Standing guard for the faith

Members of the Knights of Columbus’ Color Corps lead a Eucharistic procession through the streets of Royal Oak in July 2016. The corps, which is open only to members of the order’s prestigious fourth degree, is the most visible arm of the Knights of Columbus and takes part in high-profile Masses, ceremonies and public events. (Mike Stechshulte | The Michigan Catholic)

Knights of Columbus’ Color Corps inspires devotion, patriotism for members

DETROIT — You see them often at high-profile Catholic events, standing in formation, swords at attention, the colorful hats, uniforms and capes a vibrant contrast to an otherwise ordinary congregation.

A member of the Knights of Columbus’ Color Corps stands at attention during a Mass celebrating the naming of the National Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak as a minor basilica in 2015. (Mike Stechshulte | The Michigan Catholic)

To the uninitiated, the Knights of Columbus Color Corps could be something of a throwback to an era of high-church, pomp-and-circumstance Catholicism. But to the initiated, the Knights of the fourth degree are the heirs to a proud, century-old tradition whose mission is above all else to serve.

“The fourth degree of the Knights of Columbus is the patriotic degree, and that is where the honor guard comes from,” said John Hundiak of St. Mary of the Hills Parish in Rochester Hills and a master of the Fourth Degree for Michigan District No. 1, the Fr. Hennepin Province. “It pertains to the role of the Catholic religion and its history in this country and its place in the future. Around 1900, the Knights started having the Color Corps at events, and that evolved into more public displays, parades and processions at parishes for Mass.”

The degrees of the Knights correspond to the order’s four principles of charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism. As a Knight joins the order, he is initiated through the first three principles and becomes a full member upon reaching the order’s third degree. Knights who wish to continue that initiation may then choose to join the prestigious fourth degree, which seeks to promote and encourage active Catholic patriotism. According to a 2013 annual report, fourth-degree Knights comprise about 18 percent of the order’s 1.8 million members.

Any interested fourth-degree Knight may choose to join the Color Corps; Knights who are interested are invited to a Mass or event where the Color Corps is participating, giving the inductee a chance to see the corps in action and go through some basic training with members.

Knights of Colombus Color Corps members lead a Marian procession into the grotto at Assumption Grotto Parish in Detroit for the feast of the Assumption in August 2016. About 18 percent of the Knights’ 1.8 million members belong to the order’s fourth degree, from whose membership the Color Corps is comprised.
(Mike Stechshulte | The Michigan Catholic)

The Color Corps uniform is a resemblance of a 1700s naval uniform, featuring a chapeau (a naval hat), cape (which is different colors, depending on the Knight’s rank), sword and service baldric (a sash that goes across the shoulder and is attached with the scabbard) and white gloves. Including the tuxedo, Hundiak estimates the uniform costs around $300 to $400.

The most distinctive element of the uniform is also the most eyebrow-raig,sin Hundiak said.

“The biggest question we get is, why do we carry the sword?” Hundiak said. “The swords are not a weapon. We’re the defenders of the faith, and our sword is meant to symbolize prayer. The swords are more of a gesture of honor and respect, particularly for the Eucharist.”

Hundiak said the Knights have great appreciation for the military and all those who serve their country both at home and abroad. The Knights’ Color Corps are often called upon to form a guard of honor at funerals of fellow Knights or veterans, or for high-ranking Church officials such as bishops or priests.

The resemblance to a military honor guard is what drew Terry Carl of St. Christopher Parish in Marysville to join the color guard.

“I used to be in the Army, and I enjoyed the drill aspect of the Army,” Carl said. “When I became a district deputy in the third degree, my friend said, ‘You might as well join the fourth degree to get on with it.’ When I went to my fourth degree exemplification, I saw the color guard, and my wife turned to me saying, ‘I know you’re going to get involved in this.’”

Carl now takes part in the Color Corps whenever he can, enjoying his time in uniform and showing his love for Church and country.

A member of the Knights of Columbus’ Color Corps gestures during a Mass at the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in 2015. The different colors of the Knights’ chapeaus and capes denote different levels and ranks within the corps. (Mike Stechshulte | The Michigan Catholic)

“When I was in the Army, my platoon sergeant was a member of the president’s honor guard, and he was really fussy about drill and ceremony,” Carl said. “We did minor parades and formation, and later on I got involved in burial details, and I had this certain sense of pride.”

For Color Corps Commander O.J. Lenze II of the Fr. Daniel A. Lord Council 3959 at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia, being in the Color Corps is a family affair.

“My dad got me interested in the Knights of Columbus, and he used to take all of us to different Knights of Columbus functions and the different picnics,” said Lenze, a past faithful navigator, admiral of the fourth degree, past grand knight and current chancellor of the third degree. “My dad was very active, was a Color Corps commander. When I joined the fourth degree, he said, ‘I have a sword with your name on it,’ and that’s how I got involved in the Color Corps.”

Lenze does Color Corps processions during Mass Mobs and Holy Thursday Mass, in addition to standing guard at temporary tabernacles and participating in parades.

“My dad and mom instilled the faith in us, and the Knights of Columbus is an extension of that faith,” Lenze said. “In the Knights, we carry out those corporal works of mercy we talk about. The honor guard is the window most people recognize the Knights of Columbus through, and that has a lot to do with why I joined. The honor guard is another way of being a Knight, of carrying my Catholic faith.”


Knights of Columbus Color Corps

The Color Corps of the Knights of Columbus are the uniformed members of the Fourth Degree. They are the ones that are most noticeable at Church and public functions, parades, etc. The Color Corps consist of two parts: the Honor Guard and the Color Guard. Honor Guardsmen are those members who have mastered the Manual of the Sword. All others are Color Guard.

The Corps basically follows a naval theme with ranks and insignia. Cape colors are an indication of rank:

  • Vice Supreme Masters wear blue capes and chapeau
  • Masters wear gold capes and chapeau
  • District Marshals (district-level Color Corps commanders) wear green capes and chapeau
  • Faithful Navigators (whether a member of the corps or not) wear white capes and chapeau
  • Commanders wear purple capes and chapeau
  • Other Color Corps members wear red capes and chapeau

Source: Knights of Columbus British Columbia and Yukon State Council