The Order strengthens diverse immigrant communities with its universal message of charity, unity and fraternity
by Mike Mastromatteo
Father Michel Chalhoub of Jesus the King Melkite Catholic Church in Thornhill, Ontario, blesses the congregation.
The establishment of the Knights’ first Melkite/Arab Christian council near Toronto adds new meaning to the international fraternal organization’s outreach and support of immigrant communities. Based at Jesus the King Melkite Catholic Church in the north Toronto community of Thornhill, Jesus the King Arab Christian Council 15045 was established in May 2010 to serve a unique community of Eastern Catholics.
The Order has made significant progress toward accommodating more ethnicities, language groups and cultures throughout North America.
The founding of Council 15045 and other diverse councils — whether populated by Cuban exiles, Hispanic Catholics, or recent arrivals from the Philippines, Vietnam and other parts of Asia — give evidence that the Knights of Columbus has moved far away from its stereotypical image as an Irish old boys’ club.
Indeed, the Order has made significant progress toward accommodating more ethnicities, language groups and cultures throughout North America. Not all of these councils, though, are of recent origin. Our Lady of Charity Council 5110 in Miami recently celebrated its 50th anniversary of service and support to the Cuban exile community in south Florida (see sidebar). In Toronto, the Ukrainian-rite Sheptytsky Council 5079 likewise recently marked a half-century of service.
Today, councils such as Toronto’s new Melkite council and those drawn from the Vietnamese community are working to keep the faith alive and vibrant not only in their new homes in North America, but also in their native lands, where governments often impose harsh strictures on religious liberty.
Deputy Grand Knight Hikmat Dandan was not new to the Order when he co-founded Jesus the King Arab Christian Council 15045. A member since 1997, Dandan had worked with brother Knights of his former council — North York Council 4393 — to take up the challenge of the persecuted Catholic Church in the Middle East. In addition to raising funds to build new churches in Lebanon and elsewhere, the council actively supported Dandan’s website — ChurchesforJesus.org — which calls attention to the travails of declining Christian communities in the Holy Land.
The Melkite community that makes up Council 15045 largely consists of first-generation Canadians who immigrated with their parents from Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq. Melkite Catholics remain in full communion with the Holy See and trace their history back to the ancient apostolic Chair of Antioch, which was founded by St. Peter before he went to Rome. In fact, Antioch was where the disciples of Jesus were first called “Christians” (cf. Acts 11:26).
Dandan cited the support of Father Georges Farah, pastor of Jesus the King Melkite Catholic Church, as key to the new council’s formation.
“Father Farah asked me to establish a council for the church, and that’s what we ended up doing,” Dandan said. Father Farah discussed the institution of the council at each Mass and urged the men of the community to join.
Joseph Gideon, the owner of a Toronto-area travel agency and the council’s grand knight, was also instrumental in founding the council, which currently has 55 members and counting.
Although members are fluent in English, Dandan felt that holding meetings in their native Arabic language would be a welcome touch for an Order committed to reaching out to diverse cultural traditions.
A group of men pray during the Divine Liturgy. • Three books in Arabic sit atop an organ. • Le Nguyen of Falls Church, Va., the ad hoc Vietnamese liaison, participates in a meeting in Arlington, Va. • Members of Council 9655 are pictured together after Mass at Holy Martyrs of Vietnam Church.
The council is active with projects common to most K of C units, but its members are motivated in large measure by the plight of Christians in the Middle East. The Knights are acutely aware of the situation facing Catholic worship centers in the Muslim world, especially in the wake of the past year’s Arab Spring protests, which, in some cases, has led to further oppression of Catholics.
One key council initiative, “Jerusalem Students,” is an effort to get Knights, parishioners, business leaders and others to support school tuition for Melkite Catholic students in Jerusalem. By helping these students complete their education, Knights hope to build future leaders who can preserve the Catholic-Christian faith in the Holy Land.
“The Knights should not accept that the Holy Land becomes a ‘museum of Christianity’ without any Christians,” Dandan said, adding that “Jerusalem Students” is an ideal way for Knights to support the ancient churches and communities where Jesus walked and preached.
A MULTICULTURAL MOSAIC
In many cases, the Order’s embrace of ethnic councils is akin to helping immigrant communities adjust to life in a new country. A number of state boards, primarily in the United States, have established multicultural or diversity committees dedicated to supporting K of C councils among foreign-speaking Catholic groups. The Louisiana State Council, for example, recruited an ethnic development coordinator, Vicen Alvarez, to oversee an outreach program to Hispanic Catholics. Based in Baton Rouge, Alvarez said that Spanish-speaking Catholics, as the largest minority in the United States, play a key role in the future of the Church.
Currently, there are nearly 200 Spanish-speaking councils in the United States and five in Canada. Outreach and support to these councils varies by state, but the Supreme Council is actively working with three Hispanic development field coordinators, including Alvarez, to strengthen the structures in those states that have a large potential for Hispanic growth.
In recent years, jurisdictions such as British Columbia, California and Virginia have also experienced a significant surge of Asian Catholic immigrants. Filipino councils have long existed in the Toronto area, and there is now a growing number of Vietnamese-speaking councils on both sides of the border.
Le Nguyen of Falls Church, Va., serves as the ad hoc Vietnamese liaison for the Supreme Council, a position established in 2007. According to Nguyen, Holy Martyrs of Vietnam Council 9655 in Arlington, Va., was the Order’s first Vietnamese council when it was formed in 1987. Other Vietnamese councils have been growing rapidly over the last four years in places as far-ranging as Alberta, California, Florida and Ontario.
Nguyen said he works to explain the vision of the Knights’ founder, Venerable Michael McGivney, to Vietnamese immigrants.
“Today, the Order’s principles — charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism — are a perfect fit for every community, regardless of cultural differences,” he explained.
The Virginia state council has even drawn up a charter aimed at expanding awareness of the Knights to Catholic communities of diverse immigrant backgrounds. Robert Garcia, head of the state council’s multicultural committee, sees his role as one of informing Catholic minorities about the value of the Knights and to reach out to these communities in a language they understand.
“The Knights of Columbus is committed to supporting ethnic councils, and our faith and our Order’s principles are the basis for offering that support,” said Garcia, who is a member of Father James Lee Rizer Council 6828 in Williamsburg. “Fraternity and unity, plus our binding faith, will ensure that we do not segregate our brothers based on ethnicity. There are ample opportunities for common fellowship, such as in pro-life activities, Special Olympics and quarterly meetings at the state council level.”
On the other side of the country, Vietnamese Martyrs Council 14445 in Santa Ana, Calif., became the first Vietnamese council on the West Coast in 2008. Its membership has since increased from 30 to nearly 120, and it is quickly becoming a faith hub for Vietnamese Catholics in Orange County.
“We have made every effort in translating all related documents, procedures, ceremonies and traditions from English into Vietnamese,” said the council’s co-founder, Ken Nguyen (no relation to Le). In doing so, he added, the council has infused a touch of Vietnamese culture, character and tradition into regular council activities.
In addition to a number of special recruitment and community outreach programs, Council 14445 prioritizes support of the Catholic Church in Vietnam. In 2008, for instance, council officers wrote to Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson and then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, requesting they call upon the U.S. government to intervene on behalf of persecuted Catholics in their homeland.
A REFUGE OF FAITH
As the immigrant population of Canada’s largest cities continues to grow, so too does K of C outreach to non-English-speaking councils. Besides the Arab Christian community of Council 15045, there are a number of other Catholic cultural groups represented in the Toronto area.
The same week that the Melkite council was chartered, Our Lady of Guadalupe Council 15038 was founded to serve Toronto’s Hispanic community. That council, which has received support from other K of C units in southern Ontario, includes members from various Latin American countries, including Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and Cuba.
Meanwhile, Simon Chang, grand knight of Our Lady of China Council 13717 in Toronto, said that his council helps members and parishioners during their time of transition.
“The challenge faced by our council is that the [Chinese] parishioners of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish are mostly newly arrived refugees who speak little English, and their main concern is to find a good job to support their family,” said Chang.
While this can present some problems for recruitment and retention, the council remains committed to serving as a safe harbor for refugees as they adjust to their new home.
“Once they are established, they tend to move away to other parts of the city for better jobs or a better environment to raise the family,” said Chang. “We just hope that we can help them in this passage so that one day they, too, will return and help the people who come after.”
In November 2010, members of Council 13717 helped to establish another council, St. Augustine Zhao Rong Council 15176, to serve the growing Chinese Catholic community north of the city.
Whether motivated to help newcomers adjust to a new country, or to support a persecuted church in native lands, the Order has clearly opened itself to the multicultural presence within the universal Catholic faith.
For the Melkite council in Thornhill, the Knights’ outreach and support could not have come at a better time. It has created a stronger atmosphere of faith in action and has added urgency to the appeal to support Catholics in the Middle East.
“Christian communities in the Middle East are passing through turbulent times,” Dandan said. “The Knights, as well as Catholics all over the world, can make a lot of difference in supporting these communities. Being the largest Catholic organization in the world, and through our unity in charity, we should be able to make a difference.”
MIKE MASTROMATTEO, a member of Blessed Trinity Council 11681, writes from Toronto.<