Monday, April 20th
Good morning. Good morning.
This letter is dedicated to the Knights of Columbus in the parish of St. Francis De Sales. In my experience and understanding the members of the KofC have always risen to heroically respond to the cultural challenges in which they lived and continue to live. It was a New England organization that originated with the initiative of Fr. Michael McGivney, a priest from New Haven, Connecticut. The Knights were all about supporting and protecting the immigrants. Most especially the widows and orphans when men were killed in the factories. New Haven is still the headquarters of the largest Catholic men’s organization in the World. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_J._McGivney
Within this letter I will speak primarily of my memories in my affiliation with the Knights. The exception I will speak of first. In the years prior to the birth of my parents in Chicago there was an explosion of the membership of the Klu Klux Klan in Iowa, where the Gould family would settle forty years later. The story of the Klan’s impact on the Jews and immigrant Catholics was quite dramatic all throughout central Iowa. All through the 1920’s Iowa received Mexicans in large numbers from the Cristero Rebellion in Mexico. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cristero_War
One fourth of my classmates in grammar school were of Mexican heritage. Others, from Italy, were filling the South Side of Des Moines. I would meet many of them as classmates at Dowling Catholic High School in center city. They were grandsons to the immigrant waves of construction workers who built many of the great bridges of Des Moines. Many of the African American population arrived via the “Underground Railroad,” or in their flight from the Southern States when they were set free. Others were child castoffs from the big cities in the East who arrived on the Orphan Trains. (More on that in a future letter.) The Jews were marketers involved in the financial programs that helped to sustain the farmers and set the development of the American insurance programs in their time of need. In the insurance programs Iowa was number two, behind the Insurance capital of Hartford Connecticut. (More on that in a future letter.) And then, there were the “Micks.” A low class collective of Irish Catholics honored just above the Gypsies. The immigrants to Iowa offered an interesting lot in the early part of the last century.
The Klu Kux Klan came into being with the end of the War Between the States in 1865. They were originally only formed to protect the Southern business enterprises from the Carpetbaggers encroaching from the North. It may surprise some to find out that in the earliest days the KKK actually welcomed Catholics in the membership. One a famed Catholic priest poet named Fr. Abram Ryan. (Ah, another story for later.) That quickly changed when someone, named Nathan Bedford Forrest, came to the leadership as the first Grand Wizard of the KKK in 1867, two years after it formed. The dynamics of the KKK membership would exceed his command and control. He would later denounce the group because of the encroaching racism. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathan_Bedford_Forrest
The Knights of Columbus, in Iowa, small in number, probably looked more like the famed General Custer and his troops at the Little Big Horn. The meteoric rise in membership in the Klan must have been overwhelming to them. As it turned out, bit by bit, the identity of the leadership in the Klan seeped out. It was the Knights who marked the stores owned by the leadership famed for burning crosses on the hills above the state capital and in the streets of center city… in front of the courthouse and police station. Catholics boycotted the stores marked by the Knights. And the burning crosses soon came to an end.
So you may ask, “Why the personal admiration for the Knights of Columbus.” My grandfather was a Knight, fourth degree, as I am. The knights have always been good to me in my priesthood. On the night of my ordination the director of the EDW (Edward Douglas White) Council meeting hall, in Arlington, hosted the dinner for my family. His name was Mr. James Kirby. To this day, in my mind, he is still the paragon of virtue for all that the Knights stand for.
Mr. Kirby would later serve as my sacristan when I was assigned to St. Agnes Parish as pastor. He told me to call him, “Jim.” I said, “No sir, Mr. Kirby. You are older than my father. And I remember, you were good to my parents on the night of my ordination.” It was not an easy transition due to some pastoral difficulties that warranted my assignment. Old Mr. Kirby, over forty years my senior, stood twelve inches shorter than I, and looked me straight in the eye and said not to worry the Knights would have my back. At that point of my life I was the happiest priest in the Diocese of Arlington.
There were occasions in those seven years from ’93-2000, when men would come to see in the sacristy and indicate their need of help financially or in finding a job. Mr. Kirby would sit there, in the corner of the sacristy, like a silent Buddha, and just watch. On a couple of occasions he would pull the fellow aside and pop him one or two hundred dollars from his wallet. A tap on the shoulder and confident gaze from the blue eyes behind the thick glasses and he would simply say, “Bring it back when you can.” For the others in need of work he would tap them and say, “See me after Mass. My office is down the hall.” And from the office titled, “Kirby’s Corner,” he would make few calls among his contacts with the Knights. Worked like a charm. Oh, and one bit of trivia, Mr. Carl Anderson (Current Supreme Knight of KofC) and his lovely wife, Dorian, with a boatload of kids were all members in the parish… under the watchful eye of Mr. James Kirby.
The second great experience I had with the Knights dealt with the crew at St. Raymond Parish in Springfield. We had no church, only a fire hall to rent on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings. The Knights completely transformed the hall every week to look like makeshift church. They covered the bingo boards and set up an altar. With their help we sent a truckload of goods to New Orleans after the devastation from Hurricane Katarina. One of them joined me in delivering the parish van to a family in need, living in Bay City, Mississippi.
On one occasion I asked the parish Pro-Life group what great projects they wanted to do in the coming year. They had no clues so I suggested we go for the Choose Life license plates for the Commonwealth of Virginia. They shrugged and said there had already been three failed attempts. I suggested we get the Knights of Columbus on board since they were located all through the Commonwealth.
Plus there was kid in the state house I did a wedding for, Kenneth Cuccinelli. With that confidence and little else we were off to the races. With the Knights, Blessed mother, angels and saints, interceding we got the Choose Life Plates. One night the kid from the state house showed up to the parish hall for a surprise party. He presented this foolish priest with the first Choose Life license plate, 5001-CL. 5 for the fifth commandment… you know. And for the rest of the story. The governor at that time was pro-choice. And in the day that followed he caught holy H from the leadership of Planned Parenthood. Uhhmmm, I still carry the plates on my car. Bravo Zulu to Cy Alba and all the Knights of the Commonwealth. Well done.
The third great experience came with my duties at St. John’s in Warrenton. At that time, there was a hurricane named, “Sandy,” that devastated Staten Island. Yes. Well? My mother called me and asked what we were going to do for Staten Island? I said, “Mom, I live in Virginia, not Staten Island.” She repeated the question and once again I reminded her that Staten Island was four states away. Again, she repeated the question. I relented and promised to call her right back.
I got out my chair, walked out the front door of my rectory and asked a fellow who just parked his car so he could make a visit to the church, “Do you think we should do anything for the folks in Staten Island.” He was a knight, and responded, “Oh absolutely. I have relatives in Staten Island.” Four Days later we had three very large trucks fully loaded and heading to Long Island. We stopped in Allentown, PA, for the night with morning Mass to follow. I learned from my experience with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans… don’t go in after dark. So we waited. We wouldn’t return home until after midnight. It was quite a day… for the people of Staten Island… and the Knights of Columbus and wonderful people of Warrenton.
My fourth experience with the Knights came yesterday, on Divine Mercy Sunday. Does anyone recall the rule of no more then ten people congregated together at one time. Forget it, there must have been over thirty of those characters, for several hours, collecting food for the pantry in Leesburg. They were talking, laughing, and loading cars and trucks… with many of them wearing masks. Yes, it goes back to the question from James Michener in his book, “The Bridges over Toko Ri.” A book I read in the sixth grade and still remember. The same model of the jets, from the novel, McDonnell F2H Banshees, flew over our school each day. Flown by the Iowa National Guard on their approach to the Des Moines Airport.
Let us pray for one another. God bless our Knights.