The longest-serving supreme knight in K of C history, Virgil C. Dechant, died Feb. 16 at age 89. He is survived by his wife, Ann, their four children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
During Dechant’s 23-year administration, from 1977 until 2000, the Order grew in membership and played an increasingly important role in the life of the Church.
by Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson
EDITOR’S NOTE: Supreme Knight Anderson delivered the following eulogy at the Church of the Nativity in Leawood, Kan., Feb. 22.
The best tribute to Virgil Dechant can be found in the 25th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
That is how I will always remember Virgil.
A good and faithful Catholic man, husband and father — a man who touched the lives of millions, a man who by hard work and example helped show millions more the light of faith.
Many of us have known great men over the years. But Virgil stands out: He brought together the ability and vision to lead with a concern for those utterly forgotten.
For Virgil, loving God and neighbor were not abstractions. They were a rule of life that he lived concretely every day.
It is hard to encapsulate nine decades of life in just a few minutes. It’s even harder when those nine decades were lived by Virgil Dechant.
What he accomplished was a testament to a life lived faithfully — to a great return on the talents God gave him, and to what we mean when we say “faith in action.”
I would like to focus on just a few aspects of his legacy.
Virgil did many things for the Order — growing its membership and business, and making it a key partner in major Vatican restoration projects.
But for the Order, I think his most enduring — and endearing — legacy was his success, not as a businessman, but as a Catholic man who intuitively understood what was necessary to sustain this great brotherhood of Catholic men that is the Knights of Columbus.
The first part of this legacy was his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary — prayerfully bringing her image to millions through our pilgrim icon program, introducing her rosary into the ceremonials of the Order, and giving every new member a Knights of Columbus rosary.
“Mary with her Knights … what challenge can we not face?” These words inspired a generation of Knights — especially those committed to defending the sanctity of human life before birth.
A second part of this legacy was that Virgil always remembered his studies at the Pontifical College Josephinum, and his time there marked him with a special reverence and respect for the priesthood. There was no more heartfelt expression of his leadership as a layman in our Church and devotion to its sacraments than the phrase, “In solidarity with our priests.”
And third was a change which today is taken for granted but at the time was quite revolutionary: his work to shift the Knights of Columbus from a too inward-looking men’s organization to one focused increasingly on strengthening Catholic marriages and family life. He was very proud of the changes he made to include our wives in so many Knights of Columbus activities.
Virgil understood a profound truth: No knight, whether in medieval times or in our own, can be all that he can be without his fair lady by his side.
So often when I have been asked about women joining the Knights of Columbus, I wanted to say, “Would you please just look at Virgil and Ann — how they are together? Do you not see that asking Ann to become a member would actually be a step back?”
That was the example that Virgil and Ann set, and together they changed the course of the Knights of Columbus.
For Virgil, like Father McGivney before him, it was all about family. He cared deeply for his own family, for the family of the Knights of Columbus, for the Catholic family, and for the human family.
There are so many corporate accomplishments of which Virgil was rightly proud: professionalizing our agency force, putting our insurance products on a sound actuarial basis, modernizing our investments and securing a superior level of financial strength for the Knights of Columbus.
But on this day, at this hour, in this place we apply a different measure: one not bound by time or space.
We apply the measure of St. Paul. Did he fight the good fight? Did he run the race to the end? Did he keep the faith?
In Virgil we saw a man with courage to defend those with no protector; a man with compassion for the poor and suffering — and a man who was true to those to whom he had pledged faithfulness or who were entrusted to his care.
In these ways and in many others, Virgil raised a standard to which every Catholic man could aspire — a standard that today shines brightly — and one that will continue to shine for many years to come.
Today, we pray that Virgil will be one of those of which the prophet Daniel spoke. We pray that he will shine “like the stars for ever and ever” (Dan 12:3).
Virgil is now at rest in the Kansas he loved so well.
But may we be forgiven if for a moment we think of Virgil as already enjoying a homecoming — being welcomed by friends who have gone before him such as Count Enrico Galeazzi, Cardinal John O’Connor, Mother Teresa, John Paul II and by millions of others whom he never knew in his lifetime, but whose lives were changed for the better because of him.
O Lord, grant Virgil — who did so much for so many — eternal rest in you.
by Russell Shaw
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following tribute was published in the Feb. 24 edition of Our Sunday Visitor. It is reprinted with permission.
Obituaries of Past Supreme Knight Virgil C. Dechant, who died at age 89 on Feb. 16 at his home in Leawood, Kan., were factually correct but superficial. Dechant was a much larger man, with far more influence on the Church than merely listing dates, offices held and honors bestowed can suggest.
Joining creativity to love of tradition and business acumen, he shaped a profoundly Catholic organization suited to changing times. The question for the Knights of Columbus now is whether it can rise to the contemporary challenge of relevance put to it by a secular culture radically opposed to what it stands for.
In a way, of course, the Knights have been here before.
At the urging of a young parish priest, Father Michael Mc- Givney, whose cause for canonization is currently under consideration in Rome, a small group of Irish-American men met in February 1882 in the basement of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn. Three years earlier, a newspaper had headlined a story about the same church: “How an Aristocratic Avenue Was Blemished by a Roman Catholic Edifice.” The men had come together to launch a new organization as a bulwark against anti-Irish, anti-Catholic bigotry like that.
The name chosen for the new group was Knights of Columbus. Selecting Columbus as patron sent a message: “We [Catholics] got here before you [Protestants] did.”
Many fraternal organizations of those times have withered and died, but the Knights survived and flourished. Combining religion and patriotism was a brilliant move that made the group, in the words of a historian, “a classic instance of a minority’s drive to assimilate.”
Years later, out in Kansas, a young man named Virgil Dechant joined the group. Laid up after an accident, he noticed that, family aside, most of those who dropped by to cheer him up were his brother Knights. Motivated, he began his rise through the organization’s ranks, eventually becoming Kansas state deputy. In 1967, by then a successful businessman and wheat farmer, he went to New Haven as supreme secretary. Ten years later, the directors elected him supreme knight, the position he held until retiring in 2000.
Membership and insurance soared in those years, while business and investment success made the Knights an important source of financial support for popes, bishops and innumerable Catholic groups. Locally, many pastors became increasingly aware of the Knights as a can-do group whose members were always ready to lend a hand to parish projects.
Even more important, the Knights imparted much-needed stability to the Church during the troubled years after the Second Vatican Council. While others fretted about what it meant to be Catholic, these men knew the answer and, at their best, sought to exemplify it.
At the same time, the group showed it could move with the times. Hence its strong commitment to the pro-life movement and the defense of family life. That openness to adjustments has continued under Dechant’s successor, Carl Anderson, as illustrated by recent changes in the Order’s ceremonial garb and ritual, for many years considered virtually untouchable.
Today, challenges to things dear to the Knights of Columbus are on the rise again. Fidelity to Catholic values, the glue holding the group together from the start, has situated this historically assimilationist and American group in opposition to powerful secular forces on life issues, marriage and religious liberty. Columbus sometimes sailed on rough seas. As the secular environment becomes increasingly hostile, the Knights may be doing the same.
RUSSELL SHAW is the author or co-author of more than 20 books, a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and a contributing editor of Our Sunday Visitor. A member of Our Lady of Victory Council 11487 in Washington, D.C., he previously served as communications director for the U.S. bishops and as director of information for the Knights of Columbus, and was a longtime columnist for Columbia.
by Cecilia Hadley and Andrew Fowler
As supreme knight for nearly a quarter century, Virgil Dechant helped to shape the Order’s future in ways large and small. Here are some of his most significant accomplishments.
K of C insurance and membership boomed under Dechant’s leadership. Drawing on his business and sales experience, Dechant inaugurated a new era in Knights of Columbus Insurance even before he became supreme knight, modernizing business practices and creating a professional field force. Insurance in force reached $3 billion in 1975 and stood at nearly $40 billion when he retired in 2000. Meanwhile, membership increased from 1.23 million to 1.62 million, and the number of councils nearly doubled, from about 6,000 to 11,644.
At every stage of his K of C career, Dechant found ways to involve his wife in council events and encouraged other Knights to do the same. Integrating families into the Order’s activities was a shift, but one he believed was consistent with the founder’s vision.
“Everything was designed for the benefit of the family,” Dechant said in his first annual report as supreme knight. “Is there any doubt about Father McGivney’s intent? It seems to me that the time is ripe to bring about the full realization of his dream.” This mindset continues today with family-oriented Faith in Action programs and other initiatives to strengthen the domestic church.
Dechant also encouraged Knights to develop closer ties to their parishes, promoting the formation of parish-based councils.
Dechant began his administration as supreme knight with a visit to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, placing his work under the Virgin Mary’s protection. He also fostered Marian devotion by initiating two K of C traditions. In 1978, at the urging of his father, he made sure that all new Knights received a rosary blessed by the supreme chaplain. The next year, he started the Marian Hour of Prayer (now called the Marian Prayer Program), in which blessed images of Our Lady circulate among councils around the world. “Loving devotion to Mary,” he wrote, “is truly one of the marks of the Knights of Columbus.”
Dechant’s tenure as supreme knight corresponded closely to the years of St. John Paul II’s papacy. Over 23 years, he and the pope met more than 70 times, developing a close rapport.
Visiting Rome for the World Congress of Vocations in 1981, Dechant was in St. Peter’s Square on May 13 when John Paul II was shot. Dechant and his wife, Ann, visited the Holy Father a few months later at Castel Gandolfo and presented him with the first proceeds of the Vicarius Christi Fund for his personal charities.
Dechant also became close with St. Teresa of Calcutta. The Knights of Columbus began to sponsor much of the Missionaries of Charity’s printing in the U.S., and once offered her a monthly stipend to support her work with the poorest of the poor. She declined, asking instead, “Send me your members and families instead to work in my soup kitchens.” She did accept the Order’s inaugural Gaudium et Spes Award in 1992.
Dechant had a special love for the priesthood, formed by his family and his years in minor seminary at the Pontifical College Josephinum. In his first speech after being elected, he encouraged all Knights to pray for and foster vocations in their families. “If new vocations are to come from our young,” he said, “they must be stimulated and nourished in the atmosphere of our homes.”
Under his leadership, the Order launched several scholarship funds for seminarians and priests, including the Refund Support Vocations Program (RSVP) in 1981, through which councils assist seminarians and others in religious formation. When Dechant received the Gaudium et Spes Award in 2012, he announced that he would donate the award’s honorarium to K of C seminarian scholarship funds.
In his farewell address, Supreme Knight Dechant told delegates to the Supreme Convention, “There is one thing particularly that is close to my heart, and that is the cause of our founder.” Research to support the cause for Father Michael McGivney’s canonization began in the early years of his tenure, and he oversaw the re-internment of Father McGivney’s remains at St. Mary’s Church during the Order’s centenary celebrations in 1982. The research process continued, and the Archdiocese of Hartford officially opened the cause for canonization in 1997.
Dechant fortified the Order’s strong ties with the Vatican, which led to many collaborative projects and opportunities to serve the Church. In 1975, the Knights of Columbus began supporting Vatican satellite broadcasts, making it possible for Catholics around the world to watch papal Masses and other Vatican events.
In the following decades, the Order funded historic restoration work, including repairing and cleaning the 65,000- square-foot façade of St. Peter’s Basilica in 1985, and restoring the basilica’s Moderno Atrium and Holy Door in time for pilgrims to walk through during the Jubilee Year in 2000.
The Vatican’s relationship with the Order also facilitated closer ties with the United States. When President Ronald Reagan attended the 100th Supreme Convention in 1982, he met with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Agostino Casaroli. Among the issues they discussed was diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Holy See, which were established less than two years later.
Under Dechant’s leadership, the Knights of Columbus responded to widespread challenges to the sanctity of human life by increasing support for numerous pro-life initiatives — including pregnancy resource centers, the March for Life Education and Defense Fund and the pro-life offices of the U.S. and Canadian bishops.
“Without the Knights of Columbus, there might not be a pro-life movement today,” Cardinal John O’Connor, thenarchbishop of New York, told Knights at the Supreme Convention in 1990.
The Order likewise promoted the Church’s vision for marriage and family in various ways, such as by sponsoring natural family planning education and by establishing a North American campus of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C., in 1988.
CECILIA HADLEY is senior editor of Columbia.
ANDREW FOWLER is a content producer for the Knights of Columbus Communications Department and a member of Christ the Redeemer Council 15870 in Milford, Conn.
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