mostly a benevolent association that gives money to charity," he said. "We used to have dances here at the hall on Saturday nights. The hall can also be rented."
Dick Adach also was at the Wednesday night meeting in Gloversville and said he had been a member 25 years.
"Many of our members have passed away," Adach said. "And many of them lived in the past."
DeMaio is determined to change that image. At 31 years of age, DeMaio would like to see younger members involved.
Attreed said any Catholic male more than 18 years old can contact a local Knight for an application. He said he would be happy to make an introduction to a local Knight. Call him at 661-6789.
For more information go to the council's Web site at www.gloversvillekofc.org.
Richard Nilsen is a general assignment reporter and can be reached at email@example.com.