State Knights of Columbus officers installed

Installation held at St. Henry; leadership reflects Diocese of Knoxville

By Dan McWilliams

State Knights of Columbus officials again convened at St. Henry Church in Rogersville on May 29, this time to induct the new state officers for the upcoming fraternal year that began July 1.

Among the six new state officers, four represent the Diocese of Knoxville.

Outgoing state deputy Michael McCusker, a member of Timothy J. Coyle Council 9317 at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Cordova in the Diocese of Memphis, handed over the reins to new state deputy Fred Laufenberg after a Mass held on the vigil of the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity.

Mr. Laufenberg is a member of Monsignor Philip Thoni Council 16088 at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Fairfield Glade.

Also installed were new state secretary Bill Markiewicz of Cleveland, state treasurer Eric Pelton of Chattanooga, state advocate David Zwissler of Cordova, and state warden Alan Stanley of Smyrna.

Mr. Pelton is a member of Council 8576 at St. Jude Church in Chattanooga. Mr. Stanley is a member of Council 9168 at St. Luke Church in Smyrna. Mr. Markiewicz, of Council 4572 at St. Thérèse of Lisieux Church in Cleveland, was installed via cellphone, while the others were present at St. Henry. Wives on hand for their husbands’ installation included Donna Laufenberg, Melody Pelton, Jennie Zwissler, and Paula Stanley.

Father Bart Okere, pastor of St. Henry and St. James the Apostle Parish in Sneedville, became the new state Knights chaplain after four years as the associate chaplain.

From left, newly installed state deputy Fred Laufenberg, outgoing state deputy Michael McCusker, and newly installed state chaplain Father Bart Okere enjoy a laugh during the state Knights of Columbus installation and Mass on May 29 at St. Henry Church in Rogersville.

Mr. McCusker asked the new officers to “please raise your right hand and answer truthfully the questions that I ask: Do you promise to support and obey the laws of our order? Do you promise loyalty and devotion to the Church and to the Holy Father, the bishops, and the priests? Do you promise to devote the necessary time for the discharge of your responsibilities as designated by the laws of the order? Do you promise to keep the welfare and the good of the order uppermost in your mind and to promote it to the best of your ability?

“Accepting your promises as given in good faith, I now declare that you are duly installed in your respective offices and are authorized to conduct the business of the Tennessee state council in our order until such time as you have been officially succeeded.”

Father Okere and the new officers were invested with jewels of their office, which had earlier been blessed by the St. Henry pastor.

“Worthy state advocate, I now invest you with this jewel, emblematic of your office as state advocate. May you always wear it so as to bring honor and dignity to this office,” Mr. McCusker said to Mr. Zwissler, of St. Michael Council 17578 in Memphis, and repeated it for the other officers.

Mr. McCusker also addressed Father Okere’s tasks.

“The primary duty of the state chaplain is to function as the spiritual adviser to the state council,” he said. “His duties also include the supervision of all religious ceremonies of the state council and encouraging our local council chaplains to implement programs that will promote the spiritual welfare of our members. It is my privilege now to install Father Bartholomew Okere as state chaplain. . . . I invest you with this jewel emblematic of your office in the order of the Knights of Columbus. May we brother Knights always take to heart the spiritual guidance that you will give us during the coming year.”

Mr. McCusker, who grew up in Knoxville and attended Immaculate Conception Church years ago, recalled his own installation.

“At the organizational meeting of the state deputies held in New Haven, Conn., at St. Mary’s Church, the birthplace of our order, I had the high honor to be installed and invested by our worthy Supreme Knight, Carl A. Anderson, as the state deputy of Tennessee,” he said. “Today it is my privilege as state deputy, for 32 more days, to install and invest my fellow state officers selected by the state council in concert with the Supreme Knight.”

Mr. McCusker continued: “Worthy state officers, we have been chosen to guide the destiny of the Tennessee state council during this fraternal year. Our duties will be many, perhaps at times trying and difficult. We will be held directly responsible for every aspect of the duties, which our office demands. The health and welfare of our jurisdiction is dependent on how we carry out these duties. Only through our dedication can we build a strong and bright future for our jurisdiction and for our order. Our brothers have demonstrated their confidence that we are capable of outstanding leadership. Let us prove that they were correct. Remember also that it is through their cooperation that our past achievements have been made possible.

“Let us continue to merit the cooperation by measuring all our decisions in the light of what would be fair, just, and beneficial to them. Solicit their advice and consider it carefully. Bear in mind that our honored order is composed of many individuals. Whatever will ensure each brother’s welfare must be the standard governing our every act.”

Mr. McCusker and Mr. Laufenberg each gave a speech, the former one of farewell and the latter one of acceptance. Each became emotional during his talk.

“They tell me it’s time for me to go, and certainly I wish I could stay, but I cannot stay because the success of any organization, the success of any church is dependent on continuity and change, in the carrying out of the divine desires of Christ for His Church,” Mr. McCusker said.

The outgoing state deputy presented the state deputy’s sword to Mr. Laufenberg.

“This is the sword of Ferdinand E. Kuhn, the first state deputy of Tennessee. The state council was instituted on Jan. 8, 1903, and this sword has been passed 69 times, and tonight I have the honor to pass it for the 70th time,” Mr. McCusker said. “I pass it because I cannot give it, because it was never mine, just as it was never the sword of those 68 people who came before.

“It is the sword of the Knights of Columbus. It is the sword of the state deputy, a position, not a person. This was last used in January of 2020, right before the pandemic, at the last Third Degree held in the state of Tennessee, because everything changed. Boy, everything changed during these two years. But what looks like a sword is really a cross, and I give it to you now to carry and to safeguard our beloved order. God bless you, and good luck.”

Mr. Laufenberg’s talk involved some valuable advice he had once been given.

“My father said, ‘Make a difference,’” he recalled. “It wasn’t, when he said, ‘Make a difference,’ to go out and have the best job and make the most money. It wasn’t to have the biggest house. It wasn’t to have the fanciest car. His idea of making a difference was his hope for me and his hope for my wife and our children that I could make a difference with them, that I could make a difference in my community, that I could make a difference in my Church.

“I’ve tried to live that charge, to make a difference. My father’s been gone 27 years, and in those 27 years it’s almost daily that I think about those little life lessons that he left. He left that to me as a young man, as a father, a husband, and a Catholic. I’ve tried to live up to that.”

His fellow Knights can assist him in that, Mr. Laufenberg said.

“You, the Knights of Columbus, my brothers, my sisters, you’re the ones who help me do this,” he explained. “I cannot do this alone. I need you. I need the Knights of Columbus to help me to be a better father and husband, to be a better grandfather, to make a difference in my Church and in my community and in my family.”

New state officers for the Knights of Columbus, from right to left, Eric Pelton, David Zwissler, and Alan Stanley are sworn in on May 29 at St. Henry Church in Rogersville. Standing next to Mr. Pelton is his wife, Melody. Accompanying Mr. Zwissler is his wife, Jennie, and accompanying Mr. Stanley is his wife, Paula.

The Knights, their families, parishioners, and guests reconvened in the church basement afterward for a dinner.

Father Okere offered a description of the day’s events.

“This ceremony this evening is something I would call a holistic ceremony that cemented the love the Knights have for each other, bringing their wives here and their children, to showcase the love for their founder, Blessed Michael McGivney,” he said. “What we’re doing is just to bring Catholic gentlemen back into focus, back to the Church, to embrace the Knights of Columbus: charity, unity, and fraternity. We are really glad to have them here.”

Father Okere said he is “really highly humbled” to be the new state chaplain for the Knights.

“I’m very happy that I’m going to serve the Knights and serve the diocese,” he said. “When I told Bishop [Richard F.] Stika about this appointment, Bishop Stika said, ‘Father Bart, it is an honor to the diocese and to yourself.’ I hope Our Lady, the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, will help me and St. Henry will help me do this job conscientiously and devotedly, to bring the state of Tennessee into the limelight.”

Mr. McCusker said downstairs that being the state deputy “has been the honor of a lifetime. It goes by so quickly, and there are so many things you want to accomplish, at the beginning you think you want to accomplish, and then you discover along the way that God has other plans, and then you have to adjust yourselves and work toward what He wants accomplished.”

Mr. McCusker had the unenviable task of leading the Knights during a pandemic.

“It was very tough, but I think we learned how to master the situation, and we were very successful in spite of it,” he said.

Mr. McCusker spoke of his legacy.

“I think the legacy will be one, getting the state council and all the local councils through the pandemic, and I think the other thing is I made a lot of changes that helped modernize and better organize the state council,” he said.

St. Henry Church has become a hub for state Knights’ gatherings in recent years.

“I got invited up here a few weeks after I became state deputy in 2019. I’d never been here before,” Mr. McCusker said. “I love Father Bart, so I come whenever he tells me to. It’s kind of funny because this sounds so silly: we have a dog at home named Henry, who came from East Tennessee. He was a homeless pup, and we adopted him and gave him a home, and now on the flip side, St. Henry has given me a home in East Tennessee.”

The state Knights officers spent three days in Rogersville from May 28-30.

“We leave tomorrow, and I begin a tour of the councils down in the Chattanooga area to say farewell. We’ve been doing our annual planning meeting for the new fraternal year that starts July 1,” Mr. McCusker said.

Bill Hewitt, Grand Knight of the St. Henry Council, said the state council of the Knights has been coming to his church for two years.

“The state deputy, Mike McCusker, was attracted to the area, so he brought the council here last year to do their planning retreat for the fraternal year, and then they came back this year for a planning retreat. They’re staying at the Hale Springs Inn,” Mr. Hewitt said.

The inn is a “unique hotel,” he added.

“It has a lot of history dating back to the Civil War and even beyond. They’re able to reserve the whole hotel to themselves. Each of the rooms is time-period dated. The state deputies kind of fell in love with the Jackson Room, President Jackson. He came in here this past April, the Jackson Room was reserved, so he had to stay in the Johnson Room, Andrew Johnson, so he got to visit both presidents who have stayed there. The Rogan family who attends church here, their grandparents have a room there at the inn at Hale Springs. Their grandparents’ bedroom furniture furnishes that room. It’s just a nice historic facility.”

Mr. Hewitt said that “Rogersville is just full of history,” including Pressman’s Home, an early 1900s headquarters of the International Printing Pressmen and Assistants’ Union of North America. Marie Berry, wife of the union’s president, brought the Catholic faith to the Rogersville area.

Mr. Laufenberg at the dinner recalled his emotional speech upstairs.

“I’m nervous but excited. I share with people: we started the journey about four years ago that we [the state council] were going to become an order of Catholic gentlemen on a journey to strengthen our faith, strengthen our Church, strengthen our parishes, be the right hand of our parish priests, and be on a mission to get to heaven. I’m excited about continuing the journey. I’m nervous because I just am,” he said.

Mr. Laufenberg noted that the Knights order began in the 1880s in the basement of St. Mary Church in New Haven, Conn., and that the newly installed Tennessee Knights officers were having dinner in a church basement at St. Henry.

“I have a hard act to follow with Michael and with [immediate past state deputy] Tracy [Staller]. He’s the one that started this. He said, ‘We have to go back to how the Knights of Columbus were started.’ Parish priests, Irish immigrants at that time were being persecuted. If somebody died, they had nothing left, they had no one to care for them. And oh, by the way, they started in the basement of a church, St. Mary’s. And if you look at it, we’re in the basement of a church, with a bunch of Catholic men, caring about our family, caring about our faith, and trying to get to heaven. That’s what we do. That’s what we’re going to do.”

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