Police chaplain Fr. Charlie Donahue leads service for Knoxville’s finest
By Bill Brewer
With heavy hearts and a somber countenance on Oct. 6, Knoxville Police Department officers and their canine partners received prayers and a blessing from Father Charlie Donahue, CSP, to mark the feast of St. Francis of Assisi and as part of the national law enforcement Faith & Blue Weekend initiative.
The eight KPD K-9 teams lined the middle of Vine Avenue in front of Immaculate Conception Church in downtown Knoxville as they received the St. Francis of Assisi blessing and were sprinkled with holy water by Father Donahue, who serves in their midst as a KPD volunteer chaplain.
Father Donahue, a Paulist priest who serves as pastor of Immaculate Conception, led the blessing in conjunction with the Oct. 4 feast of St. Francis of Assisi.
Also taking part in the blessing and launch of the Faith & Blue Weekend were Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon, Knoxville Police Chief Paul Noel, who is a parishioner of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, a host of police officers and KPD cadets, and a representative from the Young-Williams Animal Center in Knoxville.
The blessing was held on the same day as the funeral for Knox County Sheriff’s Deputy Tucker Blakely, who was killed in the line of duty. He was shot on Oct. 1 while responding to a domestic disturbance, and he died on Oct. 2. Deputy Blakely was 29 and leaves behind a wife and 5-year-old son.
The blessing was held at 9 a.m. on Oct. 6, and the funeral was at 2 p.m. at Clear Springs Baptist Church in Corryton.
Father Donahue said Deputy Blakely, who was working his final shift as a patrol officer when he was shot, was to have started his first day with the Knox County Sheriff’s Office K-9 unit on Oct. 6. He already had been assigned a police dog.
“We do gather with a sense of sadness as Knox County today celebrates the life of and commend to God Sheriff’s Deputy Tucker Blakely. It’s a reminder of just how precious life is,” Father Donahue said to begin the ceremony.
“We’re gathering here to bless this amazing squad of canine teams, these dogs and their partners. We are a Catholic Church here in East Tennessee, and we take ecumenism and interfaith dialogue very seriously. But we also know that you are here for this blessing, so it is going to be in the Christian tradition,” Father Donahue continued.
Nancy Brennan Strange, music director at St. John XXIII Catholic Center, who participates in the music liturgy at Immaculate Conception, sang the hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful” before Father Donahue led in prayer the group that had gathered.
“And so we pray, God our Father, to those who have never had a dog as a partner, this prayer will sound strange. But to you, the Creator of all life and all creatures, it will be resonant. From these animals we learn many lessons, such as the quality of naturalness and unembarrassed requests for affection, to share food, to listen effectively. In caring for them, we are taken up out of our own selves. We relearn every day the importance of service to others. Be with these K-9 teams and their handlers and support staff to work with their focus and discipline for all public safety, we pray,” Father Donahue said.
Father Donahue praised the work of KPD chaplain Mike Patty, who assisted in organizing the K-9 blessing.
“One of the things that Mike taught me and the other chaplains is that if you’re looking for something, you’re probably going to find it. If you’re looking for some good news, you’re going to find it. And if you’re looking for trouble, you are bound to find it. If you’re looking for grace in the presence of God, you’re going to find it. If you are looking for something, you are going to find it,” the Paulist priest said.
“These K-9 teams teach all of us about self-mastery. Through rigorous training and experience, they have a dual sense together of mastery and knowing one another. It’s their training to know the other’s capabilities, instincts, aspirations, and experience. Look to these K-9 teams. Think of their training and watch them in action. And learn from the time invested in knowledge of one another. Think of their self-mastery and look to apply it in your own life toward goodness and kindness,” he advised.
He then shared another prayer with the K-9 units.
“A famous prayer goes: ‘Officers, these dogs’ eyes are your eyes, and watch to protect you and others. These dogs’ ears are your ears to safeguard you and others in the dark. These dogs’ noses are your noses to scent, track, and lead others to safety. These dogs’ very lives are your very lives, heroically and riskily offered in great love so that you and others might live and prosper. Be good stewards of these creatures, one and all, these partners.’”
Father Donahue then offered the prayer for the blessing of animals, saying “Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air, and animals of the land. You inspired St. Francis to call all of them brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless these teams. By the power of Your love, enable them to live according to Your plan. May we always praise You for all of Your beauty and creation. Blessed are You, Lord God in all creatures. Bless us each this day to God’s use.”
He proceeded to walk down Vine Avenue, which was blocked off by police cars for the occasion, to sprinkle holy water on each of the dogs accompanied by their handlers.
“Let us go forth in great joy to love and serve our God and one another,” Father Donahue said. “In gratitude on behalf of all of the chaplains, thank you so much for your service, especially on this day as we pray with the family of Tucker Blakely.”
Chief Noel said Oct. 6 was a difficult day for everyone in the Knoxville-Knox County community because of Deputy Blakely’s death and his funeral.
“One thing we do well in times of crisis and tragedy is we come together. We rally around one another, and we certainly rally around the Sheriff’s Office and all of its employees. The community has done the same thing. This makes me very proud,” the police chief said.
He praised the KPD K-9 units, calling them a very valuable part of the KPD team. He also praised Father Donahue and the KPD chaplains and noted that the Faith & Blue Weekend can be an effective way for the community and law enforcement to engage in a positive way.
“This is just a great opportunity for our police officers to get more connected with the community. Father Donahue is one of our chaplains. We have a really strong chaplain corps at KPD, something I’m very proud of. This is just another example of us working closely with the faith-based community and the other community members as well to form strong bonds moving forward,” he said.
Mayor Kincannon also expressed sadness over the tragic loss of a beloved and respected member of law enforcement.
“It’s a very sad day, but our faith in this community is what is going to get us through this, and we are very grateful for the Catholic Church’s support,” Mayor Kincannon said. “Officer Blakely was on his last shift of patrol and was shifting over to become a K-9 officer when he was shot and killed in the line of duty. His sacrifice will never be forgotten, and today is the day we are having his funeral service. That’s why I’m wearing all black, and that’s why our officers have the black bands over their badges, to show respect to the family and to honor his sacrifice and to support his family.”
Mayor Kincannon appreciated the blessing ceremony for the K-9 teams and the community, especially as it began the Faith & Blue Weekend.
“We are really grateful for the Catholic diocese’s support of our law enforcement officers and their canine partners. This is just a nice way for us to bless this squad of people and canines to do the work of protecting our community. We are grateful for the Faith & Blue events that show the community support for this work,” she said.
KPD spokesman Scott Erland believes assembling the K-9 teams for the St. Francis of Assisi blessing worked out well for all involved.
“Faith & Blue Weekend is a national movement and is a community-building movement to establish community partnerships,” Mr. Erland said. “This is a great way to kick off Faith & Blue Weekend, to get everyone together and have one moment to recognize what Faith & Blue Weekend is about.”
Father Donahue hopes to make the blessing of the K-9 units an annual ceremony. He said the idea originated with the KPD chaplain corps.
“The chaplains got together, and one of the officers made a suggestion about one of the dogs, and it became this. It just happens to fall on this day, not only because of St. Francis but also it falls on this day that horrifically is a day of mourning for law enforcement in Knox County and the city,” Father Donahue said.
“The chaplain corps is always looking for creative ways to support the officers and support KPD, and also with a sense of social justice. We want to be a part of the team, and we are, and they are great with it. Any of these traditions that help integrate the police and the community in a healthy, helpful way is a bonus and is a blessing,” he added. “It’s not lost on any of these officers that Sheriff’s Deputy Blakely was a K-9 officer, and he was going to start today (Oct. 6) with his dog. So, there’s a sense of solidarity.”