From the heart of the heartland Virgil Dechant rose to the highest position in the largest lay organization in the Catholic Church. He was the fourth of twelve children born to Cornel and Ursula Dechant in Antonino, Kansas. While still a young boy the family moved a short ways to Liebenthal, Kansas where his father bought the general store there and ran that for several years. Coming from stout German roots, Virgil grew up in the harsh weather elements of the Kansas plains. The Catholic faith was instilled in him from an early age at St. Joseph's Church in Liebenthal where there was an impressive Catholic population. Just thirty some miles north is the great "Cathedral of the Plains" - St. Fidelis in Victoria, Kansas which rivals many of the great European edifices. But his parish was St. Joseph's in Liebenthal along the dusty County Road 44 off State 183 in a town of less than a couple hundred people and less than 75 families. But that family spirit prevailed for his parents sent him through the parochial school system at tightly-knit St. Joseph's under the steadying influence of the Precious Blood Sisters from Wichita. As was the case with many young men in those times, Virgil felt a possible calling to the priesthood and pursued it at the Pontifical Prep Josephinum Seminary in Worthington, Ohio for three years before realizing God had other plans for him. He returned to Liebenthal for his senior year at St. Joseph's Military Prep (which is now St. Thomas More High) and, after graduating in 1947, enrolled at Salt City Business College in Hutchinson, Kansas. After two years there, he took the First Degree Exemplification in Council 2340 on May 1, 1949 to officially become a Knight of Columbus. Two years later he was elected the Council's Grand Knight.
The year 1951 was a pivotal year for Virgil for not only did he become Grand Knight, but on August 19, 1951 he married Ann Shaeffer, a young lady from La Crosse. Today Virgil and Ann, married for 48 years have four children: Thomas, born in 1952; Daniel, born two years later; Karen, born in 1959 and Robert, the youngest born in 1961.
In 1952 Virgil's leadership skills manifested themselves in his being selected District Deputy, a position he would serve for five years. In 1953 he transferred to Council 2970 in La Crosse, Kansas at St. Michael's Church where he is still a member. In 1955 he became a Fourth Degree Knight and five years later was elected as State Deputy from 1960-62. It was in 1963 that Virgil was placed on the Board of Directors of Supreme Council which led to his becoming Supreme Master of the Fourth Degree and Assistant Supreme Secretary in 1966. The new appointment effected a move from deep in the center of Kansas to the east coast and residency in New Haven, Connecticut, headquarters for the Knights. A year later Virgil was made Supreme Secretary, a position he held under Supreme Knight John William McDevitt. In January 1977, upon McDevitt's retirement, the Board met and elected Virgil as Supreme Knight. For the past 22 years he has been unanimously re-elected by the Board each time his term was up. And why not? Under his leadership the Knights have mushroomed and flourished. There are now over 12,000 Councils in the United States with thousands in Canada as well as the Philippines, Saipan and Guam. During Virgil's term the Knights have expanded rapidly in Central America and the Caribbean.
Besides being the leader of over 1.6 million members, which translates to 6 million with the families, this CEO for the non-profit Knights of Columbus organization takes on the additional responsibility of the safety, security and solvency of the Knights' insurance operation which currently boasts over thirty seven billion dollars in force - the cornerstone of the organization's efforts established by Fr. McGivney. Virgil is responsible for more than seven and a half billion in assets, which include the magnificent KC towers in downtown New Haven. Throughout Virgil's time as CEO the K of C insurance program has received the highest ratings among all insurance companies with the highest of praise from the two standard bearers of the industry watchdogs - A.M. Best and Standard and Poor. In 1998 alone the Knights paid back to their members $196 million in life benefits and over one billion dollars in death benefits. Over the past decade the Knights have donated over one billion dollars to charities and logged over 400 million hours collectively from the membership in giving time to others. Fr. McGivney must be smiling over the caring and help so many are receiving through the efforts of the Knights under the leadership of Virgil Dechant.
Considered one of the last, great bastions of the Roman Catholic Church, the Knights are dedicated to Holy Mother Church from the parish level, where they are the right arm of the pastors, to the Supreme Pontiff. It was the saintly Mother Teresa who proclaimed that the Knights are "the right arm of the Church." She made these remarks during ceremonies in which she became the Order's first recipient of the Gaudium et Spes Award. The Order has been lauded by many presidents, world leaders and all the popes of this century. Pope John Paul II named Virgil a Knight Grand Cross in the Order of Pius IX in 1983, the highest honor that can be granted to a Catholic layman who is not a head of state. Since 1982 Virgil and Ann have been members of the Pontifical Council for the Family, now headed by Cardinal Francis J. Stafford. In 1987 the Holy Father bestowed another tremendous honor on Virgil, giving him the title "Gentleman of His Holiness" in recognition for his significant service to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Ten years later he was afforded another honor when John Paul II named him auditor for the Synod of Bishops for the Synod of the Americas in December 1997 in Rome. He was only one of seven lay people chosen for this special Vatican Synod that concluded in January this year with the Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in America.
Virgil is active in various Boards, serving membership on the Board of Directors of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception which the Knights have contributed much to construct the massive bell tower, and the Catholic University of America. He is a past Board Member of the National Catholic Educational Association and the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio. He has overseen the Knights' contributions to the Holy See in helping fund the renovation of St. Peter's Basilica and the restoration of many invaluable Vatican treasures there. He has received honorary degrees from St. Leo's College in Florida, St. John's University in New York, Providence College in Rhode Island and the Pontifical University of Santo Tomas in Manila.
The Order mandates that all members live their Catholicity and strive to promote evangelization, pro-life, solid Catholic education, and the morals and values demanded by our faith. The Knights of Columbus encourage civic involvement so that Knights are not merely pawns in the great field of participants, but faithful leaders who exemplify the ideals of knighthood in service to God, Family and Country. Leading this vast battalion is the Supreme Commander of all the Knights, a man every Knight and person can emulate - the wise and worthy Virgil Dechant who will lead the Order into the new millennium with new horizons to conquer.
On August 28, 1969 in Pope Paul VI's third Consistory he was honored for his loyalty to the Church with the cardinalate and the titular church of St. Agatha of the Goths. At the same time he was made the Papal Legate for the Patriarchal Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. In 1979 Pope John Paul II elevated him to Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy which he headed until he officially retired in 1986. Since then he has slowed down but never neglecting his priestly vows and prayer life as he lives out what time God still has left for him in retirement praying for the Church he dearly loves.
Lord, You blessed Saint Joseph Calasanz with such charity and patience that he dedicated himself to the formation of Christian youth. As we honor this teacher of wisdom may we follow his example in working for truth.