During the last half of the 19th century, as wave after wave of immigrants came to the United States, the urban areas of the Northeast became home to heavy concentrations of Catholics, especially those from Ireland. The vast majority of these immigrants were poor, having left their homeland due to famine and lack of jobs. These were days of adverse working conditions, miserably low wages, and discriminatory employment practices in the United States—the sign “IRISH NEED NOT APPLY” was frequently seen in store windows.
Living just above subsistence level, these new Americans had little, if any, money to rely on in the event of family catastrophe. Not only was life insurance far beyond their reach financially, but at the time, immigrants were discriminated against by most commercial insurance companies, which refused to insure them. Should death strike the wage earner of the household, there were no resources to help the rest of the family survive. It was common practice for neighbors to go from door to door, in an attempt to collect sufficient money to bury the deceased and raise what little they could for those who remained. As there were no Social Security benefits, Aid to Dependent Children, or other governmental welfare assistance at that time, the death of a breadwinner often meant financial ruin and resulted in the dissolution of the family.
To combat this, a small group of Irish Catholic Bostonians began looking for ways to band together to protect their families on their own. On March 12, 1879, they inaugurated a fraternal benefit society composed exclusively of Roman Catholic men, which they called the Massachusetts Catholic Order of Foresters. This society, the first Catholic fraternal insurance organization in Massachusetts, was officially chartered on July 31, 1879, and was the first to provide much needed life insurance protection to struggling Catholic families.
Of course, many of these Catholic immigrants were also finding it difficult to assimilate into a primarily Anglo-Saxon Protestant industrial society, especially those from agricultural -based economies. So in addition to insurance benefits, the Catholic Order of Foresters also established regional lodges, called Courts. These fostered a friendly and supportive social environment where Catholics could congregate. By the turn of the century, the Society’s membership was growing rapidly. Subordinate courts were springing up throughout the state. In 1894, women were permitted to become Foresters and in later years, the Foresters admitted children as junior members, resulting in a larger and more enthusiastic, family-oriented organization.
Being legally permitted to insure anyone who qualified, in 1961, the Society expanded its membership to include the other New England states and Florida. At that time, the name was changed to the Catholic Association of Foresters. Soon the ideals and purposes of the Catholic Foresters were copied by other newly established fraternal groups.
Today, the Catholic Association of Foresters is a benevolent society of members who are insurance policy holders as well as benefactors in their communities. The monies raised through dues and policy sales enable the Society to annually award scholastic grants for college education.
Members also support charity fundraisers in addition to the countless charitable deeds performed by individuals. The permanent charity fund provides for donations to the Bishop, for religious educational programs, as well as other charitable needs.