Interview with Jeff Stark of the Knights of Columbus

The Knights of Columbus was created in the early 1800’s as an aid society and auxiliary to the Catholic Church. The group‘s purpose is to aid the underprivileged, poor and needy. Its longevity is due in part to dedicated people like Jeff Stark, a lifelong tradesman and union worker, who gives of himself by lending his organizational and people skills as Grand Knight in the Knights of Columbus Amsterdam Council 209. He is also a business manager for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades DC 9.

Towne: How long have you been in the Knights of Columbus?

Stark: Since I was 18 years old. For 41 years. My uncle Fred Sandy, my uncle Moe Sandy were my mentors. They asked me to become a knight and probably for the first 10 or 11 years they even paid my dues. And they used to bring me bowling on their team and they would pay for my bowling. After I got married and I had a job I asked if I could finally start paying my dues. And, like everything else, I kind of kept my dues and up, but I really wasn’t a Knight of Columbus. I was a knight, but I didn’t go to the meetings, I didn’t participate because I was busy with my family.

But then a few years back a letter came in the mail, and they were going to honor my uncle Fred, who passed away. Me and my wife went to the dinner and the Grand Knight at the time, said, “now that you have enjoyed a beautiful meal, I would like to see you at a meeting.” So I became involved again.

First I became Faithful Navigator and I was asked to lead the Knights and I agreed only if I could take a shot at rebuilding the Knights. That meant buying a building…We had a committee and I looked at properties that were for sale and [193 West Main] seemed be a perfect fit. It was used for several things; it used to be the St. Mary’s Club at one time. And we found it and we had to do a lot of things to get it back usable and we’re still working on it. And we took what little money we had and invested in it. The old Knights used to have bingo to support itself, and our membership was dwindling. Now our membership is starting to come back. We’ve gotten, since January, 14 new members.

While it is a male, Catholic organization, that is you have to be a practical Catholic and a male to join, we do have a women’s auxiliary and it is run by Denise Conti and Denise is just a workaholic. And the girls have their own activities and they assist us, so it is going to make the faith community much, much better.

Towne: What does your faith mean for you and your family?

Stark: Well, it keeps me grounded. For me personally, it keeps me above the far-reaching political aspects of conservatism or liberalism. I don’t ascribe to that. I really try to live my life to do what Jesus said, and that is to feed people and clothe people and to make life better, and to leave this world a better place than you found it. I wasn’t always like that until about 30 years ago when my first child was born. And when I hugged her for the first time I remember crying because, you know, I was 28 years old and you don’t believe anything for that short period of time… Because first you go to school, you go to catechism, you go to church, and there’s always that short period of time, for most kids, when they begin to grow up and they find out what life is about and they stray from Catholic principles. Most kids don’t believe much of anything. And so, for me, [the birth of my daughter] was a defining moment; I would try to be better for my family. So I’ve been blessed: I have a good wife, she’s been a wonderful mother. I have four wonderful children. I have grandchildren now…I’ve done well.

Towne: Would you say your faith helps you in your work?

Stark: Yes, I really see that what I do as one of my missions. I don’t like to talk about it too much because, for instance, even to this day I don’t consider myself the best Catholic to lead the Knights of Columbus, because so many of the knights in my organization are so much more pious than I am. But, I also believe that I was asked lead the Knights at a very critical juncture, and that the skills that I have learned in life, which is organization, promotion, and being able to track people into the union, I think that goes hand in hand with what my mission is for the Knights.

Towne: What can you tell me about the upcoming Feast of Assumption?

Stark: It is a very important time of the year for Catholics. Devotion to Mary goes back centuries in the church, and the Knights have a special connection to Mary, and a special devotion to our Lady. Mary has a number of titles: mother of God, Queen of heaven, Star of the Sea; emphasizing that she is the Guiding Star, and she is also the Mother of Sorrows. So, when we picked our theme for how to process Mary through the streets, we came up with some stuff that celebrates our heritage here in Amsterdam. We have kind of blended it together, because in the Polish traditions, Mary is also the mother of flowers. In certain instances the community would bless flowers or herbs around the statue of Mary, and a tradition that you might see down in New York City or in Italy, for instance, Mary has a shawl with ribbons which they pin money onto, which is more of the Catholic Italian tradition. So, what we’ve done for our procession is, we are going to blend those. We are going to have a 4 foot statue of Mary with a cloak, decorated with flowers [donated by Paul Damiano] who has been a great knight for a number of years and a big supporter of the community. In fact, I am painting Mary this weekend and then she’s going to go to Paul and he will decorate it with flowers and we have asked some children from the Christian ministries to be in our procession, so they could carry flowers and down the procession we will have Knights in Regalia; we will have members of the Holy Name societies, plus he will have a priest, hopefully, more than one priest.

And as we process Mary down the street you will be able to pin money on her. When we get to the festival you will have the blessing of the crowd, the blessing of the festival, a blessing on the statue of flowers. We will have a canopy for Mary and hopefully we will have enough Knights that we can have an honor guard around her. Any money that we can collect will go to support Dr. Tom Catena, who is doing ministry over there in the Sudan. The money usually goes to charity or to the church but we think that this is a great cause, I mean he is healing the sick. What greater ministry can you have?

Towne: Tell me about what will happen at the festival

Stark: It is going to go from 12 noon to 7 pm. It’s going to be a block party. We are going to have sausage and peppers, pizza from Marcellino’s , and we are going to be able to sell beer. We are going to have some games of chance, a lot of games for kids. We will have a tent up so that people can get under it and get out of the hot sun. And we are going to block the street off, just like in the old days. That’s what we’re going to do. We are going to have a party; were going to have a good time. I have some special people helping me: Dominic Megna; he’s going to open the festival. You might know this girl, Shelby Wadsworth, she sings out at the shrine. She’s got a beautiful voice and she’s going to come and do 40 minutes for us. Then, we have Med Rock, which are the doctors, they are going to come and show off their talents. They will be playing in and out all through the day. Then we will have Vic Guilianelli, who heads the hospital, and Pete Capobianco, who used to be the head of the hospital, who both will be appearing as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. And our special guest Louis Velez, who headlined his act in Vegas for several years. They are going to do a tribute to the Rat Pack. That’s going to be a great show.

I think it will be a great time, I just hope the community comes out to support it. We need to make a little bit of money. This is a major fundraiser for us so that we can continue to do our ministries and charitable acts. When I was younger, this council was one of the most active in the entire state. There were over 300 knights and they used to come to everything, and they used to sponsor baseball teams, softball teams, and they raised a lot of money but they spent a lot of money here. So now, we have used most of our bankroll buying and fixing our property [at 193 West Main] in the hopes of turning things around. And so far it is working.

It’s August 15th, which is a holy day of obligation. The procession will probably start around 11:15am, and will probably begin near Post 701 on West Main and will go to our building, and once it is blessed the festival will be open.

Towne: What is your vision for the Knights of Columbus, Council 209?

Stark: Hopefully someday we’ll revive the whole organization. A whole family of Knights going out there. Hopefully they will not be involved in any pettiness or jealousy or judging other people. Hopefully they’ll be there to help humanity, and that is what I see the Knights of Columbus as: protectors of the faith. I think that we are doing good things. Obviously, we have a lot more things to do. We have adopted Catholic education here in St. Mary’s, and the children of St. Mary’s. Last year, we donated some mats, on a matching grant, that they use in gym class that they badly needed…And I’m sure that there will be a young father who gets his kids involved, and it will end up being like the Boy Scouts. We hope that new fathers come in, can bring their sons in early, the young Squires. Kids will be kids: they will stray a little bit, but hopefully they will return to the church and the church will always be stronger for that. I think that in 10 to 15 years the Catholic Church is going to look very different.

Jay Towne

Jay Towne is a resident of Amsterdam, has published six books and is the writer and director of a radio drama, Any Good Thing, that currently airs on WOPG.