There are mixed feelings about a longstanding tradition that is coming to an end this summer, as the Knights of Columbus discard the ceremonial capes and plumed chapeaus of their 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.

“Most young members are not joining the Patriotic Degree of the Order because of the regalia. They consider it archaic and not in keeping with times,” said Arcie Lim, a Vancouver man and member of the Knights' Supreme Board of Directors.

“The new uniform is a lot simpler, less cumbersome, and more practical to wear compared to its predecessor.”

But the change comes with its challenges. Lim has heard complaints that the new outfit looks “too military,” whereas B.C. and Yukon State Deputy Ming Lau said some Knights have expressed frustration that there wasn't enough consultation before they made the switch.

“With close to two million members in the world in the organization, it is hard to hear the voice of every member,” said Lau.

Dan Heffernan, Ontario State Deputy, said the Knights have been doing extensive research and have heard one constant from men as to why they won’t join the order.

The Knights of Columbus’ new look retains their traditional sword and sash, but the cape and plumed chapeau are gone. The changes take effect July 1. (Knights of Columbus photo)

“If I had to wear that regalia, I wouldn’t join the Knights,” is the refrain Heffernan said he has heard often.

It was one of the major points raised in a roundtable in March at the Archdiocese of Toronto chancery when the Knights gathered a number of the men to get input into their impressions of the Knights. Several men in attendance noted the cape and chapeau as drawbacks.

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.”

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 move has been met with significant resistance, much of it from Canada, said Heffernan. That included an online petition on 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.” 

Among comments on, 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.”

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.
That stability is reflected in demand for the new regalia. 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.

Back in Vancouver, Lim believes that while change is difficult, it is necessary.

“We sometimes need to introduce change, change for the better or change for the benefit of future members,” he said. “We need young men not only in the Knights of Columbus, but in our parishes. We have to adapt and engage young people as long as we are not sacrificing our core belief.”

With files from Agnieszka Ruck.