Big Men on Campus

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3/29/2010

For 100 years, Knights of Columbus college councils have shaped the futures of young men

by Scott Alessi

When a determined group of young men at the University of Notre Dame wanted to start a Knights of Columbus council on their campus, doubters were quick to suggest that a council comprised primarily of college students could never survive.

In spite of the obstacles it faced, Notre Dame Council 1477 was chartered in the spring of 1910. Not only is the council still going strong 100 years later, but it also set the stage for thousands of Catholic men to become Knights on college campuses.

Charter members of Notre Dame Council 1477 — the first K of C council located at a college or university — pose in a photo from the 1910 Dome Yearbook. The earliest members included the future Cardinal John F. O’Hara (1888-1960), archbishop of Philadelphia. (University of Notre Dame Archives)

From their humble beginnings, college councils have expanded to 244 schools worldwide, with 160 councils in the United States and others across Canada, Mexico, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Nearly 19,000 men count themselves among college Knights.

Each fall, council leaders gather for the annual College Council Conference in New Haven, Conn., where attendees have the opportunity to meet other college Knights, learn more about the Order, and attend workshops on member recruitment, leadership development and spiritual formation. The conference awards banquet — the highlight of the event — recognizes college councils for achievements in service projects and membership and insurance growth.

Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson stands with members of Harvard University’s Pope John Paul II Council 14188, winner of the Outstanding College Council award, at the College Conference Awards banquet Oct. 3, 2009.

Members of college councils also gather each year at the March for Life in Washington, D.C., joining together in solidarity to defend human life. In addition, groups of college Knights have represented the Order at international World Youth Day celebrations since 1995.

For college Knights, though, the relationship they share with each other is valued above all else. To Grand Knight Christopher Drury of Texas A & M Council 10624 in College Station, Texas, a college council provides a “spiritual home” that young men simply can’t find in other campus organizations.

“When I left home, I didn’t have that core group of guys that I could really talk to on a regular basis about my faith,” Drury said. “The Knights gave me a place where I knew I wouldn’t have to explain myself and where I can talk about everything.” Council members belong to a “similar age group” and many of them are “on fire” with their faith, Drury added. “It has just been an awesome experience at all levels..”

BREAKING GROUND

Talk of establishing a Knights of Columbus council at Notre Dame began soon after the turn of the 20th century, when students and faculty members started laying the groundwork for a council on campus. Their attempts, however, were met with resistance from both the university and, surprisingly, from other K of C councils.

Notre Dame — which prohibits fraternities on campus — feared that a K of C council would conflict with the university’s policies. At the same time, some Knights were concerned that frequent turnover from members graduating each year would leave the council unstable and ineffective.

In time, however, the students at Notre Dame gained permission for a council, and the charter was issued April 22, 1910. Council 1477 initiated 48 men on May 1, 1910, which was declared “Knights of Columbus Day” at the university.

Early on, the council worked to attain strength and stability while adding to its membership. Knights were granted a small space in Notre Dame’s Walsh Hall and began meeting in the fall of 1910, with John C. Tully serving as the council’s first grand knight. Concerns regarding the council’s rapid turnover were also addressed through the addition of several faculty and staff members, including then-university president Holy Cross Father John W. Cavanaugh.

Although the early years presented some growing pains, the council became a respected and valued part of the university community. Meanwhile, Notre Dame graduates soon began to bolster the ranks of councils across the country as young — yet experienced — Knights.

A delegate from The Citadel Council 6900 in Charleston, S.C., views a portrait of Father Michael J. McGivney during a tour of the Knights of Columbus Museum during the 2006 College Council Conference.

Council 1477 became noted for its strong commitment to service. During World War II, the council raised thousands of dollars through war stamp drives, and in 1946 they took over promotion of Notre Dame’s famous “Bengal Bouts,” a spring boxing tournament used to raise funds for the Holy Cross Missions in East Bengal, Pakistan. Although promoting the bouts took months of planning from up to 50 Knights, they were a tremendous success and raised as much as $7,000 annually.

Another goal of the council from its inception was to have its own building on campus. The council began setting aside funds in 1919, and by 1931 their building fund had grown to $37,000. When the Knights’ savings were nearly wiped out during the Great Depression, the council established a reorganized building corporation with a seven-member board of directors to oversee its finances.

Under the keen guidance of treasurer Eli Shaheen, an experienced Knight who had been active in local councils, the building corporation’s investments paid large dividends. Net gains soon reached six figures, and in 1967 the Knights used those funds to make a sizable donation to the university for scholarships for minorities. In return, the council received a lifetime lease on Notre Dame’s old post office, a prominent building in the heart of campus that has been home to the council for the past four decades.

A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY

By its 50th anniversary, Council 1477 had grown to 1,100 registered members. Past Grand Knight (1974-5) Thomas V. Dechant recalls that when he arrived at Notre Dame in 1970, the council was booming.

“We would do a good job with initiating the freshmen, and we would traditionally get 100 or so every year,” said Dechant, who is a past state deputy of Kansas (1988-90) and son of Past Supreme Knight Virgil C. Dechant. “When I was grand knight, we initiated 137 members that year, and that was a record.”

Members were extremely involved and devoted, Dechant said, with activities ranging from social gatherings to service projects to fundraisers — in particular selling steak sandwiches before home football games.

Members of Notre Dame Council 1477 serve steak sandwiches to fans before a football game Nov. 7, 2009. For decades, the Notre Dame Knights have sold steak sandwiches at home football games to raise funds for charity. (Justin Brandon)

Today, Council 1477 continues its famous steak sales, which routinely net more than $50,000 a year in profit, all of which goes to charity. Last year, the council expanded the program to include the delivery of “steak grams” for St. Valentine’s Day.

The primary beneficiaries of the council’s efforts are Corvilla, a local home for people with intellectual disabilities, and Gibault, a program started by the Indiana State Council for troubled youth. Council members also prepare a Thanksgiving meal for Corvilla residents, work with Habitat for Humanity and assist other local charities.

Offering college students an opportunity to be involved in such activities alongside other young men who share their beliefs has been the key to the council’s success and longevity, said current Grand Knight Dennis Malloy.

“Life is about more than just one thing, whether it is service or your faith life or your work,” Malloy said. “I think the Knights allow people to be able to start combining those aspects of their life — to do service in a religious context and to have that sense of fraternity.”

While known primarily for its service projects and fundraising, Council 1477 also made headlines in 2009 when it released a statement expressing “sadness and disappointment” over Notre Dame’s decision to honor President Barack Obama at the university’s commencement. The Knights stated their disagreement with the president’s stance on abortion and addressed how his involvement at graduation would affect the Catholic students of Notre Dame.

“The council was not pleased with how the events were playing out, how Notre Dame was represented in the media and what that meant for culture here on campus,” said Malloy, who was one of the Knights who helped craft the statement. “We wanted to say that we were concerned, and we wanted to do something about it, which was making a statement and getting people involved in prayer.”

COMMITED TO SERVICE

For many college councils, service is their primary function. At the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, cadets who join the Knights are given a unique opportunity to serve others in the context of their Catholic faith, said Capuchin Franciscan Brother Carlos Hernandez, financial secretary of West Point’s Msgr. Cornelius George O’Keefe Council 8250. The council regularly feeds the homeless in New York City, visits veterans medical centers in Washington, D.C., and meets with terminally ill cancer patients at a local hospital.

Members of Our Lady of the Skies Council 8200 at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., chop wood for a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy.

“It gives them a grounding in their faith and an understanding of their faith. It is not just doing service; it is doing it as Catholics,” explained Brother Carlos, who also tends to the spiritual needs of cadets at West Point’s Most Holy Trinity Catholic Chapel.

Texas A&M Council 10624, which won the Outstanding College Council Award in 2007 and 2008, has become a backbone of the campus’ St. Mary Catholic Center. Knights are always willing to lend a hand, whether by picking up supplies, helping to park cars for an event or preparing a meal for the community.

“The church would have a hard time functioning without us,” Drury said. “We do a lot for them, and we like it that way.”

Each year, Drury said, the council promotes a “Go Roman” week at the start of the fall semester during which time it holds various social events to help recruit new members.

The council has approximately 250 members on campus, allowing them to run frequent events to accommodate students’ hectic schedules.

“We have nearly 100 events each year,” Drury said. “In a normal parish council you’re not going to have seven events in a week, but for us that’s really not that unusual.”

The council is also extremely committed to pro-life activities. Members of Council 10624 devote much of their energies and funds to supporting local pregnancy resource centers, and in 2004, they founded the 40 Days for Life program, which has gone on to become an international pro-life event.

INVALUABLE EXPERIENCE

While college councils have a clear benefit both for the students who join them and the communities they serve, they also play an important role in preparing men for the future. As college Knights, members quickly rise through the ranks and take on leadership positions at a young age.

Brother Carlos said the cadets at West Point are already preparing to be officers in the military, but being a Knight adds a special component to their training.

“Some of the experiences they gain working with people and coordinating the events that we do help them in the future as lieutenants and as officers in the Army,” he said. “It is definitely a good way for them to develop as leaders and also gives them a strong sense of moral character.”

John Blewitt, a past grand knight (1969-70) of Crusader Council 2706 at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., said that joining the Knights as a college freshman inspired a life-long commitment to the Order.

“We did great things at Holy Cross, and I really enjoyed it,” Blewitt said. “After college, I moved to Hawaii, and we started a new council in my home parish, St. John the Evangelist in Mililani. I was one of the founding members. I love it, and I’ve stayed a Knight for over 40 years.”

For Malloy, having held several offices while still in college has been a tremendous benefit that he believes will have a lasting impact on his future.

“I’ve had so many opportunities,” he said. “Being a part of the Knights has been an amazing opportunity for me both to gain that leadership experience and to grow as a person through it.”