By Dan McWilliams
Long before he became an institution in the Diocese of Knoxville and a legend in its history, Francis Xavier Mankel was one of three children born to a mixed-faith couple who lived in the Fort Sanders community of Knoxville.
He was born Nov. 8, 1935, at St. Mary’s Memorial Hospital to George Whitehead and Willia Frances Duncan Mankel. Mr. Mankel was a display advertising salesman for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1922 to 1971, and Mrs. Mankel was a schoolteacher, nurse, and housewife.
Xavier Mankel was baptized Dec. 1, 1935, at Immaculate Conception Church in downtown Knoxville by Monsignor Francis Dominic Grady and received his first Holy Communion in May 1942. He was confirmed Dec. 19, 1943, at Immaculate Conception by Bishop William L. Adrian. He attended the old St. Mary School next to IC, graduating in 1949, as well as Knoxville Catholic High School, where it was then located on Magnolia Avenue. His teachers at KCHS included physed instructor Father Philip Thoni, who would go on to serve in the future Diocese of Knoxville for many years. In fact, Father Thoni and Father Mankel would go on to serve as monsignors together in the diocese.
Young Xavier Mankel graduated from KCHS in May 1953 as salutatorian of his class. He went to St. Ambrose College in Davenport, Iowa, for his collegiate studies and earned a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy there in 1957, graduating as salutatorian. He studied theology at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore and was ordained to the diaconate Sept. 22, 1960, by Auxiliary Bishop Jerome Aloysius Daugherty Sebastian. He earned a Licentiate of Sacred Theology from St. Mary’s, graduating magna cum laude in 1961.
Xavier Mankel was ordained a priest May 27, 1961, at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville by Bishop Adrian. He celebrated his first Mass the next day at Immaculate Conception.
His first assignment was as an associate pastor at St. John Church in Memphis. Later that summer, he became an associate pastor at Our Lady of Fatima in Alcoa and also took on an assignment as a professor at Knoxville Catholic High School. In August 1962, he was named an associate at Holy Ghost in Knoxville while continuing at KCHS. In 1964 he earned a master’s degree in education, focusing on school administration and supervision, from Loyola University of Baltimore.
He also studied at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in the summers of 1962 and 1978, at the Institut Catholique in Paris in summer 1965, and at Creighton University in Omaha in summer 1968.
On June 15, 1967, Father Mankel was appointed principal of KCHS on Magnolia Avenue and an associate pastor of IC. In 1970 he was named acting superintendent of schools for the Knoxville area. In 1972 he became the director of religious education for the Knoxville Deanery. One year later, he was appointed associate pastor of Holy Ghost again. In summer 1973, he also served as administrator of John XXIII University Parish on the University of Tennessee campus. He had become a Diocesan Consultor in 1971 and was named priest director of charismatic prayer groups in the Knoxville Deanery in 1976. He served as a supply priest for St. Mary in Gatlinburg from 1972 to 1979.
He served as moderator for the Junior Club of Catholic Women in Knoxville from 1964 to 1975. From 1970 to 1990 he served as chaplain for Knights of Columbus councils 645, 2246, 8781, and 5207 and as chaplain for Fourth Degree Monsignor Louis Kempheus and Monsignor Francis Grady assemblies.
In July 1979, Father Mankel left KCHS and Holy Ghost, as he was appointed pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Lawrenceburg and was named chair of the Diocese of Nashville Liturgical Commission. He would also chair the Senate of Priests and serve on the Deanery Priests’ Association.
Father Mankel served as moderator of the Diocese of Nashville Council of Catholic Women from 1981 to 1988 and would do the same for the Knoxville Diocesan CCW beginning in 1988 and continuing for many years.
He was diocesan vicar for education from 1981 to 1987 and episcopal vicar for the Knoxville Deanery from 1987-89.
He left Lawrenceburg in 1984 to become pastor of St. John Neumann in Farragut, where he remained until 1987, when he was appointed pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Knoxville. Sacred Heart became the cathedral parish of the new Diocese of Knoxville in 1988, and Father Mankel remained its pastor until 1997.
For the new diocese, Father Mankel would serve as vicar general from 1988 until his death, and in the diocese’s early years he took on the roles of chancellor, superintendent of schools, moderator of the curia, and moderator of the Propagation of the Faith.
He also was a member of the Knoxville chapter of the American Guild of Organists and a charter member in Tennessee of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians. He was active in the Knoxville Ministerial and Concord-Farragut Ministerial associations. Father Mankel served as state chaplain for the Knights of Columbus, as a member of the Presbyteral Council for the dioceses of Nashville and Knoxville, and as a judge on the Diocesan Tribunal. He was a member of the board of directors of the Diocese of Nashville’s newspaper, the Tennessee Register.
In 1997, Father Mankel was appointed pastor of Holy Ghost Parish, succeeding Father Albert Henkel, who had served in the role for 38 years until his death in December 1996.
In 2001, Holy Ghost celebrated both its 75th anniversary and the 40th anniversary of Father Mankel’s priestly ordination. Father Mankel was “a true spiritual soldier for the Lord in the fullest sense of that term” and had an “unmatched” knowledge of the Church in East Tennessee, said then-Holy Ghost associate pastor Father James V. Johnston, now the bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., at the 40th-anniversary celebration.
In 2006, Father Mankel told The East Tennessee Catholic that he was most thankful for “being in a presbyterate that is a family of brothers.” He said he was inspired to become a priest by “my daddy, with his love for the Church and the priesthood, and the Sisters of Mercy, who taught me in grades one through 12.” Father Mankel’s father had been in the seminary at one time. Also in 2006, Father Mankel and Father Thoni were elevated to the rank of monsignor.
In 2009, the Diocese of Knoxville Chancery staff, led by Bishop Stika, named the chancery’s main conference room for Monsignor Mankel in recognition for his decades of service to the diocese and for being a founder of the diocese when it was formed in 1988.
Monsignor Mankel was widely known as a stickler for details and church decorum. He often brought his renowned knowledge of Church theology to his homilies and his everyday practice of the faith.
His knowledge of history went far beyond the Catholic Church and extended to the city of Knoxville, East Tennessee, and the rest of the state of Tennessee. His institutional knowledge of area geography and sociopolitical happenings also was unmatched.
“I always enjoyed spending time with him,” Bishop Richard F. Stika said. “I could bring up any name in the diocese, and sometimes any Catholic name in all of Tennessee, and he would say, ‘I knew his mommy, and I knew his daddy, and his daddy was related to …’ and he would go through the whole family tree. He was just a wealth of knowledge of the Catholic Church of East Tennessee.”
Monsignor Mankel, who was regarded for his educational pursuits and proud of his time as a teacher, principal, and superintendent in Diocese of Knoxville schools, often spoke fondly and with great respect for the Sisters of Mercy who taught him at St. Mary School and KCHS, crediting them for his formation as an “excellent” student and as a “good and faithful servant” in the priesthood.
Many people who got to know the monsignor, from former students to colleagues and parishioners, often share stories of their favorite “Mankel-isms.” He was not shy about preaching the pitfalls of banging kneelers and about improper sacramental practices like making the sign of the cross unnecessarily (or saying the sign of the cross with too many or too few words) and genuflecting at the wrong time. He was a staunch defender of the rubrics, the rules governing the celebration of the Mass, and could recite them, paragraph, chapter, and verse, by memory. And he was more fond of collecting than throwing out.
“He wouldn’t throw anything away. He always said, ‘Somebody else can use it,’” said Monsignor Mankel’s brother, George W. Mankel Jr.
On a more personal level, and behind the scenes, Monsignor Mankel was known to give a hand up to people in need. And he did so to people within the Church as well as in the greater community.
“He wouldn’t let you know a whole lot. But whenever someone needed help, he would help them any way he could, including from his own personal funds,” said Dr. Aurelia Montgomery, retired Diocese of Knoxville educator and schools superintendent who worked closely with Monsignor Mankel for years.
“Only the Lord would know, because he certainly wouldn’t tell it. He did so much good for so many people. He lived that part of the Gospel that says, ‘When you give to someone in need, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.
“He could be gruff at times, but he was so wonderful to so many people. Since his death, I’ve had a number of people tell me how he helped them,” Dr. Montgomery noted, adding that Monsignor Mankel suffered from a number of serious health issues in his adulthood, including cancer and dangerous allergies, as well as a debilitating stroke late in life. “I learned a tremendous lesson in humility and patience and acceptance in these last few months of monsignor’s life. He never complained of anything he had to go through, even with the stroke affecting his speech and motion.
“Monsignor was a proud man, not haughty proud, but proud as the temple of the Holy Spirit. But when he could no longer do for himself, he was so gracious.”
Monsignor Mankel was known in Knoxville-area ministerial and civic organizations for his ecumenism and spirit of civic bonhomie.
In January, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Commission in Knoxville, with which Monsignor Mankel worked for years representing the diocese, honored Monsignor Mankel with its Chair’s Award for his service to the commission and for upholding the ideals of Dr. King.
Mr. Mankel said the monsignor was devoted to his family, both his Church family and his immediate family. “He loved Mother and Daddy, his brother and sister [Sister Georgeanna Mankel, RSM], and he thought his nieces and nephews hung the moon.”
Mr. Mankel said in addition to the Catholic Church, his brother had a passion for cars, anything mechanical, music, and the written word. “At age 10, he was shifting the gears on my dad’s ’35 Oldsmobile. And in 1959, he personally restored the clock in the clock tower at Immaculate Conception Church. He would take a motor apart and put it back together, the transmission or the rear end, it didn’t matter. There’s nothing he couldn’t do mechanically.”
Monsignor Mankel, who played the organ, also oversaw the restoration of the church bells at Holy Ghost.
On May 27, 2011, Monsignor Mankel celebrated his golden jubilee in the priesthood with a Mass of thanksgiving at Holy Ghost. Bishop Stika presided, and Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., also the Diocese of Knoxville’s shepherd from 1999 to 2007, delivered the homily. Also concelebrating were three of Monsignor Mankel’s good friends, Monsignor Owen Campion, associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor and a former Holy Ghost associate pastor; Abbot Cletus Meagher, OSB, of St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Ala., and a native of Cleveland, Tenn.; and Father George Schmidt, rector of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga and a future monsignor himself.
At the dinner following Mass, Monsignor Mankel said there were too many people to thank for the celebration.
“This has been a wonderful experience, not only for me personally but also I hope for you, who have done so much to bring it to fruition,” he said. “Some wonderful things have been said, and I feel very much like a mirror, reflecting your goodness, reflecting your ability to work together, reflecting your ability to make things happen.”
In 2014, Monsignor Mankel retired at age 78 after 53 years of service as a priest, but he continued as vicar general and became the diocese’s historical archivist.
Monsignor Mankel closed the 50th-anniversary dinner by addressing a question he often hears.
“People ask me frequently, what’s your greatest joy as a priest, and I would say without hesitation, celebrating the holy sacrifice of the Mass because that brings Jesus to the world,” he said. “It’s so important that we make the Real Presence real in the life of the Church.”