Monday, April 3, 2006

The Knights of Columbus Initiation of a Half Century Ago—Oh, What it Seemed to Be: A Drunken Bum, a Bleeding Man, a Slapped Priest, a Drawn Gun, then Gunshots. What Did it All Mean?

i[And about the slight doubt I expressed yesterday: All must be o.k. because here I am back here and it’s Monday].

The minute I walked in the door at the Knights of Columbus headquarters in St. Cloud for the initiation one Fall Sunday in 1954, I knew something was wrong. There was a coolness in the air—much different than when the Knights were trying to convince me to join. I wondered: was it something I wrote in the last day or two? Couldn’t think of anything. Why were they diffident—or was it my imagination? I didn’t think so. Anyhow, I joined my fellow inductees, about fifty in all, many of whom I knew. A deputy sheriff I knew very well; a granite quarry worker, retired and on disability; a drugstore counterman; a whole lot of more prominent citizens I hadn’t met before: businessmen, at least two lawyers; a charming fellow named Gerald Olson, with striking Scandinavian features (blond hair, blue eyes) who said he was very excited about becoming a Knight, pointing out that some Protestants need the harbor of the sacraments. Touching.

The rest I didn’t know but that wasn’t strange because they came from several other towns in central Minnesota—Little Falls (home of Charles Lindbergh), Melrose, Avon, Albany. Of the 50 I probably knew 20 or 25. One Knight brings around a tall, dapper man. “I’d like you to meet, Father,” he said. He was every inch a priest. About age 40 at most, dressed in an impeccably well-fitting suit and gleaming roman collar, unlike the average workaday St. Cloud area priests whose suits were baggy, shoes un-shined. I’d seen future hierarchical comers look like him in Chicago and elsewhere: you could easily predict he’d be a bishop. I thought I had seen his face before. He was from St. Paul, someone said, adding he was a comer. I decided I saw his picture in the archdiocesean weekly. An aide to the Archbishop there. Priests are welcome in the K of C’s and he thought he could add to the number of clerics in St. Paul after he joined. “We can all use the fresh enthusiasm the Knights supply,” he said quietly, with an effortless polish indicating expertise in the pulpit. But even he was disturbed by the coolness of the reception. “What gives?” he asked me with a smile. Then he shrugged, indicating acceptance and said, “oh, well…”

Others we talked to—he and I—seemed to have the same impression I did. After the rush act about joining, we were treated like no big deal. One guy said: “Boy, they couldn’t get me hustled to this initiation soon enough. Now I’m here they say, `what’s your name again?’ What’s that about? Do they have a quota of how many new members they have to get and once you’re on board they lose interest?” Funny, but most of us had the same impression. The priest said, quietly, “that’s the way it is in many lay organizations of the Church—something we’ve got to fix.” He said it with impressive authority.

The whole membership of the Knights were ushered in and took their seats. The Grand Knight introduced the highest ranking Knight in the state, the State Deputy, who was to run the show. The State Deputy was well-known: the prosecuting attorney of Winona county—an orator, top lawyer who had been receiving good press and a likely future candidate for attorney general of the state on the Democratic-Farmer-Labor ticket, James Dailey, a powerfully built man, six-feet-four, a great bear of a man, not unlike a younger version—about age 50 or so—of Tip O’Neill. Towering, glowering and defiantly artistocratic, Dailey was reputed to be the guy to return the Irish to top power in state politics, from the Humphreys, Freemans, Andersons, et al..

Dailey with a magnificent basso profundo voice fit for the courtroom intoned, “Let the initiation begun.” A short, squat functionary then appeared in a off-white robe, hair ruffled with, I thought, wall-eyes that occur to some men when they had too much to drink, started walking toward us. He stumbled slightly on a raised section of the floor as he approached us, causing him to mutter something to himself. He tugged up his gown and jerked a thumb at us, saying “O.k., follow me.” He led us through the chamber into a side room where he said nothing else but cast his eyes about us in a kind of disapproving manner (at least I thought so). He said, “you fellows have to stay in this holding room until they’re ready for you” and left, slamming the door. No place to sit down; we were all standing. A fellow next to me said, “Did you get a whiff of that guy?” I said: no, what do you mean? He said, “apple-jack 90 proof.” The priest demurred, charitably. But the word got around pretty quickly; they had a heavily drinking guy apparently running this thing. The convert—Olson—said, “great” and looked depressed for the first time. Then he brightened and said, “well, nothing can bring me down because I’ve looked forward to this for a long time.”

Now we could hear sounds coming from the main chamber—applause; there was a meeting going on. Most of us looked around, no windows, no chairs and thought: this is a great way to spend a Sunday. Not long after, the door opened and the same guy came in. He was reading off our names. I purposely moved close to him to get a whiff. Yep. Unmistakable. He lined us up and said we were going to be blindfolded. A few others came in and blindfolded us. Then as we stood there in the dark he said we’re going in to the main chamber and get asked catechism questions. Catechism? Nobody told us that was going to happen. I knew my catechism from grade school pretty well but I would have brushed up had I known this. Everybody started grumbling.

He said, “o.k., now shut up. You knew you’d get asked questions when you came in.” One guy said, “the hell I did! Nobody told me! Were any of you guys told?” Chorus of “no’s.” The functionary said, “Anyhow you’re going to be asked so shape up.” We were blindfolded and to keep from falling, we were told to put our hands on the shoulders of the guys ahead of us and marched in, chain-gang fashion, everybody grumbling under his breath. The functionary bellowed out (in a voice I thought was slightly slurred): “Honorable State Deputy and Sir Knights, I present this class for catechetical examination!” There was a weak scattering of applause.

[An inauspicious start but it got worse, far worse, reminding me of my mother’s shrug when initiation came up. “Don’t know about it; don’t want to. Little boys having fun.” She’d revise her statement if she witnessed it. More tomorrow.]

1 comment:

  1. Yep. Thus far, that sounds just like the ritual in which I took part circa 1997. They must have restored the old ritual - which means that, if your grandsons become Knights, they will persumably take part in the same ritual as well.