The Father Vincent S. Sikora Council of the Knights of Columbus

By Mark Sawyer, Jason Hines and other members of the Sikora Council

The Knights of Columbus have been an important part of the life of the Parish beginning in 1982 when a Council was formed at the Church of Nativity.  Originally just called Nativity Council, its name was changed in 1988 to honor one of its early chaplains, Father Vincent S. Sikora.  With about 380 men as members, as of the spring of 2014, the Council is known throughout the State of Virginia as one of the most active in serving the community and in serving its Parish.  This renown has been established by the efforts you will read about in the history that follows.  The current members of the Council are grateful for the efforts of those who came before them.

The Knights of Columbus traces its origin to the inspiration of one priest, Father Michael J. McGivney, a 29-year-old assistant pastor at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Connecticut, who sought a way to help provide for destitute immigrant families of his parish.  Immigrants–and particularly Catholic immigrants–suffered many hardships in 19th century America.  Dangerous working conditions in factories and the lack of a social safety net left many families destitute when the father of the family–the breadwinner–was injured or killed.

Father McGivney’s solution was the creation of a fraternal benefit society that, unlike the Freemasons and other secret societies of the era, would not only provide for the families of deceased members but that would be in line with Church teaching.  As the patron of the new Order, Father McGivney chose the Great Admiral Christopher Columbus, the Catholic discoverer of America, to unite the members under a Catholic symbol and to demonstrate the allegiance of the new Order to the United States.

The newly-formed Knights of Columbus officially assumed corporate status on March 29, 1882.  That day, March 29th, is celebrated as the Founders’ Day.  Since that day, the Knights of Columbus has grown to an organization with over 1.8 million Knights in over 15,000 councils.  Because of their strong charitable work and their support to the Church and local communities, Pope John Paul II referred to the Knights of Columbus as “the strong right arm of the Church.”

The Nativity Council

Nearly 100 years after the founding of the Order, a group of men in Nativity Parish sought to harness the tremendous physical and spiritual energy among the men in the parish family.  At that time, Nativity was itself a new parish, only founded nine years previously.  The men decided that they would form their own Council of the Knights of Columbus, the Council being the basic organization in the organization.  Like Father McGivney, the men believed that in forming this Council, they would be able to add to the spiritual and temporal life of their parish community and of the members themselves.  They received the strong support of Nativity’s Pastor, the Reverend Father Frank Ready.

After several months of preparation, Nativity Council of the Knights of Columbus (Council #7992) was officially instituted on March 29, 1982, the Centennial Founders’ Day of the Order.  The Virginia State Council and the Springfield Council each donated $100 to get the Nativity Council started.  The Mount Vernon Council also played an important role in this effort.  The officers were installed a week later on April 6, 1982, following a Mass by the Council’s first Chaplain, Father Ready. Brother Clarence “Frenchy” Cyr was the first Grand Knight of Nativity Council.  District Deputy Jeremiah Moher conducted the installation.  Columbian dignitaries in attendance that night included State Deputy Michael Bellanca and State Advocate James Foresco.  The State Deputy is in charge of all Councils in his state.

The Nativity Council began with 57 charter Knights, of whom 32 were new members.  The new Council immediately set out to accomplish two goals: increase the Council’s membership by involving more men from Nativity Parish and charity.  The Council’s first charitable endeavor was to raise funds for the Knights of Virginia Assisting the Retarded, or KOVAR as it is more commonly known.  The Council, led by Brother (and later Grand Knight) Bill Morrough, first joined with the Springfield Council in its KOVAR drive, but soon after started its own drive.  That first year’s drive collected $744 after Mass and $1,803 at nearby stores, allowing the Council to give KOVAR a check for $2,348.  Efforts to support Pro-Life work (particularly the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C.) and the Northern Virginia Training Center (a State facility for the developmentally challenged) followed soon after.

Highlights of that first year included the Parish Picnic, a Columbus Day Dinner Dance and an Open House membership drive, which brought in 19 new members, (including a future Grand Knight, Jim Fischl), bringing the Council’s total to 81 Knights by October.  In November 1982, Brothers built a specially designed playground for the 200 handicapped children at the KeySchool on Franconia Road.  In December, the Council hosted the first CCD Teacher Breakfast for the 150 CCD teachers and their spouses to show their appreciation for the men and women who give so much of their time for the children of Nativity Parish.

February of 1983 saw the first blood drive at Nativity sponsored by the Council.  About 50 Brothers and parishioners gave blood, starting what would become a semi-annual event. Other activities, such as a Wives’ Appreciation Dinner, a Knights of Columbus Essay Contest for youth, support to the Confirmation Mass, support to Boy Scouts clothes drives, support to the Usher Program, an Oktoberfest celebration, a Council Golf Tournament, a Family Picnic, and trips to Baltimore (for Orioles games) and to Atlantic City capped the first year.

From the Council’s first year, Brother Knights hosted the Parish’s Annual Picnic.  While there was a tremendous amount of work involved in running the picnic, it served as a way to not only demonstrate the Council’s support for the Parish but it also tied the Council more closely to the individual members of the Parish.

The Nativity Council celebrated its first anniversary at the Saturday Vigil Mass on March 19, 1983.  A wine and cheese social followed the Mass in the Nativity Community Room.  Chaplain Ready opened the social with a prayer and the District Deputy (who is in charge of several Councils), Don Kehoe, presented Grand Knight Frenchy Cyr with the Council’s charter.  Frenchy remarked that the first year had been successful and that the Council was close to recruiting its 100th member.

That first year, the Nativity Council achieved Star Council.  Star Council is awarded by the Supreme Council of the Knights of Columbus (the leadership of the entire Knights of Columbus) in recognition of council activities, total membership and insurance membership gains, and completion of the myriad of paperwork requirements at both State and Supreme level.  Less than ten percent of councils worldwide achieve this award.  The Council would earn the Star Council for nine of the next ten years.

Brother Jim Fischl with winners of the Essay Contest, 1984.
Brother Jim Fischl with winners of the Essay Contest, 1984.

The next eight years were difficult ones financially, as the Council struggled to get a handle on its finances and on securing stable sources of income.  This did not stop the Council’s charitable efforts, which continued to grow, but the financial issues made the work of the officers more challenging.

In 1986, the Council broadened its social offerings and hosted the first annual Hawaiian Luau and the first annual Golf Tournament.

In 1987, the Church of the Nativity was plagued by a series of vandalisms: a statue was stolen from the church grounds and several others were defaced.  In their role of supporting their home Parish, the Brother Knights of the Nativity Council volunteered to set up a “Knight Watch” for several hours on weekend nights, standing guard during the nighttime hours until the vandalism stopped.

The first Art Auction was held on February 28, 1987, bringing in just over $4,000 (and selling over $15,000 worth of art).  The next five years, the Art Auction would bring in an additional $31,000 for charity.  The Art Auction continues to prosper and to raise money for various charities.

The Nativity “Garage Sale” (later renamed the “Yard Sale”) was first held the following year on May 14, 1988 in the Nativity parking lot.  It was an immediate success.  The $7,500 collected (and given to the Parish for the Church Building Fund) made the Garage Sale the largest fundraiser the Council–and the Parish–had ever held.  Unbelievably, the Garage Sale/Yard Sale would continue to grow, and for many years it remained the largest annual fundraiser put on by the Nativity Knights, eclipsed only in recent years by the annual car raffle.

The Council celebrated its 5th Anniversary on June 6, 1987 at Queen of Apostles Church in Alexandria, Virginia.  The celebration was held in conjunction with the annual dinner dance and featured a catered meal, live music, dancing, refreshments, and fellowship.  The Council put together a photo album of the Council families for the event.

That same year, the Council began formally supporting the food program “Lazarus at the Gate.”  Brother Knights volunteered to transport donated food every Friday night to a distribution site in Alexandria, where it was provided to the poor and hungry.  When “Lazarus at the Gate” terminated operations in 1995, this very worthy activity later morphed into the currently running program that supports three “Food for Others” street-side distribution sites.  Through this program, the Council has helped to feed many thousands of needy families in the local area.

Father Vincent Sikora, who the Council is now named after, became the Council Chaplain in October 1988, and he made an immediate, positive impact on the life and spirit of the Council.  He wrote a column for every Council newsletter, and was a constant fixture at Council meetings and around the Parish.  When he died shortly before Christmas in 1989, many in the Council were shaken, and several were motivated to do something in his honor.  Past Grand Knight Bill Morrogh started a group called the “Friends of Father Sikora.”  On the first Friday of each month, they sat for an hour in the middle of the night in quiet contemplation before the Blessed Sacrament in the Chapel, all in Father Sikora’s memory.

The Father Sikora Council

In the January 2, 1990 Council meeting, the first Council meeting after Father Sikora’s death, a motion was passed to explore the requirements for changing the name of the Nativity Council to the Father Sikora Council.  The resolution to change the name of the Council was printed in the March 1990 newsletter, and in the March 20, 1990 Council meeting, the Council voted to change the name.  The Supreme Council approved the name change in June 1990, and the Council officially became the Father Vincent S. Sikora Council.  Since the name change, the Council has continued to honor the memory of Father Sikora every December (near the anniversary of his death on December 16th) to say a rosary at his gravesite.

The most apt description of Father Sikora is found in the summary of his life prepared by the Council in their application to the Supreme Council for the name change:

“Father Sikora was a simple, humble, common servant of God.  He excelled, but never raised himself in glory.  He would not accept praise, only being the tool of God.  He would not accept money for personal use, only giving it away to someone in greater need.  He would not show anger or resentment, only the acceptance of the will of God in gladness.  He would replace frustration with humor. He radiated the love and joy of God to whomever he touched.  He was always present when people needed counseling, comfort, and love.  He did not talk about himself.  People do not know of Father Sikora’s many accomplishments; they only remember the love that he gave.  Father Sikora was an example for all of us.  As with all of us, he had weaknesses and the distractions of the world.  But he rose above them all with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and being in favor with all the people.”

In August 1991, our first Grand Knight (and beloved friend of everyone in the Council) Frenchy Cyr became ill, and he passed away on August 15 (fittingly, knowing his great devotion to Mary, the Feast Day of the Assumption).

The Council celebrated its tenth anniversary on June 13, 1992 with a dinner dance at the Hawkins-Reeve Post 7916 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Occoquan.  The previous Grand Knights attended and each was presented with his Past Grand Knight jewel (the Council had been unable to purchase the Jewels before this).  The Council itself was also honored, with all five of the State Officers making an appearance at the celebration, including the newly-elected State Deputy, the Council’s own Frank Loughney.

Installation of Officers, 1992
Installation of Officers, 1992

Five short years later on Saturday, April 12th 1997, the Council celebrated its 15th Anniversary with a Mass, a short program recognizing our Charter Members, followed by dinner and dancing.

In 2001, led by Brother Bob Corsi, the Council began one of its most ambitious community outreach programs: Appalachia Home Building. Partnering with the Appalachian Construction Crew, Inc., a Christian non-profit organization based out of Omaha, Nebraska, and with the Good Shepherd Catholic Church of Whitley City, KY, the program builds houses for needy families in McCreary County, KY, one of the poorest counties in the nation. Since 2001, the Council has completed 14 houses. The program was a huge success for both the Council and the Parish from the start. It received strong support from the Pastor, Father Richard Martin, both in direct Parish donations and allowing the Council to collect funds from the Parishioners. The families that received the houses were given a new lease on life and were grateful for the assistance. More information on the Home Building program are in the Chapter following.

The Council celebrated its 20th Anniversary with a Gala Party at the Fairfax Country Club on April 6th, 2002.

In the wake of the destruction following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Council wanted to find some way to help those impacted by the tragedy. Under the direction of Grand Knight BJ Dysart, it chose to raise funds for two Catholic elementary schools in Pascagoula, Mississippi. For one of these schools, the Council also built 50 “cubby” cabinets for their flooded classrooms. The project brought together Brother Knights from four Councils in District 14, as well as Brother Knights from two councils in Pascagoula. The project was ultimately selected for that year’s State Council’s Community Activity Award as the best project in Virginia. The Council was happy that it could make some small contribution to the revival of the Catholic schools on the Gulf Coast.

Grand Knight Tom Snee and Karen Snee at the 25th Anniversary Celebration.
Grand Knight Tom Snee and Karen Snee at the 25th Anniversary Celebration.

In 2012, the Council celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Council and the 130th anniversary of the Order with a joint Founder’s Day Mass with the 4th Degree Monsignor Bradican Assembly.

Over its 32 year history, the Father Sikora Council has tried to live in the fullest way the virtues of Jesus Christ, helping the poor and disadvantaged both here in the Parish and within the broader community, to build bonds of Christian brotherhood among the men of the Parish, and to set an example for others to follow.  To most effectively gauge the impact that the Council has had not only on the life of the Parish but also on the lives of those in the broader community, it is perhaps best to view some of those activities that the Council has supported over the years as seen through our four primary principles.

Our First Principle:Charity

Charity is the sweet and holy bond which links the soul with its Creator: it binds God with man and man with God.
– Saint Catherine of Siena

Jesus taught us to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”  Knights of Columbus try to live that lesson every day through good works that help others.  Charity is the first principle of the Knights of Columbus, and the Father Sikora Council has focused most intently and enthusiastically on Charity since the founding of the Council.  Whether it is through raising money for worthy causes or distributing food to the hungry, the Brother Knights of the Father Sikora Council are out every day helping to make the world a more loving place.  In the pages following, we’ll explore a few of the ways in which the Council has focused on charity.

KOVAR – The “Tootsie Roll Guys”

KOVAR is an organization that assists persons with intellectual disabilities.  Its name originally was an acronym for the “Knights of Virginia Assisting the Retarded.”  Among all the work Knights do, almost none is more useful, more productive, and more rewarding than the work we do for the intellectually disabled of the state of Virginia.  We are proud of the fact the Knights of Columbus is the second largest contributor of financial assistance to the intellectually disabled in Virginia; the only source providing more funds is the Commonwealth of Virginia itself.  When we get to Tootsie Roll Weekend, it is tremendous to see the strong participation by Brother Knights serving as Site Captains, money counters and those asking for donations and passing out Tootsie Rolls.  Even in those years when money was tight for those in the community, our undaunted warriors were out there in the cold, rain and sleet, collecting money.  In the 32 years we have been raising funds for KOVAR, we have raised well over $100,000 for KOVAR; in the first ten years of the Council’s existence, we raised over $50,000.

Appalachia Home Building

Led by Brother Bob Corsi, the Father Sikora Council partnered in 2001 with the Appalachian Construction Crew Inc., a Christian non-profit organization based out of Omaha, Nebraska.  The Crew works primarily in McCreary County, KY, which with more than 50% of the County’s children living in poverty, has been classified by the Children’s Defense Fund as one of the poorest counties in the nation.  The Good Shepherd Catholic Church of Whitley City, KY, selects the family and has successfully placed the neediest families in new homes.  The families have typically participated in the building effort if they are able.  There is no formal agreement between the Church and family; as long as the family owns the land, the home belongs to them from day one.

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Many of the families have been on a waiting list for years and live in deplorable conditions.  Some have been homeless due to being burned out of their homes and are living with relatives; others are in homes that can’t be heated adequately and with family members whose chronic medical conditions are complicated by living conditions. Some are in homes with no indoor plumbing, and most are on disability, receiving less than $8,000 per year.  These families can barely pay for food and utilities, much less pay a mortgage or rent.  For most, this program is their only hope.

The Omaha Crew had been facing serious financial and manpower challenges before the Father Sikora Council began teaming with them. From 2001 to 2004, the Council and Nativity Parish provided an average of $5,000 to $7,000 and five Brothers to support the build efforts.

In 2004, the Council asked the Pastor, Father Martin for his support in involving the congregation in the fund-raising effort.  Father Martin enthusiastically gave his support and the Council addressed the congregation for the first time in 2005, raising $25,000 that year.  Since 2005, the Council has a designated weekend in January to explain the building effort and seeks the congregation’s support.  Nativity Parish has now embraced the Council’s Appalachia Building Project as one of their major outreach programs.  Nativity Parish and the Council now provide on average over 80% of the funding and crew-members for the entire building effort.  As a result of the congregations’ support, corporate donations, and Council support to cover the costs for the Council Crew, the Council set all records in 2013 and raised over $49,000.  Nativity sends a crew of 14-16 dedicated volunteers who give up 1 to 2 weeks of their time to complete the build effort.  Many of the volunteers have participated in at least 7 building efforts since 2001. Since Nativity Parish began participating, over $326,000 has been raised to support the build effort.

Omaha raises an additional $13,000.  They also sponsor a crew from 9-12 members that includes a support crew of two to help feed the entire Crew.  The Omaha Crew comes from volunteers in Colorado, Ohio, and Maryland. As with the Nativity Crew, these are very dedicated volunteers with several years of experience with the Crew.

As of 2013, the Council had participated in building 14 homes.  The cost for a home is currently about $49,000 and continues to escalate as the county incorporates more stringent building codes.  Costs are highly dependent on site conditions, availability of a septic system, and if appliances are provided by the home owner.  To help meet the need for appliances and furnishings for the past several years  a Brother Knight and his wife organize an effort by 20-40 families and friends of Nativity Parish to provide new/gently used household items and furniture to help the families transition to their new home.

Whitley City, Kentucky is located in the heart of Appalachia and approximately 570 miles or 11-hour drive from Burke, Virginia.   For a nominal fee, the entire crew is housed in a mission-like facility named St Joseph’s Inn that supports community-wide efforts and houses many volunteer groups.

Each yearly project involves constructing a 1,000 square foot home, with 3 bedrooms and 1 bath, over a 12-day period.  The goal is to complete the plumbing, electrical, sheetrock, kitchen cabinets, and interior painting work and get the home to a point where it could be occupied; local craftsmen complete the septic system, finished plumbing and electrical requirements.

The Crew works 12+hour days starting at 6:00 AM on site to complete the effort in temperatures that fluctuate from the low to mid 80s.  The building site is normally 16-20 miles from the Inn and normally located in the hills surrounding Whitley City. The entire Crew is en route at 5:30 AM each morning to the build site.  The Council provides the leadership on all three crews:  framing/roofing, siding, and porch/support.  The Council Crew and the Omaha Crew form a seamless team to complete the effort.  In advance of the team, the Church contracts for a handyman to ready the foundation for the team before their arrival.

With a completed house
With a completed house

On day five of our first week, we invite the family over to St Joseph’s Inn where the Crew stays.  The Crew hosts a dinner for the family, relatives, and Church leadership. The presentation of the keys is always an emotional time for both the family and the Crew.  You have to appreciate that the hill people are normally very reserved with outsiders.  In addition, we tell the family about all of the household items that were donated by the Nativity families and friends.  Literally, the family is provided new items for every room of the new home to include food items and toys for the kids.

The Knights of Nativity and their Omaha partners start planning in the fall of each year for their next deployment in the following June.

Our focus on Charity

We raise money to give it away.  With only three significant fund raisers each year (Parish Yard Sale, Art Auction, and Car Raffle), our contributions to the parish, charities, individuals and State and Supreme programs probably has easily exceeded the quarter of a million dollar mark over the past 32 years.

Let each one of us remember: the compass always points towards charity.

Our Second Principle:
Unity

He alone loves the Creator perfectly who manifests a pure love for his neighbor.
-Saint Bede the Venerable

Our second principle is Unity.  Our strength comes from the individual Knights, their spouses, and their families, all working together.  We accomplish more by working together than we ever could by working individually.

Listing all of the activities the Council has carried out over the last 32 years or a list of the officers of the Council would give a good indication of the level of energy in the Council.  Such lists, however, would not give the full picture.  Many Knights who do not desire to be officers are always present to help with KOVAR, or to feed the hungry every Friday at Food for Others, to transport senior citizens to Mass, man the kitchen at St. Patrick Dinner, work at the garage sale, hold out a hand to the handicapped or mentally challenged, or provide refreshments after Mass every Sunday.

Through positive action, we support Pro-Life, CCD, and ushers ministry both in our own parish and at the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.  We support Catholic Scouting, youth basketball, vocations, and so many other parish activities.  When you look at nearly every aspect of Parish life, you will find Knights volunteering their time and experience, their enthusiasm and their faith to help further the faith and to make the Parish a better place to worship.

Events such as the annual family picnic, the Feast of San Gennaro at 3 Fox Vineyard, the Wives’ Appreciation Evenings, bring the various families in the Council together.

The Father Sikora Council is not just a highly effective team, it is also a very strong family whose members support each other and can rely on each other.

Our Third Principle:
Fraternity

He who trusts himself is lost. He who trusts in God can do all things.
- Saint Alphonsus Liguori

Fraternity is our third principle. Life insurance tends to be the most recognizable aspect of the principle of fraternity at work in the Order, ensuring that the material lives of our Brother families are taken care of in illness and death. It was the reason that Father McGivney first created the Knights of Columbus, to aid those families in distress. But insurance is not the only way we help our Brother Knights. Following are just a few of those ways.

Scholarships

The Council endowed two scholarships to support children in the Parish. The Frenchy Cyr Scholarship, named after our Charter Grand Knight, and the Cathy Davis Scholarship, named after the deceased wife of Past Grand Knight Bob Davis, award money each year to outstanding high school students attending Catholic high schools. The Council continues to contribute over $10,000 in scholarships every year.

Outstanding Young Man and Woman of the Year

Each year, the Council votes to decide vote on the Outstanding Young Man and Young Woman of the Year. The winners are given a $50 savings bond and a plaque to commemorate their achievement. The winners then go on to compete at the state level.

Sikora Council Essay Contest

The Council has also sponsored an annual essay contest for the Parish for youth in grades 5-8 and grades 9-12. The essay topic for the Council’s first contest in 1983 was “What Being a Catholic Means to Me.” The topics for the following years continued to be pertinent to the spiritual and physical lives of our parish youth. The Youth Committee chooses the winners, who each receive a $50 savings bond and who then go on to compete at the District level.

Our Fourth Principle:
Patriotism

The nation doesn’t simply need what we have. It needs what we are. -St. Teresia Benedicta (Edith Stein)

While the Knights of Columbus is now a worldwide organization with many Brother Knights coming from brother organizations in many nations, it began as an American organization.  In the early years of the order, many Brother Knights called for the creation of a patriotic degree to show their fellow Americans that Catholic immigrants can be good Catholics and good citizens, and in 1900, the first Fourth Degree exemplification was held.

Thus the Fourth Principle of the Knights of Columbus is patriotism, and for that reason, the Fourth Degree of the Knights is called the “Patriotic Degree.”  Members of the Fourth Degree are referred to as “Sir Knight.”  Many Knights in the Father Sikora Council have made the commitment to the Order and the Faith by becoming members of the Fourth Degree.

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One significant way that Fourth Degree Sir Knights support the Council, the Parish, and the broader Catholic Community is through the Fourth Degree Color Corps. With their distinctive cape, sword, and chapeau, the Sir Knights of the Color Corps represent the Knights of Columbus at religious events such as national and diocesan-wide events at the National Basilica and patriotic events such as the Fourth of July parade in Fairfax.

A key event for the Fourth Degree is the annual flag retirement ceremony hosted by the Father Sikora Council in partnership with the Monsignor Bradican Assembly (the Fourth Degree organization equivalent to a Council) and the Holy Spirit Council. The ceremony serves several purposes: first and foremost, to retire worn and tattered flags with honor and dignity. The ceremony also honors the nation’s veterans, to thank them for the sacrifices they have made for our country and our freedom, and to honor those dedicated to public service– First Responders: Law Enforcement Agencies, Firefighters, and EMRs. The Fourth Degree Color Corps officiates at the ceremony, which is crafted to serve as a moving tribute to our nation’s flag and to all the high ideals that it, and the Knights of Columbus, embodies.

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