Knight Persons

Knight Persons

No Irish Need Apply.

The faded sign hangs beside the bar at the Knights of St. Patrick hall in New Haven, a reminder of the world in which its founding members lived—a New Haven that often excluded them from employment and housing and, once they’d worked their way into the system, membership in the city’s social clubs. So they founded their own.

The Irish club—and other immigrant clubs like it—became a “home away from home” for new Americans, says member Bernadette LaFrance, herself the daughter of immigrants. “Having a network of people who were already established or becoming established in professions” was important to those who had just arrived, LaFrance says. “When you had a connection or you knew someone… it was helpful and them a chance to get established and become the melting pot that is New Haven.”

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The principle still applies. “I have very early memories of being both here and at the Gaelic Club in East Haven,” LaFrance says. When more settled Americans “would have family gatherings and get together with family, we’d go to the clubs.”

The Knights of St. Patrick’s unassuming hall on upper State Street was busy on a recent Wednesday evening, with at least two different organizations holding meetings and a small clutch of members communing at the bar, dubbed Gooley’s Tavern in honor of Daniel R. Gooley, a past president. On the wall near the front door, a photo montage of 42 well-dressed 19th-century men bearing serious expressions commemorates the club’s founding on St. Patrick’s Day, 1878.

The timing, of course, is no accident. The organization takes its name from the venerated patron saint of Ireland, whose March feast day is still celebrated with the rollicking Greater New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Ensconced in a nearby corner of the hall is a life-sized statue of the saint, holding aloft his walking stick adorned with a gilded shape suggesting a shamrock. He stands on a black snake, representing his legendary banishment of snakes from the Emerald Isle. The artifact was rescued from the old St. Patrick’s Church on the corner of Wallace Street and Grand Avenue, which was torn down in 1966.

Described as “a cultural, educational, nonsecular organization promoting and preserving the Irish heritage,” the original 1878 club had its quarters at 87 Church Street, between Center and Chapel. Founding president Francis Donnelly, who had immigrated from County Tyrone more than 40 years before, got his foothold in real estate and the quarry business. Other charter members who were doctors founded the Hospital of St. Raphael and the Knights of Columbus, now an international organization that still keeps its headquarters in New Haven. Malley’s, for many years an iconic Chapel Street department store, was owned by charter members, and one of the club’s early presidents founded United Illuminating.

After leaving Church Street, the Knights of St. Patrick occupied five other buildings before landing in their present space, including one on Elm Street that’s now the site of a new LL Bean store. In 1980, they made their final move into a former stereo equipment shop on State Street. They brought their carved chestnut bar with them—“If that bar could talk,” says longtime member Bob Shanley—and they brought their traditions.

One is the awarding of green blazers to past presidents and the “Knight of the Year,” the member who “did the most for the club” in the previous year, explains current president Michael dePascale. It’s a visible reminder of the club’s history and the many members who have served. “I was really, really honored that my son put the jacket on me when I was president, and I put the jacket on him when he was president,” Shanley says. Other traditions honor members who have died. The corner of Chapel and Church is renamed on parade day, marked by a special street sign honoring a member who passed away that year, and the club gives a Bible to the families of members who have recently died.

The Knights support the popular parade in cooperation with the area’s three other Irish clubs: the Ancient Order of Hibernians; the Irish American Community Center / New Haven Gaelic Football and Hurling Club; and the West Haven Irish American Club. In addition, the group hosts an annual dinner that members believe is the oldest continuous Knights of St. Patrick banquet in New England, possibly the nation. Dating back to 1878, the banquet was at one time “the who’s who, the social event of all of New England and New York,” LaFrance says, a black tie affair that over the years has hosted nationally recognized guest speakers including US Representative Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, Senator Joseph Lieberman, journalist Harry Reasoner, Pittsburgh Steeler Robert Patrick “Rocky” Bleier, NY Giants coach Kevin Gilbride, forensic scientist Dr. Henry Lee and many prominent Irish Americans.

The Knights, about 200 members strong, both men and women, also sponsor numerous fundraisers, trips and holiday events for their membership and step out into the community to work with Connecticut Special Olympics, Connecticut Hospice and the North Haven Food Bank, among others. An annual Public Safety Night honors local law enforcement and fire departments, and the club often sponsors a local family at Christmastime. The club has also worked with the Irish Immigration Reform Movement, advocating for Irish immigrants of the late 20th century lacking legal status in the U.S.

Both dePascale and LaFrance are thrilled to see their respective sons, now young adults, expressing interest in continuing the traditions of the Knights of St. Patrick. But they’re also eager to invite newcomers into the fold, Irish or not. “Our doors are open,” dePascale says. “But we still want to stay on the message that we started with, which is maintain traditions create a place where people can come to have that camaraderie and to see people that they know.”

Members may not need each other quite the way they once did, when networking wasn’t just a way to make connections but a way of survival. Still, ties are strong and deep. In some cases, they reach all the way back to the beginning. DePascale points to the picture of one founding member and says with a grin, “I just played golf with his great-great grandson.”

Knights of St. Patrick
1533 State St, New Haven (map)
(203) 789-9535 |
Annual dues: $95 individual, $125 family

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 depicts George Waldron, Bob Shanley, Michael dePascale and Bernadette LaFrance.

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