Funeral Mass celebrated for Monsignor Xavier Mankel, a founder of the Diocese of Knoxville
By Bill Brewer
Monsignor Francis Xavier Mankel was laid to rest in Calvary Cemetery in a manner that bespeaks those things closest to his heart: the Church, the priesthood, his parishes, and family.
His final gesture as a founding father of the Diocese of Knoxville and one of its senior priests was to be buried with his mother and father, saving one of the few, if not the only, remaining burial plots on Priest Mound in Calvary for a brother priest who may want or need it.
It was Monsignor Mankel’s way of bowing one last time to his “four families.” The retired priest died June 21 at his family home in the Fort Sanders community of Knoxville following a lengthy illness. He was 81.
Bishop Richard F. Stika celebrated the funeral Mass for the longtime Holy Ghost Parish pastor on June 27 at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Concelebrating the Mass were Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., Bishop James V. Johnston of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., and some 50 priests from around and outside the diocese. Also present were about 30 deacons and women religious.
Deacon Sean Smith, who followed in Monsignor Mankel’s footsteps as chancellor of the diocese and who considered the monsignor a close, personal adviser, served as deacon of the altar. Deacon Gordy Lowery, who serves at Holy Ghost Church, served as deacon of the Word.
The homily was delivered by Monsignor Owen Campion, a priest of the Diocese of Nashville who is a retired associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, retired editor of The Priest magazine, and a longtime friend of Monsignor Mankel. Hundreds of people filled the cathedral to mourn the priest for all seasons and diocesan legend, and to give thanks for the 56 years he served the Church and the role he played in their lives. A memorial Mass was celebrated for Monsignor Mankel June 26 at Holy Ghost by pastor Father John Dowling with Father John Orr and Monsignor Campion concelebrating. Father Orr, an associate pastor for Monsignor Mankel at Holy Ghost, is pastor of St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Madisonville.
Bishop Stika expressed thanks for the many years of service Monsignor Mankel gave to the Church, community, and the Diocese of Knoxville.
Speaking to the monsignor’s immediate family sitting in the front pews near the pall-draped casket, Bishop Stika said, “Monsignor’s family is quite larger than just the Mankel family. In so many ways he belongs to all of us. So we mourn with you, and we are sad with you. But we rejoice that this long struggle these last years, especially these last months now, with his body so broken, is over and he now is healed, and he is in the presence of Jesus.”
Carefully placed on Monsignor Mankel’s casket was the prayer book used by his father, George Mankel Sr., dating to 1915. A second prayer book on the casket belonged to the mother of Monsignor Mankel’s godmother, Mary Goodyear, dating to 1900.
Members of Monsignor Mankel’s family present at the funeral Mass were his brother, George Mankel Jr., of Rockwood, nephews George W. Mankel III of Lexington, Ky., and Johnathan Eric Mankel and wife Sally of Lillington, N.C., as well as several grandnieces, grandnephews, great-grandnieces, and great-grandnephews. The funeral Mass was live-streamed over the Internet so the monsignor’s sister, Sister Mary Georgeanna Mankel, RSM, of Nashville, could see it. She was unable to attend for health reasons.
The friendship between Monsignor Campion and Monsignor Mankel was apparent, with similarities between the men visible, even from the last pew. Both were ordained in the Diocese of Nashville (Monsignor Mankel in May 1961, Monsignor Campion in May 1966) and served in that diocese together; both were taught in elementary school by women religious (Monsignor Mankel by the Sisters of Mercy, Monsignor Campion by the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia); both shared a love for history and the written word, and edited and wrote for Catholic publications (Monsignor Mankel for The East Tennessee Catholic, Monsignor Campion for the Tennessee Register, Our Sunday Visitor, and The Priest); they both had booming, radio-quality voices that carried far when delivering God’s Word; and both were steeped in theology and the rubrics of the Catholic Church. There is even a slight resemblance. Monsignor Campion’s familiarity with his lifelong friend was evident in his homily.
“Catholic funeral liturgies have several purposes. One is to remember the deceased in a very special way; to remember the deceased in prayer. And so today we remember in prayer Monsignor Francis Xavier Mankel. And for those of us who knew him and loved him, we bless his memory and we beseech almighty God for mercy, realizing that, as are we all, monsignor was limited and imperfect in his humanity. But we also rejoice, as Pope Francis would remind us, that the merciful God forgives 70 times seven,” Monsignor Campion said.
“And every Catholic funeral, regardless of the identity of the deceased, also is about us, who survive. And every Catholic funeral looks ahead. And it gives us lessons about living our lives. So, every Catholic funeral presents to us the Gospel and other holy Scriptures to direct us along the right path,” he added.
Monsignor Campion quoted Scripture and papal writings from Blessed Pope Paul VI and Pope Francis about finding joy in life by living the life God has prepared for us, living a life in Christian joy and sharing that Christian joy.
“As I think about Father Mankel, I remember his humor, and I think it reflected his own perennial joy,” he said. In particular, he recalled a story Monsignor Mankel shared in one of his well-known holiday letters that he sent to parishioners and friends each Christmas. In the letter, he wrote that his sister, Sister Georgeanna, reported that her guitar had been stolen. Monsignor Mankel urged her to replace the guitar with a pipe organ. “Since, as he said, pipe organs make lovely music and rarely are they stolen,” Monsignor Campion said with a wide grin and drawing knowing laughs from the congregation.
Monsignor Mankel was an organ aficionado and relished any opportunity to hear or play one. In fact, Monsignor Mankel was a renaissance priest of sorts.
His brother shares stories of how the monsignor’s love of cars was an extension of his passion for all things mechanical, a fascination he learned at an early age. He was comfortable rebuilding engines or motors of any kind.
In his homily that blended the teachings of Jesus, the wisdom of holy fathers, the example of brother priests, and the humor of family to illustrate the life of Monsignor Mankel, Monsignor Campion especially noted his friend’s feelings for home.
“Monsignor Mankel will be laid to rest in the rich earth of East Tennessee upon which he first saw the light of day and which he loved. Today, he steps into the ranks of other priests whose priestly service and faith made them legends in East Tennessee, and he was so proud of them,” Monsignor Campion said. He listed Servant of God Father Patrick Ryan, who died in 1878 while caring for yellow fever victims in Chattanooga; Father Henry Vincent Brown, who pastored during the construction of Immaculate Conception Church in downtown Knoxville amid some vociferous anti-Catholic sentiment; Father Emmanuel Callahan, an early circuit-riding priest who rode horseback through the mountains and valleys of East Tennessee, western North Carolina, and Southwest Virginia spreading the word of God and establishing the region’s first Catholic churches; Monsignor Francis Dominic Grady, who established Knoxville Catholic High School; Monsignor Francis T. Sullivan and Monsignor George J. Flanigen, who were responsible for helping establish the Church in Chattanooga; “those remarkable sons of Townsend,”
Bishop Francis Shea and Monsignor Harold Shea; Father John Baltz, “who cared for African Americans in Hamilton County when the times were very much against him”; Father Albert Henkel, longtime pastor of Holy Ghost Church, “who was so dear to Father Mankel”; “those four wonderful sons of the Siener family”; and Monsignor Patrick J. Lynch and Father Thomas J. Lynch.
“With these great priests in mind, and with Monsignor Mankel himself in mind, I speak now to the more recently ordained priests of the Diocese of Knoxville, and also to the junior priests of my own Diocese of Nashville. True joy, true contentment, my young brothers, true satisfaction, genuine reward, all come in finding the Lord Jesus, in knowing the Lord Jesus, in loving him, in giving him everything, and in going anywhere to share Him with others,” Monsignor Campion said.
He then added, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. I go to the altar of God, to God who gives to my youth. We pray that the Lord Jesus, the high priest of Calvary, the Risen and the Merciful, will welcome Monsignor Mankel, joyful and always young in his priestly commitment, to the banquet of heaven.”
The family theme continued throughout the funeral Mass, with Monsignor Mankel’s cousin, Sister Judy Coode, RSM, proclaiming the second reading and longtime friend, colleague, and caregiver Dr. Aurelia Montgomery proclaiming the first reading. The gifts were presented by Eric and Sally Mankel, Emily Mankel, and Mike Mankel.
During the Liturgy of the Eucharist, Monsignor Mankel’s brother priests joined Bishop Stika and the concelebrants at the cathedral altar, where the monsignor has been a fixture for decades.
Near the end of the funeral Mass, George Mankel thanked all of those who attended the Mass in love and thanksgiving for the monsignor. He offered a reflection that described an individual destined for the priesthood. He directed the reflection to young men in the congregation contemplating a priestly vocation.
“As far back as I can remember Xavier wanted to be a priest. Now, I’m 78, and I don’t know how far back I can remember, but I remember it was before I started school. So that is quite a while back. But he wanted to be a priest, nothing else. But more important, he wanted to be a good priest. I really believe he was. And I believe if you follow his example, those of you who are contemplating the priesthood, and Lord knows we need you, you will make a good priest. May God bless all of us. Thank you,” Mr. Mankel said.
One of those young men who followed Monsignor Mankel’s example was James Vann Johnston, who served the Diocese of Knoxville as an associate priest, pastor, chancellor, and moderator of the curia from 1990-2008.
Now Bishop Johnston, he remembers as a boy attending Holy Ghost Church with his family, when Father Henkel was the pastor and Father Mankel was the associate pastor.
“He (Father Mankel) was my principal at Knoxville Catholic High School for four years, so he influenced my life there. And then when I came back (from seminary), I served with him at the Chancery for many years and lived with him at Holy Ghost as his resident associate for about five years, so he’s been a part of my life, really, as far back as I can remember,” Bishop Johnston said.
“He has had such an impact on me and my family members; not only me, but on many other people in East Tennessee and beyond,” the Kansas City bishop said, recalling the personality traits of Monsignor Mankel that left an indelible mark on him. “I always loved his humor. And he always sort of impressed upon me the importance of trying to do things well, to be excellent at what you did, and to be responsible. He had high standards, and it’s good to have someone to hold you to that. He was very helpful to me. I always respected him and knew he kept high standards, so it sort of raised everybody’s game.”
Monsignor Mankel left similar impressions on countless others he encountered during his priesthood.
The longtime diocesan vicar general died a year before the 30th anniversary of the diocese he helped establish and eight months shy of the dedication of the new Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, a project he promoted since the earliest days of the diocese. And he likely will be one of the last, if not the last, priests to have a funeral Mass celebrated at the present cathedral, where he served as pastor from 1987-1997.
Over the course of his priesthood, he was considered many things by many people – a founding father, a priest’s priest, a historian, a mechanic, a musician, an accumulator, writer, theologian, adviser, planner, teacher, and preacher.
But those who knew him well say he also could be called giving, loving, generous, big-hearted (and hardhearted on occasion), witty, thoughtful, disciplined, tough, demanding, cantankerous, hard-working, foresighted, faithful, and friend.
Many agree he was a priest for the ages.
In his eulogy for Monsignor Mankel, Bishop Stika pointed out that inscribed above the tomb of President Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Ill., are the words, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
“In many ways, Xavier does, too. Monsignor Campion talked about some of the great legends of the Diocese of Knoxville, of Nashville. It depends on where you start. I’m thinking of people like Monsignor (Philip) Thoni, Monsignor George Schmidt, and Father Joe Campbell. Each and every one of those priests is a component of who we are as the Church. They bring us the sacraments, and they forgive us our sins in the name of the Church, and do all those wonderful things. Monsignor Mankel was so proud to be a priest of the Diocese of Nashville and his service in that part of the state as well as in the most beautiful part of the state, the Diocese of Knoxville,” Bishop Stika said. “The stories about him will be legendary. I’m sure his classmates and friends, some of whom are honorary pallbearers, can remind us of some of those stories.”
Bishop Stika recalled that Monsignor Mankel once told him about a project to electrify the bells at Immaculate Conception Church, his home parish, where he designed a device using a washing machine motor to ring the bells that continued working for years. Father David Boettner, rector of the cathedral and a vicar general along with Monsignor Mankel, related a story to Bishop Stika about how the monsignor was looking to move a piano at Knoxville Catholic High School. In order to move it, and without movers to assist, he wrapped ropes around the piano, harnessed them to his back, then proceeded to move the piano.
Archbishop Kurtz, who gave the final commendation for Monsignor Mankel, held the monsignor in high regard. Monsignor Mankel served as a pastor, vicar general, and adviser to Archbishop Kurtz while he served as the diocese’s second bishop from 1999-2007.
“I have to say Monsignor Mankel was a priest’s priest. When his brother, George, said at the end of the Mass that he always wanted to be a priest, that came through in the life of Monsignor Mankel. There was an ease at which he simply embodied what a priest ought to be. He was the first priest I talked to when I came here as bishop 18 years ago, and on that occasion, I visited him at his rectory at Holy Ghost and immediately I felt at home,” Archbishop Kurtz said.
The archbishop noted that he used to joke with Monsignor Mankel about driving to Nashville for meetings of the Catholic Public Policy Commission.
“Those three-and-a-half hours that we spent back and forth, we just filled them up with great conversation. He and I would say, ‘Well it’s about time for another trip to Nashville,’” Archbishop Kurtz said. “I just enjoyed his company and presence. I can’t tell you enough about what a Churchman he was, and I think his effect will live long beyond these days. I think people will begin to feel that presence and that effect that he has had at being such a lover of Jesus and a lover of the people he served.”
Similarly, Bishop Stika has spent the past eight years working closely with Monsignor Mankel, who also served the bishop as a diocesan consultor, on the Presbyteral Council, the diocesan Finance Council, and as columnist and peer reviewer for diocesan publications The East Tennessee Catholic newspaper and The East Tennessee Catholic Magazine.
“I know I’ll miss him because his stories helped me, as someone who came to this diocese from St. Louis, to identify with the vast and rich history of the Catholic Church in East Tennessee and the Knoxville community,” Bishop Stika said. “He will be missed, but he does belong to the ages. To the Mankel family, he belongs to you in a very special way, because the bloodline continues. And the stories will continue. And as part of the Church triumphant, he will continue to pray for us.”
The bishop remarked that it is sad Monsignor Mankel will not see the finished cathedral, a project the Knoxville priest looked forward to seeing since Sept. 8, 1988, when the diocese was formed.
“He told me that right after he first met with Bishop (Anthony J.) O’Connell, the founding bishop, he wanted to know when they could begin building a cathedral. And OC said, ‘We must first build a diocese.’ A number of years ago, he brought it up to Bishop Kurtz, who said we must first fortify the diocese. I guess I was the most gullible, because he talked to me and now we are building a cathedral to the glory of God,” Bishop Stika recalled.
“So, Monsignor, I ask for your continued prayers now as an intercessor before the Blessed Mother and Jesus, the High Priest, to the Father for this diocese, that we may continue to blossom because of the giants who have served our Church, one of which you are. And that we might always give praise and thanks to almighty God for your 50-plus years of priesthood and service to the Catholic Church in East Tennessee. Monsignor, rest in peace. Your reward is great because you are a true and faithful servant,” Bishop Stika concluded.