Retreating to Rogersville

Hawkins County is a welcoming host to Tennessee Knights of Columbus leaders and their strategic planning weekend              

By Bill Brewer

Rome has an ambassador from Africa in Rogersville and Sneedville, and he is promoting the Catholic faith across the four corners of Hawkins and Hancock counties.

Father Bartholomew Okere is not only spreading the Gospel from St. Henry and St. James the Apostle parishes, where he is pastor, he’s also evangelizing in unique ways that bring the Catholic Church to this very Protestant part of Tennessee.

Father Okere has been active in the Hawkins and Hancock communities, working with other faith leaders in the area on civic projects. He even joined pastors from other denominations in a religious unity service in 2017 to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Tennessee Knights of Columbus members, from left, state deputy Michael McCusker, state secretary Fred Laufenberg, state programs director Alan Stanley, state advocate Eric Pelton, state warden David Zwissler, and Gabe Stanley, front, gather at Cor Jesu, the Handmaids of the Precious Blood monastery in New Market.

And his latest effort brought Tennessee Knights of Columbus leaders to Rogersville for a statewide retreat. In addition to being a faith-filled weekend June 5-7, where the Knights leadership made 2020-21 plans for the Catholic men’s service organization and its 101 councils across the state representing more than 12,000 members, Father Okere inspired a brief economic boon in the county seat.

While it wasn’t a large gathering of Knights, the leadership, spouses, and family members sold out Rogersville’s historic downtown hotel and enjoyed dining in the town’s eateries.

And the Diocese of Knoxville and the Catholic faith, through Father Okere and the Knights of Columbus, were being the face, hands, feet, and heart of Jesus to a community not very familiar with the Catholic Church.

“The fiscal year 2020-21 planning retreat June 5-7 in Rogersville by the state officers and their wives brought a substantial amount of resources to the city, which led the executive director and commissioner for the Rogersville/Hawkins County Chamber of Commerce, Mrs. Nancy Barker, to graciously accord the officers a warm and fraternal welcome,” Father Okere said.

“Rogersville restaurants also benefited from the officers, resources that boosted the city’s revenue. Individuals who greeted our august visitors were like Oliver Twist looking forward to see the Knights come often to their city,” he added. “Rogersville, a historic town, benefited from the presence of nine state officers, plus their wives, who stormed the city stores, bought different kinds of stuff, and visited some of the galleries, especially one of the oldest, historic courthouses in Tennessee, built in 1836. It’s one of the six antebellum courthouses still in use in Tennessee, and it’s the second-oldest courthouse still in use in the state.”

Father Okere described the unique visit by state Catholic officials as a weekend of marathon brainstorming meetings and socialization.

Michael McCusker, state deputy of the Knights of Columbus, the highest-ranking Tennessee Knight, spoke highly of the retreat weekend and the resources offered by Rogersville. He has become a fan of the town.

“Rogersville has become one of my favorite places. I was there last August for St. Henry’s mortgage-burning ceremony, and then I was there in October to meet with St. Henry Council 8860 leadership and have dinner with them. And then I was there in January for the feast of Epiphany. Father Bart cooked an authentic Nigerian meal,” said Mr. McCusker, a parishioner of St. Francis of Assisi Church in the Memphis suburb of Cordova who is an assistant district attorney for Shelby County.

He was back in Rogersville on July 17.

“I love the history of the place, and it’s off the beaten path,” he added. “It was wonderful. It was the second time the state officers were able to get together since our virtual state convention (May 2-3). We haven’t had a planning retreat in anyone’s collective memory, and what we have done in the past is to plan during the state convention.”

While in Rogersville for the leadership retreat, the Knights of Columbus leaders, spouses, and family members attended Mass at St. Henry on that Saturday evening, with Father Okere celebrating the Mass. Father Okere is an associate chaplain for the Tennessee Knights of Columbus.

The Knights stayed at the Hale Springs Inn in Rogersville, which was built in 1824 and has hosted three U.S. presidents. Hale Springs Inn has nine stately rooms, so the Knights occupied the entire hotel during their leadership retreat.

“The accommodations were just incredible. The room I stayed in was where Andrew Jackson stayed in 1837 on his way home from the presidency. He used the hotel to deliver a speech from the balcony,” the state deputy said.

The other two presidents who stayed at Hale Springs Inn were Andrew Johnson and James K. Polk.

The Rogersville/Hawkins County Chamber of Commerce took note of the Knights of Columbus visit and made sure the Catholic delegation felt welcomed.

“Rogersville was honored that the Knights of Columbus chose Rogersville’s Hale Springs Inn to host its statewide leadership retreat. I was invited to their meet-and-greet reception and gifted them with gift bags from the community. I think it was great for our community to host and educate ourselves on the charitable work that they do. I feel it will also help our local chapter of the Knights of Columbus become more visible,” said Mrs. Barker, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce.

And not only did the retreat help make the Knights of Columbus and St. Henry Parish more visible in the town, it also helped the town be more visible to some leaders from all over Tennessee.

“To have representatives from across the state is a great way to help us tell our story about our beautiful downtown district and encourage visitors to come stay in our community. The Hale Springs Inn, built in 1824, was a perfect setting for them to experience our southern hospitality and taste the delicious food served at McKinney’s Tavern. Father Bart and I enjoyed hosting them and hope that they will consider returning in the near future,” Mrs. Barker said.

The Knights of Columbus state leaders concluded their retreat with a visit to the Handmaids of the Precious Blood at their Cor Jesu Monastery in New Market.

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