PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Thomas Willis joined his local Knights of Columbus council in Blessed Trinity Parish in Breezy Point as soon as it was formed in 2020, and he was quickly elected Deputy Grand Knight by his peers, who looked to him as a leader.
He’s only 19 years old.
The fact that Willis is such a young member of Our Lady of Knock Council #17580 — a group of men primarily in middle age or older — doesn’t faze anyone.
Willis, who is one of about 50 members of his council, not only joined the Knights, but convinced some of his friends to join too.
“The Knights of Columbus is a band of brothers,” said Willis, a junior at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “We’re all working for a common cause.”
The initiative he’s shown could be a key approach for the future of the Knights of Columbus, the international order of Catholic men founded in Connecticut in 1892 by Blessed Father Michael McGivney.
On the surface, the organization’s membership numbers indicate growth. In 2010, there were 1.8 million Knights around the world, with those in the U.S. accounting for most of the total. In 2020, the worldwide total was 1.9 million.
But while there are more members now than there were 11 years ago, such a small rate of growth is cause for concern, according to local Knights, who said not enough young people are joining.
“We have to turn over the reins to the younger generation if we are to survive,” said Steve Strigaro, Grand Knight of Council #794 at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in the Suffolk County village of Lindenhurst.
The council — which has counted Bishop Robert Brennan, the Bishop-designate of the Diocese of Brooklyn, as one of its members — recently signed up 40 new Knights, including several young men.
The Grand Knight credited Patrick Corcoran, a 35-year-old member, with valuable recruitment efforts. Also, Corcoran’s youth means “guys his age will listen to him. It’s not like some older guy lecturing them.”
Still, there is more work to do. The Lindenhurst council reported about 500 members, making it one of the largest in Suffolk County, although fewer than 100 members are under age 40.
Corcoran, who is the chancellor of the council, recalled being struck by something at one of the first meetings he attended. “I looked around the room and saw no young guys there,” he said.
In the minds of many, the Knights of Columbus is a group for older people. The Knights are working hard to counter that narrative. The service-focused group’s New York State Council — and by extension, the Diocese of Brooklyn — have been working hard to increase their numbers.
Local numbers are up. In the past year alone, councils around New York recruited 1,900 new members, bringing the total to more than 20,000, according to the Knights.
In the Diocese of Brooklyn, three new councils have been established since 2020, raising the total to 89.
One factor in the recruitment success is the organization’s ability to move with the times. For example, the Knights have streamlined their admissions process; an entry process that used to take up to six months is now accomplished in as little as two weeks.
Ironically, the pandemic helped with recruitment in the diocese.
When the pandemic hit, councils started food drives, traveling to neighborhoods that were hit hard by COVID-19 to distribute food to residents who had been forced out of work.
As a result, people got to see the Knights in action on the ground, and it made an impression. “They saw that this is the face of the Knights of Columbus,” said Father Michael Gelfant, Associate New York State chaplain.
People have all sorts of reasons for joining the Knights, and the organization has stressed different features to appeal to potential new members.
Young family men often join to obtain insurance. The Knights of Columbus is a major insurance provider, offering life insurance, as well as policies for long-term care, disabilities, and retirement annuities.
Some younger members join because of their family history. Their fathers and grandfathers were Knights, and they grew up hearing about the legacy.
Willis’s great-grandfather, Joseph Michael Lynch, was a Knight for 50 years. The elder Lynch, a World War II veteran, was a deputy inspector in the New York Police Department. When Thomas was going through his great-grandfather’s belongings, he noticed a lockbox. Inside were his World War II medals, NYPD materials, and his Knights certificates.
“I realized that the Knights were as important to him as the [military] service and his NYPD days,” he said.
Willis joined the Knights in December of 2019, a few days after his 18th birthday.
In Lindenhurst, council recruiters have tried appealing to mens’ desire for camaraderie.
“I tell people, ‘Hey, how would you like to join a men’s club?’ That’s how I approach it,” Corcoran said. He created a Facebook page for the council that now has more than 850 followers. The council’s newsletter is available online only.
Members also sell the Knights as a convenient way for people to fulfill charitable obligations in their professional lives.
“A lot of companies are starting to require the employees to volunteer time to do community work. You have to have a way to do that, and the Knights are perfect for it,” Corcoran said.