By Dan Russo
DUBUQUE, Iowa — Knights of Columbus from Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin marched out from behind the closed doors of a large room in Dubuque’s Grand River Center on April 7, the first day of this year’s Iowa State Convention following the largest Fourth Degree exemplification ceremony to be held in Iowa in decades.
Also during the convention the Iowa KCs elected Antonio Banuelos as state deputy, the first immigrant from a Spanish-speaking country to be elected to the top spot. Originally from Chihuahua, Mexico, he currently serves the Iowa KCs as state secretary and is among a growing number of Catholic Hispanics in Iowa.
During the Fourth Degree ceremony, the new members of this degree learned about Father Aloysius Schmitt, an honorary member of their class, famous as the first chaplain to die in World War II while saving others in the Pearl Harbor attack. His remains were recently indentified and brought home to Iowa.
The Fourth Degree promotes a desire to serve others and the nation, a call to action that resonated with Marty Kelchen, a new Fourth Degree member from Solon. “I was inspired by the sacrifices they highlighted that Catholic men made for the country,” he said. Becoming a Fourth Degree Knight “made me feel like I’m part of this.”
This ceremony and a banquet featuring speeches, including a keynote address by Archbishop Michael Jackels, were major highlights of the first day of the convention April 7-9 that drew about 300 Knights and their families.
“We are beyond our expectations,” said Jan DeMoully, who co-chaired the convention with her husband, Mike. “We were expecting 450 at the banquet (Saturday night) and we are at 600 people now.”
The convention, held annually, featured an opportunity for fellowship, business meetings and officer elections, activities for families, and seminars on how to build up the “domestic church” — a focus of the organization in recent years.
The Knights of Columbus, now the largest Catholic organization of its kind in the world, was founded in 1892 by Father Michael McGivney in Connecticut. It began with the mission to provide benefits, such as life insurance, to Catholic working-class and immigrant families.
The organization has since expanded its mission to include many other charitable efforts and now has about 1.9 million members worldwide and more than 30,000 Knights in Iowa. Each of four degrees of the Knights of Columbus focuses on one of four virtues: charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism.
During his speech at the banquet, Archbishop Jackels emphasized the value of striving for heroic sacrifice. “I don’t know of anything that’s more powerful — whether it’s a priest in a parish or parishioners in a parish, people at home or at their work — who have made the decision to follow Jesus and so have taken up their cross and have lost their life for the glory of God and for the benefit of others,” said the archbishop.
Masses were held all three mornings of the convention, with seminar meetings during the day for Knights while their wives and children completed other activities.
Banuelos of Des Moines was elected the new state deputy on April 9, and will start serving in July. “We need to get men back in the church with a strong witness of faith,” he said of his reasons for running for the post. “(I’m doing this) for my kids. I have a 14-year-old son, and it’s a legacy I want to leave to him.”
Banuelos hopes as state deputy to reach out to new immigrants and integrate them into the organization. “Last year we had a break-out session for Hispanic Knights and there were 14 of us,” he said. “Today it was 22. It is growing. We have people from the four dioceses. The (Knights) started because of the Irish being discriminated against. They were getting no access to social services. They were having the toughest jobs, the lowest paying jobs. I believe the Hispanics are the Irish of the 21st century. We have to be there because we’re first Catholic, then Hispanic.”
Adrian Arellano Garcia, a member of Ss. Mary & Mathias Parish in Muscatine and a district warden, said he was encouraged to see Banuelos elected to a high-profile position.
RJ Kunze, 20, was the second youngest man to enter the Fourth Degree on April 7.
“I wanted to be able to go represent my faith in public at funerals and other events and be in my (Fourth Degree Assembly) special projects with my father,” said Kunze, of Leon, in the Des Moines Diocese. “I’ve seen a lot of my friends give up on the faith. I wanted to do something to help my faith and help the community.”
(Dan Russo is editor of The Witness, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.)