Serving those who served

| Bridget Ryder | November 4, 2015 | 1 Comment

Knights of Columbus bring the Mass to Minnesota veterans

Michael Gigot of St. Helena in Minneapolis talks with residents of the Minnesota Veterans Home Oct. 24 as they prepare for Mass. Gigot and other members of the Knights of Columbus Bloomington Marian Council visit with residents and attend Mass with them every Saturday. “It wouldn’t be Saturday morning to me without this,” said Gigot, who has been attending the Mass for 12 years and leads music. “I have unfathomable respect for people who stood in the line of fire for the freedoms we enjoy.” Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Michael Gigot of St. Helena in Minneapolis talks with residents of the Minnesota Veterans Home Oct. 24 as they prepare for Mass. Gigot and other members of the Knights of Columbus Bloomington Marian Council visit with residents and attend Mass with them every Saturday. “It wouldn’t be Saturday morning to me without this,” said Gigot, who has been attending the Mass for 12 years and leads music. “I have unfathomable respect for people who stood in the line of fire for the freedoms we enjoy.” Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Each week, Joe Novak and fellow Knights of Columbus get an early start on their Saturday morning. At 8 a.m., a dozen of them are already sitting down for breakfast at the Cardinal Restaurant in south Minneapolis. By 9 a.m., they’re on their way to the nearby Minnesota Veterans Home to prepare for 10 a.m. Mass.

Most in the group of Knights are veterans themselves, and they’ve been organizing the weekly Mass for their fellow veterans for more than 20 years. They see it as another way they can continue to serve.

“We took it on to exemplify patriotism and to help the vets for what they gave us,” said Novak, who organizes the Masses. “They fought for our freedoms, and one of those is freedom of religion.”

Novak is a parishioner of Assumption in Richfield and a member of the Bloomington Marian Council No. 3827, which includes six parishes in Bloomington, Richfield, Edina and south Minneapolis. At the request of one of Novak’s friends, the council took over responsibility for the Mass from another volunteer group in 1998.

Archbishop Harry Flynn gave a dispensation for the veterans at the home, allowing them to fulfill their Sunday obligation on Saturday morning. It is the earliest anticipatory Mass in the country, according to Novak, though the volunteers are still obligated to attend Mass on Saturday evening or Sunday. Saturday morning proved the only time consistently possible to organize the liturgy.

“It takes a whole group to set up this thing,” Novak said.

Well-coordinated effort

The Knights’ weekly presence is essential to providing community and spirituality for veterans, their families and their fellow Knights.

About a dozen Knights pitch in every week. They function like a well-trained platoon to transform the Veterans Home’s community room into a Catholic chapel. Each Knight has a specific job: setting up chairs, preparing the altar, pouring cups of water to help the veterans swallow the Eucharist, playing the keyboard or bringing residents from their rooms. They also keep the tabernacle and the vestments stored in the meditation room of the Veterans Home in good repair.

Soliciting the help of their parish priests, they have a rotation of celebrants who also hear confessions and administer the anointing of the sick every six to nine months. Novak acts as the point person to find a priest to minister to the Catholic veterans when they’re dying.

On one particular Saturday, dressed in his alb and stole, Deacon John Mangan leads the alleluia during Mass. His voice is rich and full despite the lingering effects of a stroke. Like many of the other veterans around him, he uses a wheelchair.

In 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Deacon Mangan was in the Caribbean preparing to lead a landing force in an assault on the island. It was a decisive moment not only in history, but also in his personal life.

“I said that when I get out, I’ll serve the Church,” he recalled.

A half-hour before the slated launch time, the attack was called off, as President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev came to an agreement that ended the nuclear crisis. Mangan, too, made good on his promise. He became a permanent deacon and for 21 years served as the chaplain for the Veterans Home, where, at age 74, he is now a resident.

“I asked the archbishop if I could serve here because I was a Navy vet, and I could understand their needs,” he said.

Joe Schepers, a veteran and now a Knight with the Bloomington Marian Council, watched the Knights in action during his 34-year career as a certified nursing assistant at the Veterans Home. He retired in 2014, but even before retiring he had started volunteering on his weekends off.

“I definitely notice its effects on their [veterans’] longevity and motivation,” he said. “I don’t think we know how important [faith] is for being able to continue their journey and being at an optimum at their station in life.”

‘Tremendous graces’

Approximately 35 residents attend on a weekly basis. Physically bringing the residents to Mass is one of the most important aspects of their work. Novak has a roster of Catholic residents whom the Knights find and bring to the community room with help from the home’s staff. He also keeps a list of residents who attend each week because family members follow up to make sure their beloved veteran is getting to Mass.

Many of the veterans have a spouse or family member who attends the liturgy with them. However, given the Minneapolis Veterans Home is the largest in Minnesota, a number of spouses, often elderly themselves, live outside the metro area and aren’t able to come every Saturday. Without the Knights working with the home’s staff, some veterans wouldn’t make it to Mass. A few non-Catholic residents also come simply because they enjoy it.

Joni Kuehnel and Judy Laube attend Mass every week with their husbands.

“It’s been very important,” Kuehnel said of the Mass, her eyes tearing up. “I love being able to take Mark to Mass every Saturday.”

The two women knew each other through business before their husbands moved to the Veterans Home. Besides continuing the weekly spiritual ritual with their spouses, the women reconnect with each other over coffee and cookies after Mass. The commissary provides the refreshments so that, just as in many parishes, a short social time follows Mass.

“I think it’s absolutely wonderful how these men give up their Saturday morning and bring residents down who couldn’t come down themselves,” Laube said of the Knights.

Though the men know their role is important, they don’t see their service as a much of a sacrifice.

“If it weren’t for the Knights, it wouldn’t be such a success,” Schepers said. “I became a part of this group because we get tremendous graces from bringing the residents down to holy Mass.”

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  • Charles C.

    Joe Novak is a self-sacrificing hero. I can’t praise him enough. A cheerful, yet persistent fellow he is a model for many, myself included. My few years working on that project were amazing, in that every Sunday we could see more and more love and happiness.

    At the local level, the Knights of Columbus are often examples of what a Catholic man should be. Joy, companionship, Catholic service, and the support of men dealing with the issues men face.

    Seriously, please consider exploring your local Knights of Columbus council. There are men there you should really get to know. You only have to plant a very small seed of participation and will reap huge rewards.