Members past and present are recognized for continuing the faith-based traditions of one of Tennessee’s oldest councils
By Bill Brewer
Knights of Columbus Council 645 at Immaculate Conception Church marked a milestone last month when it celebrated its 120th anniversary, tracing its origin to February 1902.
To put the date in perspective, that was the year the first U.S. college football bowl game was held, the Rose Bowl. It also was the year the first full-time U.S. movie theater opened in Los Angeles, the year J.C. Penney opened his first store, the Curies isolated radioactive radium, the first public demonstration of a radio was held, President Theodore Roosevelt was the first U.S. president to ride in a car, and it was 12 years before World War I.
But those events were likely of little concern to the early Catholic men who sought to bring the Knights of Columbus to Knoxville, where Catholicism was still young and unwelcome by some in the heart of the Protestant Bible Belt.
Troy Cantrell, Grand Knight of Council 645, explained that in February 1902 Knoxville established Tennessee’s fourth Knights of Columbus organization, which was Council 645 that operated from Knoxville’s only Catholic church at that time, Immaculate Conception.
Council 645 was the 645th council to receive a charter from the national Knights of Columbus organization. While most known through its association with Immaculate Conception, Mr. Cantrell emphasized that Council 645’s charter specifically says it is the city of Knoxville’s Knights of Columbus council.
According to a news report in the Knoxville Sentinel newspaper on Jan. 27, 1902, founders of Council 645 were John P. Murphy, J.C. McLaughlin, M.L. Coen, Richard McNichols, W.K. Graw, and Laurens O’Connor. The six men became charter members of Knights Council 610 in Chattanooga when that council was organized in October 1901 and brought the Knights of Columbus to Knoxville.
On Feb. 9, 1902, 75 men were welcomed into Council 645 during an installation ceremony at an Immaculate Conception Mass, the Sentinel reported on Feb. 8, 1902.
And 120 years later, Council 645 was recognized on Feb. 12 at an Immaculate Conception Mass, with an anniversary dinner that followed. Father Jim Haley, CSP, chaplain of Council 645, celebrated the Mass and spoke at the dinner.
Joining him in addressing the anniversary dinner guests were longtime Council 645 member and historian Bert Benedict; Michael McCusker, who recently served as State Deputy of the Tennessee Knights of Columbus; and Fred Laufenberg, current State Deputy of the Tennessee Knights of Columbus who is a member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Fairfield Glade. Mr. McCusker, who resides in West Tennessee, attended Immaculate Conception as a youth, and his father served as Grand Knight of Council 645.
During the anniversary celebration, Council 645 recognized longtime member Larry Gibney, who has been instrumental in leading the council for years.
“What would possess six people from Knoxville in 1902 to become Knights? What would possess them to go all the way to Chattanooga and want to become Knights and bring that back to Knoxville? Before the Nashville council was started in 1901, they (Knights of Columbus) had not gone south of Kentucky. And they didn’t intend to go south of Kentucky. Then, guys from Nashville went up to Louisville, went through the initiation, and brought it back,” Mr. Cantrell said, explaining how the Knights began in Tennessee.
Mr. Cantrell has been looking forward to marking such an important milestone for Council 645 and its ministry.
“I just think it’s awesome. The thing that hits me is the people who started it and all the brothers that have kept it going, bringing the Knights of Columbus to the Catholic community in Knoxville. I’m so thankful for all the Knights that have gone before us to establish the council and keep it going, promoting our faith in the Catholic community,” Mr. Cantrell said. “These people went through an extremely big effort to establish this council.”
He noted the challenges of establishing the network of Knights of Columbus in 1902 from Louisville to Nashville, then to Chattanooga and Knoxville given that primary intercity and interstate transportation was by railroad, and the telephone was still new, developing technology.
“This council actually has spawned other councils in the area. And what is amazing is Council 5207 at Sacred Heart Cathedral recently celebrated its 60th anniversary,” Mr. Cantrell noted in comparison to Council 645.
In addition to 5207, other councils that have followed 645 are in Oak Ridge, Maryville-Alcoa, and other East Tennessee Catholic communities.
He pointed out that some six State Deputies of the Tennessee Knights of Columbus have come from Council 645.
History has been the theme of the anniversary, with Mr. Cantrell and others pointing to Council 645’s role in the Church and larger community.
For example, in the 1960 presidential election, when John F. Kennedy was running against Richard M. Nixon, a false narrative was circulated in communities around the country that Catholics, including Mr. Kennedy, couldn’t be trusted in U.S. government because they swore an allegiance to the pope. Also, William G. “Parson” Brownlow, an East Tennessee Methodist minister, newspaper publisher, book author, and the 17th governor of Tennessee, was known for his vocal attacks on foes, including Baptists, Presbyterians, and Catholics in the mid-1800s.
“One of our Grand Knights (in 1960) confronted the local ministers and made them print retractions,” Mr. Cantrell said, explaining that a Knoxville Journal news article dated Aug. 9, 1960, reported that Father Francis R. Shea, pastor of Immaculate Conception wrote a letter to the newspaper taking issue with remarks from a Baptist minister to correct the false narrative about John F. Kennedy.
Time and faith have healed old wounds, and the Knights of Columbus are revered for their community service.
Ministries that Council 645 now is involved with are Catholic Charities of East Tennessee’s Columbus Home and Hope Kitchen, and the Ladies of Charity. The council has 82 members, of which 19 have reached “members for life” status. There are five “honorary” members who are priests.
Mr. Cantrell remarked that the Immaculate Conception council’s triple digit is a status symbol of sorts. “It is something. 645 is a pretty low number, and to be the fourth one in the state of Tennessee is significant.”
The three older councils in Tennessee are Nashville’s Council 544, Council 610 in Chattanooga, and Council 616 in Memphis.
Council 645 is in a growth period right now, according to Mr. Cantrell, noting that more people are moving into the Knoxville area, leading to new Knights who have joined the council.
“Although we’re small, it’s a tight-knit group that gets along together, and we’re in the process of growing right now. COVID has put a damper on what we’ve been able to do,” he said.
But the council members are looking forward to again serving breakfast after Masses and resuming fish fries during Lent.
Father Haley, in his remarks during the anniversary celebration, pointed out that Council 645 was approved and established only 20 years after Blessed Father Michael McGivney began the first council of the Knights of Columbus in New Haven, Conn. Father Haley also explained that in February 1902, the initial six founders plus 50 other men, under the leadership of Grand Knight Edward O’Hearn, were granted the Council 645 charter.
“What must have been the thoughts, hopes, and dreams of those 56 men so long ago? We can only surmise, but I can imagine that their focus and thought embodied the aims and aspirations of the Knights,” Father Haley said. “They wanted to give expression to their Catholic life through the four-fold pillars of the Knights: charity, unity, fraternity, patriotism. These four basics can, I believe, be boiled down to three words: faith in action.”
Father Haley emphasized that the Knights of Columbus is not a social club.
“We are, rather, a group of Catholic men who are bound together in unity and fraternity to express our own personal belief in Jesus Christ, and to proclaim that belief by the way we share, not only among ourselves, but by opening ourselves to the broader community,” he said. “The Knights exist so that together we might first strengthen our own faith, and then bring that faith to fruition in service of others.”
He also underscored the fact that when Council 645 was established, the Catholic community in Knoxville was in a minority “and in many ways under attack and misunderstood. Perhaps not unlike our own times.”
“These founding members of 645 believed that by banding together in a fraternal organization based on Catholic principles, their own faith would be strengthened and they would be able to give witness to that faith by an outreach of service to others. Today, we carry on this tradition,” the Paulist priest said. “The hopes and dreams of the members of this early council live on, not only in the present members of our own council, but also in the councils that are active in Knoxville, but dare I say in councils throughout Tennessee, and, indeed, the country and world.”
Mr. McCusker pointed out that not only is 645 the fourth oldest council in Tennessee, but it is possibly the fourth oldest in the South because Ferdinand E. Kuhn of Nashville brought the Knights of Columbus to the southern United States in the early 1900s. The Knights of Columbus order was hesitant to expand into the South because many of its initial members, including the first Supreme Knight, James T. Mullen, fought for the Union in the Civil War.
“It follows that if Mr. Kuhn started the southern Knights of Columbus, it took its root first in Tennessee before spreading,” Mr. McCusker said, explaining that councils are numbered by the order in which they were established. He noted that one of the last councils started in Tennessee was during his term as State Deputy and is Council 17733.
Mr. McCusker joined Council 645 just before his 20th birthday, and he has strong memories of its role in his formation as a Catholic and a Knight in the Church.
“Council 645 represents longevity despite setbacks. The council was suspended in the 1930s due to inactivity and then roared back following World War II. By the 1980s, the council was struggling again, but held together by a handful of dedicated Knights. Other councils, especially those struggling now, should draw strength from 645’s example of longevity and its ability to overcome challenges,” Mr. McCusker said.
“I was there during some lean years, but as a young man, membership in 645 taught me to persevere and gave me the training I would need one day to rise in the ranks of the Tennessee State Council,” he added. “To me, it is the memory of past State Deputy Jim Bentley, who conducted my First Degree (initiation). Membership put me into contact with Dr. E.V. Davidson, who helped me immensely by rendering a medical opinion over a childhood allergy that threatened to prevent me from being commissioned as an officer in the United States Army. It was also where I first got to know great men and dedicated Knights like Paul Vadeboncouer, Bert Benedict, and Wes Sheedy. Sadly, too many names are now only memories, including the most significant, past District Deputy and past Grand Knight Jack McCusker, my dad.”
Tennessee State Deputy Fred Laufenberg echoes the sentiment that 120 years is a significant achievement.
“It’s Catholic men supporting each other and helping each other to grow in their faith. I think the most important thing to remember is being Catholic in Tennessee is to be different,” Mr. Laufenberg said.
“To have started a Catholic church in Knoxville and to be founded by some of the pillars of the community speaks to the influence Catholics have had in the area. When I visit this council and this parish I always find that our brother Knights are deeply ingrained in the parish,” he added.
Mr. Laufenberg appreciates the support the Council 645 Knights receive from the diocese and the Paulist priests who serve Immaculate Conception.
“They support the council and the council is the right hand of our parish priests. Council 645 leads faith-based programs for all men of the parish. They are the greeters, ushers, eucharistic ministers, visitors to the homebound, and the list goes on. They are the parish council, finance committee, planning committee, and the handymen,” he said. “My wife Donna and I enjoy visiting IC and its parishioners, which are always welcoming. And we very much enjoyed being able to join them for their 120th-year celebration.”