The Cheese Club was a charitable organization formed in 1915 and comprised of members of Brooklyn’s Knights of Columbus.
Considered among the leading citizens of Brooklyn, each a “big cheese,” the group’s influential founders self-mockingly referred to themselves as the Cheese Club, though other stories about the name’s origin abound.
The Cheese Club is best known in Port Jefferson for its Christmas pilgrimage to the village, which it made without interruption from 1916-58 despite stormy weather, world wars and the Great Depression.
During each annual holiday visit, the club members gave yuletide gifts to the youngsters at the Brooklyn Home for Blind, Crippled and Defective Children, known today as St. Charles Hospital, and donated money for the year-round comfort of the handicapped boys and girls and their caregivers.
The club members and their entourage typically traveled from Flatbush to Port Jefferson on a specially chartered LIRR train, the Santa Claus Express, made up of coaches and a freight car filled with Christmas presents.
After disembarking at the Port Jefferson railroad station, Kris Kringle and the St. John’s Orphan Asylum Band from Brooklyn led the group as it marched to Infant Jesus R.C. Church at Myrtle and Main to attend Mass.
Numbering 400 strong during peak years, the procession then continued to St. Charles Hospital, where the sisters of the Daughters of Wisdom, who operated the hospital and looked after its disabled charges, served a welcoming luncheon.
Following the reception, children at the hospital provided two hours of entertainment, performing as singers, dancers, musicians and actors.
When the talent show ended, Santa Claus and his helpers took the stage and gave each boy and girl a Christmas stocking stuffed with toys, candy, games, clothing and fruit.
The Daughters of Wisdom also received a check to fund various projects at the hospital and on its grounds. Over the years, the money was used to purchase radios, movie projectors and physical therapy equipment for the children, build a sun shelter, defray the costs of a memorial organ, improve the sisters’ living quarters and maintain outdoor Stations of the Cross.
Following the establishment of the Diocese of Rockville Centre in 1957 out of territory once within the Diocese of Brooklyn, the Cheese Club phased out its holiday visits to Port Jefferson and concentrated on charitable work closer to home.
The Cheese Club was a pioneer in bringing Christmas cheer to the handicapped children hospitalized in Port Jefferson and spurring other religious and nonsectarian organizations to support the disabled youngsters at St. Charles — not just at the holidays but throughout the year.
Kenneth Brady has served as the Port Jefferson Village historian and president of the Port Jefferson Conservancy, as well as on the boards of the Suffolk County Historical Society, Greater Port Jefferson Arts Council and Port Jefferson Historical Society. He is a longtime resident of the village.