Founding a Knights of Columbus council at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Vancouver was no simple task. Only 15 years ago, hardly anyone in the parish — home to a vibrant community of Chinese immigrants and their families — had even heard of the Knights.
“It was not an easy job because nobody knew what the Knights were about,” recalled Koon Ming Lau, a charter member of St. Francis Xavier Council 10500.
Now you could call Council 10500 — the first Chinese council in British Columbia — the backbone of the parish. Since 2006, the St. Francis Xavier Knights have been raising funds, planning events and supplying volunteers for just about every area of parish life. In the same time, the council has grown from about 40 members to more than 170, and found ways to bridge gaps of culture, language and technology to mentor a new generation of younger Knights.
By serving the parish practically, the Knights are also serving the Church spiritually, said Lau, who went on to serve as grand knight of the council and later as state deputy of British Columbia.
“The Knights of Columbus is a bridge between the Church and the younger generations,” Lau said. “We are in a role of evangelization — to bring the young parishioners back to the Church, especially those in university, and keep the young brothers and young families active in the parish and the local communities, so they have a sense of belonging and practicing their Catholic faith.”
A GROWING COMMUNITY
Council 10500 was born in a time of transition for St. Francis Xavier. The oldest Chinese parish in the Archdiocese of Vancouver, it was founded in a house in Vancouver’s Chinatown in 1933 and later moved to a church nearby.
The parish grew throughout the 20th century, expanding its elementary school and adding a day care and a senior care home. It also opened a school for teaching English to new immigrants from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, who have arrived in Vancouver in a steady stream since the early 1990s. (Today, 20% of Vancouver’s population identifies as Chinese, and nearly 70% of Canadians of Asian heritage are first-generation immigrants.) With parish activities scattered at different addresses, then-pastor Father Aloysius Lou dreamed of uniting them in one place. At the turn of the new millennium, his dream started coming true.
The elementary school moved to a new building, and plans were made to build a church on the lot next door. In 2004, the community began celebrating Mass in the school gymnasium, and the new church opened in late 2008, exactly 75 years after the parish was first established.
It was during this historic time that Council 10500 was chartered, but not without difficulty. It took Father Lou and the district deputy six months of weekly recruiting to attract enough men to start a council. Most parishioners were unfamiliar with the Order; some were unfamiliar with the very concept of a fraternal Catholic brotherhood openly gathering, serving and recruiting, which is not possible in mainland China.
When a Knights of Columbus council was formed at St. Francis Xavier Parish, Koon Ming Lau, who was born in Hong Kong and moved to Canada in 1988, was one of the few parishioners who was already a Knight. He had joined the Order a few years earlier with his father, at the urging of a K of C field agent.
“The agent said, ‘It’s better if you join with your father because you can be the translator.’ That’s how I joined!” recalled Lau with a laugh.
Once Council 10500 was established in 2006, the Knights at St. Francis Xavier quickly made themselves known. They carried furniture into the gym each week for Mass; volunteered as readers and ushers; and helped to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars toward the new church building. And since St. Francis Xavier Assembly 3315 was established in 2012, Fourth Degree Knights have provided honor guards for weddings, funerals and baptisms.
“Today the Knights are in every ministry possible,” said Past Grand Knight Christopher Chen, now a district deputy. “They’re probably at every Mass, in every choir, religious studies teachers, everything.”
Though the council occasionally has recruitment drives, Past State Deputy Lau finds that maintaining a constant presence is a more effective strategy to attract members.
“We don’t say, ‘Hey, why don’t you join?’ We build relationships, slowly, ask if they have heard about the Knights, and if not, share a few stories.”
Father Michael McGivney’s mission to serve widows and orphans usually strikes a chord, as does the council’s volunteer work outside the parish, such as its support of The Door Is Open, a soup kitchen serving the homeless in downtown Vancouver.
The Knights have bolstered community life, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the parish and for charity, and assisted their pastor in innumerable ways. Their continuous growth and charitable work have earned Council 10500 the Star Council Award or Double Star Council Award every year since 2007.
As Lau was finishing his term as grand knight in 2010, something was bothering him: Who, he wondered, would run the council 10 or 20 years later? It was time to recruit a new generation of Knights. Lau suggested a basketball tournament.
Chen was in his mid-20s when Lau recruited him to run a basketball program and invited him to join the Knights.
“I was totally out of my comfort zone. I didn’t know anyone except for one officer,” said Chen, a life coach who was born and raised in Vancouver. “They were the older demographic, with a different way of thinking. They were successful, but the generation gap was too far at the time, for me at least.”
Nonetheless, Chen liked basketball, and he didn’t mind helping out at an annual car wash to raise funds for the homeless, either. Older Knights encouraged him to become more involved, come to meetings and carve out a place for himself and other younger members.
In 2018, Chen became the council’s first grand knight under age 40. He focused on recruiting young members and encouraging them to become part of council leadership. Now, the council has members from 18 to 80 years old; about 40% are under 45 and 20% are under 35. Some are the children or grandchildren of older members.
For 40-year-old lawyer Ambrose Ng, who succeeded Chen as grand knight in 2020, it’s an accomplishment worth celebrating, as well as a significant challenge. A Hong Kong native who has lived in Canada since age 8, Ng often navigates cultural differences between older Chinese immigrants who prefer to communicate by phone and speak Cantonese (though most also speak English), and younger parishioners, who have grown up in Canada and prefer to communicate over social media or text message, and in English.
The older generation also tends to value long-held traditions and like to participate in honor guards and regular business meetings, he said, whereas many younger members would prefer to take active volunteer roles than take minutes.
“Communication is always a bit interesting,” said Ng, who speaks both English and Cantonese. “When I’m in the hot seat as the grand knight, how am I going to communicate to the elders and the younger membership and make sure everybody’s talking to each other?”
This can be an especially delicate task given the council membership’s cultural background.
“Because of our Chinese heritage, there is a lot of respect and deference and following the ways of your elders,” said Ng. “We’re trying to respect that, as well as bring in new ideas. Young members make sure the Knights stay relevant to our parish, our community.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the council’s work even more challenging, as the Knights haven’t been able to meet in person or host regular events. In response, tech-savvy members have helped to organize a weekly rosary over videoconference. The council is also helping the church’s annual sing-a-thon and auction to take place virtually, to keep connections alive and fundraise in a difficult time for the parish. Knights serve as ushers when St. Francis Xavier Church is open for Mass at limited capacity and as video technicians when Mass is livestreamed.
Though Chen was unsure about the Knights at first, he’s grateful he took the leap of faith.
“I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. If people are concerned about not knowing what to do at first — well, I didn’t know either,” he said. “But I was open to God’s call and he opened up all these doors for me to do his work, to receive all these blessings, from meeting new people and impacting people’s lives to being a mentor and example for the younger generation to follow and keep this council going.”
He added, “I’m very appreciative of the members before us who paved the way with their time and work and gave us the opportunity to serve.”
AGNIESZKA RUCK writes for the Canadian Catholic News and the B.C. Catholic, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Vancouver.
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