|Members of the “Knight Riders” charity bicycle team ride in a pack amid hilly terrain during the annual Trek Across Maine June 14-16. (photo by Kevin Bennett)
Each year during Father’s Day weekend, visitors to central Maine are greeted by fields of corn, graceful streams and the whizzing of nearly 2,000 cyclists riding for charity.
Ask among locals and you’re likely to hear that the three top reasons to live in Maine are June, July and August. It’s no surprise, then, that for nearly three decades, cyclists from across the country have gathered to participate in the American Lung Association’s annual “Trek Across Maine.” The three-day ride provides Trekkers with sights of the countryside, a healthy dose of exercise and the opportunity to support a good cause by riding a 180-mile route covering the beautiful terrain between the Appalachian Mountains and the northern Atlantic coast.
For the past four years, one of the teams participating has ridden under the banner of the Knights of Columbus. And since the team has been involved, its members have made their presence known in ways that uniquely reflect their Catholic identity.
AN ENCOURAGING PRESENCE
When the K of C team was first assembled in 2010, it consisted of seven riders; in the years since, that number has more than doubled and now includes one priest and two permanent deacons.
According to Dennis Homa, a past grand knight of St. Martha’s Council 12033 in Kennebunk and one of the team’s original members, the initial idea to participate came out of a conversation about potential charitable activities during a council meeting.
“Someone brought something up about riding a bike, so I threw out the idea of doing the Trek Across Maine,” Homa said. “It’s Father’s Day weekend, and it’s the largest trek fundraiser that the American Lung Association does nationally, right here in Maine.”
A new Trek team was formed, complete with green team jerseys emblazoned with the K of C logo and an American flag. Since that time, the growing team has upgraded twice to more professional-quality jerseys, changing colors to yellow and blue and then to this year’s red, white and blue.
Kevin Broughton, an early addition to the team and one of the more serious year-round riders, designed the new jerseys. He also coined the “Knight Riders” name, a play on the title of a 1980s TV series, that now stretches across the back.
Father Paul Marquis, a longtime priest of the Diocese of Portland who serves as a chaplain at Maine Medical Center, was among those who noticed the K of C team early on. He had been riding the Trek with a team of health care professionals when he noticed the green jerseys first worn by the Knights. After the race, as Father Marquis was registering for the next year, he decided to switch teams.
For Father Marquis, a member of John Paul II Council 14246 in Portland, changing teams has also led to greater involvement in the Order. “I had been a First Degree Knight since about my third year after ordination,” he explained. “But when I met the Trekkers and started riding with them, they encouraged me to move forward in the Knights.” As a result, he recently advanced to the Fourth Degree.
Similarly, Broughton and teammate Todd DiFede were not members of the Knights when they first started riding just faithful Catholic men wanting to participate in a charitable event. Both are now active members, and Broughton serves as both financial secretary of Council 12033 and as team captain for the Trek.
The team’s faith is naturally important at all times, but it was even more meaningful at this year’s event. During the first morning, June 14, there was a tragic accident the first in the Trek Across Maine’s nearly 30-year history. A 23-year-old member of another team was struck and killed by a passing truck, leaving many people in shock.
Together with the rest of the Trek participants, the Knights of Columbus team stopped to rest at University of Maine Farmington at the end of the first day’s journey.
“I prayed four rosaries and two Chaplets of Divine Mercy today,” said Father Marquis, who gathered to visit with other members of the team. “And I think on some of the hills I got in a couple more decades of the rosary.”
On the second evening, Father Marquis celebrated a public Mass with the Knights during which special prayers were offered for the young man who was killed and his family.
While charity is the Knights’ primary motivation the team raised more than $12,000 last year the Trek Across Maine has become a fraternal activity as well.
“We spend time together and do things that challenge [us] physically and mentally,” said team member Michael Magalski, grand knight of Council 12033. “It’s almost a retreat experience.”
Mutual support is a key element in the K of C team’s approach to the Trek. Members help each other get through difficult points during the ride. “Everybody has their good and bad days, and everybody is at a different skill level,” said Magalski.
Homa even described an incident from last year when Broughton “literally pushed a brother Knight up a hill. To push him up an incline that says something about brotherhood.”
Indeed, the Knights’ display of fraternity has caught the eye of numerous other Trekkers, and it has even changed the shape of each day’s ride.
“Because people see us riding as a team,” Broughton explained, “[the organizers] have actually changed the format to have a regroup on the last day. We used to come in together as the Knights. We were the only group that did that.”
But while other teams now finish the last day’s leg together, the Knights are still the only team that rides together for all three days.
The most significant tradition that the K of C team has added to the Trek is the annual outdoor Mass at Colby College, the site of the second night’s stop. When Father Marquis first decided to offer a public Mass during the event, he wrote a letter to the pastor of the local parish asking permission.
“When I am on the Trek,” he wrote, “I see my participation, and that of my fellow Knights, as an evangelizing moment ... a reaching out in service ... a moment of our faith meeting the culture, with Catholic men and women, people of other faiths, and people of no faith at all.”
He added that celebrating the liturgy during the event witnesses to the central importance that Mass has in the lives of Catholics.
For the trekking Knights, that witness is three days and 180 miles long, and it is seen by thousands of people who are both participants in the Trek and residents of the towns through which it passes.
“It’s a camaraderie event for a good cause,” Magalski said. “It’s just comforting to see how we can live out our faith.”
Charity, witness and the blossoming countryside of Maine not a bad way to spend a weekend.
JEFF ROWE is a Maine-based writer. His first novel, Song of Toledo, a story of Christians and Muslims in 11th century Spain, was published in June.