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New Haven’s Knights of Columbus Museum holds papal artifacts

The papal gallery in the Knights of Columbus Museum displays papal medals from every pontiff since 1882.

Christopher Klein

The papal gallery in the Knights of Columbus Museum displays papal medals from every pontiff since 1882.

NEW HAVEN —Last month’s papal conclave reignited the dreams of many travelers to visit the Vatican.

But if a trip to Rome isn’t in the cards, a piece of St. Peter’s Basilica and a collection of papal artifacts are just a tank away at the Knights of Columbus Museum in downtown New Haven.

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It was in the Elm City in 1882 that the Rev. Michael J. McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus, and the voluminous museum, which occupies a city block, stands in the shadows of the Catholic fraternal organization’s 23-story international headquarters. Visitors are greeted by one of the institution’s prized possessions, a copper-clad cross grasped for nearly four centuries by the statue of Christ the Redeemer atop St. Peter’s balustrade.

Among the museum’s numerous galleries is one dedicated to the papacy. Guarded by an enormous 17th-century wooden statue of St. Peter, the first pope, the gallery features film clips and paintings of pontiffs, a collection of papal medals issued since 1882, artifacts such as the skullcap of Pope Pius XII, and gifts presented to the popes, including an intricately carved miniature of ancient Jerusalem given to Pope John Paul II in 2000.

McGivney, who is a candidate for sainthood, looms large in the museum. A reliquary contains items such as his original burial vestments and the compressed remains of rosary beads he held that were recovered when his body was re-interred in commemoration of the Knights’ centennial.

A separate gallery dedicated to the organization’s patron features paintings and sculptures of Christopher Columbus, a model of the Santa Maria, and even keepsakes from Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition such as tickets, pocket watches, and souvenir postcards.

The Knights of Columbus Museum occupies a full city block in downtown New Haven.

Christopher Klein

The Knights of Columbus Museum occupies a full city block in downtown New Haven.

The museum’s extensive chronology of the Knights of Columbus also tells the tale of more than a century of US history, up to the present day. Two twisted steel girders pulled from the wreckage of the World Trade Center are among the most recent artifacts.

One item connected to the country’s first Catholic president is of particular interest: John F. Kennedy’s 1946 application for the Knights’ Bunker Hill Council No. 62 in Charlestown. He listed his job as news correspondent, and when asked if he intended to change his present occupation, the future 35th president replied, “Not sure.”

Knights of Columbus Museum1 State St., New Haven, 203-865-0400, www.kofcmuseum.org

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