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Knights of Columbus uniform makeover receives mixed reaction

29 May 2019

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

A longstanding tradition is coming to an end this summer as the Knights of Columbus discard the ceremonial capes and plumed chapeaus of its Fourth-Degree members.

July 1 will mark the end of a 79-year era when the Knights change the ceremonial regalia worn by the Colour Corps long associated with the fraternal Catholic order.

The Colour Corps, which acts as an honour guard at religious and civic functions, is distinguishable by its official regalia of tuxedo, cape, chapeau, white gloves and sword.

The preferred dress will no longer include the cape and chapeau. The new uniform will be a jacket and beret, which bears a strong resemblance to the uniform of the Royal Canadian Legion. The ceremonial swords will continue to be part of the Fourth Degree.

It’s all part of the Knights’ efforts to attract new members, particularly younger men, said Dan Heffernan, Ontario state deputy for the Knights.

The Knights have been doing extensive research in how to attract new members and have heard one constant from men as to why they won’t join the order. “If I had to wear that regalia, I wouldn’t join the Knights,” is the refrain Heffernan said he has heard often.

The overall uniform of the Fourth Degree has undergone several changes since it was adopted in 1900. But it has remained relatively the same since 1940, consisting of a plumed chapeau, a tuxedo, a cape and a ceremonial sword.

The modernized version will be a blue blazer with the Fourth-Degree emblem, dark grey slacks, a blue Fourth Degree tie and a black beret.

In 2017 the international Knights’ board of directors unanimously voted to adopt a new uniform for the Fourth Degree and debuted the new look at the 135th Supreme Convention in St. Louis. The vote came after three years of testing and discussion within the membership. The board believes it will open the doors to a new generation of Knights.

The new Knights of Columbus uniform bears a strong resemblance to the uniform of the Royal Canadian Legion.

However, the change has been met with significant resistance, much of it from Canada, said Heffernan.

That included an online petition on change.org that garnered almost 10,000 signatures “to reconsider the consequence of this proposed change and keep the existing regalia of the fourth degree assemblies that the Knights and the rest of the world has come to recognize and love.”

“It stands out. It’s beautiful. There’s no one else who has that kind of uniform,” said Travis Chabot of Grande Prairie, who became a Fourth-Degree Knight this month, adding it was the first and last time he’ll have the chance to wear the tuxedo and feathers.

While the uniform is a traditional symbol of the Knights’ chivalry and care for widows and the poor, Chabot notes that the Knights’ service to others won’t change – regardless of dress.

“I didn’t join the Knights because they have cool uniforms, if that’s their recruitment strategy,” Chabot said. “I want to know ‘What’s their mission?'”

Ron Schuster, the state deputy for Alberta and the Northwest Territories, said “it’s become a political issue and I don’t like that”, adding he has made his comments known to the Knights of Columbus head office in New Haven, Conn.

Schuster declined to comment on the uniform specifically.

Since 1901, the Knights of Columbus in Alberta and Northwest Territories has grown to more than 175 councils and more than 18,000 members. Included in these numbers are several French, Ukrainian and Filipino councils.

Local membership in the Knights is increasing every year, Schuster noted. “We are definitely moving in the right direction. Is it where I’d like it to be? No. But we’re not losing members.”

Nevertheless, Chabot said the Knights are still perceived to be “an old gentlemen’s club” and the order should emphasize its roots of mission and service.

Among comments on change.org, 25-year-old Knight Shawn Roche said it was one of the traditions that brought him to the Knights.

“The regalia as it stands is a sign of regal manhood and modernizing gives that up,” he said.

Supporter Jaclyn Magee wrote that the cape and chapeau “wowed and impressed” people, and “by changing this to a school boy uniform you are taking away that wow factor and making them look childish.”

Heffernan understands and sympathizes with those seeking to keep tradition alive.

“You’re always going to have the diehards who are going to wear the old regalia,” he said. “If I was 80 years old I’m not going to go out and buy a new uniform.”

Heffernan said there are some misconceptions about the uniform. Many believe all Knights must wear the regalia, but it’s only for Fourth Degree members, “and even then you don’t have to wear the regalia,” he said.

“You could become a member, be a Fourth Degree and never buy a uniform…. You’re just not part of the colour guard.”

While there has been resistance, there has also been significant buy-in, said Heffernan. Overall, Knights numbers are stable, even growing worldwide, with almost two million members across the globe.

“It’s not holding people back from becoming Fourth Degree members,” said Heffernan.

In Ontario, Heffernan said their supplier is having a hard time keeping up with orders and there is a long waiting period before a member can get their hands on the new uniform.

“Even as it is right now, the supplier is making the uniforms as fast as they can but if you were to order one now it would probably be the fall before you could get one,” he said.

-With files from Grandin Media

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to remove suggestion that a grandfather clause existed for the old uniform. There is no clause