Serving the Church in the Holy Land   2009/09/10
By: Jennifer Brinker of St. Louis Review

You might have seen them at special events in the archdiocese wearing their flowing capes — the men wearing felt berets and the women fine lace mantillas.

But who are they, and what do they represent in the Church?

They are Knights and Ladies of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a sacred Catholic order, including both laity and clergy, with direct ties to the Vatican. Their purpose: to preserve and promote the Christian presence in the Holy Land.

Members are invested into the organization by recommendation from their local pastor and ordinary, which ultimately is approved by the grand prior, an appointed bishop who represents the Vatican in an administrative function, and then Rome. 

“People may think that we’re into preserving the buildings and monuments, and those are important, but really our purpose is to sustain and support the Christian community there,” said George Zirnhelt, lieutenant of the order’s Northern Lieutenancy in the United States, which is composed of eight states, including Missouri. “That is the birthplace of our faith. If we can’t survive there, we’re in trouble.”

The Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre will convene in St. Louis Sept. 18-21 for the annual meeting of the Northern Lieutenancy. A highlight of the meeting is the investiture of new members and promotion of existing Knights and Ladies. The meeting will include general business, speakers and time for prayer, eucharistic adoration, Reconciliation and Mass. The meeting was last held in St. Louis in 2002.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann, a former St. Louis auxiliary bishop now heading the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kan., is grand prior for the Northern Lieutenancy. He explained: “The Holy Land is so important to us as Christians. It’s the physical place where Jesus took on flesh and lived and worked and died and rose.

That land is very special to us ... but even more important than that is to preserve the Christian presence and Christian community in the Holy Land.”

The order dates back more than 900 years during the time of the First Crusade. Crusade commander Godfrey de Bouillon led the Christian liberation of Jerusalem. As part of his operations, he founded the Order of Canons of the Holy Sepulchre.

In 1847, when the Latin patriarchate was restored, Pope Pius IX issued a new constitution for the order, which placed it under the direct protection of the Vatican and placed its government with the Latin patriarch.

From then on, the purpose has been to “uphold the works of the Latin patriarchate of Jerusalem, whilst preserving the spiritual duty of propagating the Faith,” according to the Vatican.

Zirnhelt noted that Christians living in the Holy Land today “are caught in the middle” between the conflict among Jews and Muslims.

One of the many efforts of the order, he said, is to promote Christian education in the area. Any monetary support for efforts in the Holy Land is directed through the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, currently Fouad Twal of Jordan.

“Only about 2 percent of the Palestinian population is Catholic, but about 14 percent of the Palestinian leadership is Catholic,” said Zirnhelt. “That number is increasing because of the education. We see increasing prospects for peace and stability because we’re having some impact.”

In 1996, Pope John Paul II enhanced the order’s status to that of a public association of the faithful.

According to the Vatican, there currently are about 23,000 members worldwide. In the St. Louis Archdiocese, there are about 300 members, which includes laypeople as well as priests.

Nancy Ross, a member of Annunziata  Parish in Ladue, said that besides financial and spiritual support of the Holy Land, members also are encouraged to make a pilgrimage there at least once in their lives. She and her husband, Don, were invested into the order in 2000.

“It’s a very enriching part of the experience,” said Nancy Ross, who serves as secretary for the Northern Lieutenancy and is an area councillor for St. Louis with her husband. Christ “brought Christianity to the world, and that is the basis of our religion. For Christians (in the Holy Land), if we can help at least one or two people, I think it’s worth it. They know that we are there and praying for them constantly.”

Vince Shaw, who was invested in 1984 and served as a past lieutenant, has been to the Holy Land several times, “and each time it has even more meaning. The importance of what our work is over there with the Christian presence becomes much more clear.” Shaw and his wife, Judy, who was invested in 1989, are members of Ste. Genevieve du Bois Parish in Warson Woods.

Mary Anne Sansone, who was invested in the order in 1986 with her husband, Anthony Sr., noted that she immediately “found (the organization) to be of a very spiritual nature.”

Sansone made history when, in 1998, she became the first Lady from the United States to serve on the Grand Magisterium, the main governing body of the Order. The current Grand Master is Cardinal John Patrick Foley. 

“It’s almost like a spiritual retreat when we are at our meetings,” said the member of Ste. Genevieve du Bois. Eucharistic adoration is an important part of those meetings, too. “There is also fellowship, and there are wonderful people that we have met and become friends with.”

Besides the annual meeting, Knights and Ladies in the Archdiocese of St. Louis participate in a number of other activities, including an annual holy hour, a lecture, and a Mass to celebrate the feast of Our Lady Queen of Palestine. Members also are present at other special events. 

Cathy Inkley, who with her husband, Jack, was invested in 2003, said that there are “a lot of people in St. Louis who belong to (the Order). It’s wonderful to get together with others and share and pray for peace.

“If we can have peace in the Holy Land, I think we can have peace throughout the world,” said the member of St. Anselm Parish in Creve Coeur, who is serving with her husband as chairpersons of this year’s meeting.

Darryl Ross explained that “it’s just an honor to know what monies we give, what events we hold and the camaraderie of our fellow members is there to protect the Holy Land.” Ross and his wife, Ellen, members of St. Joseph Parish in Clayton, were invested in 2005.

Such efforts “gives more credence to importance of the Holy Land for all,” said Msgr. Eugene Morris, pastor of St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Brentwood, who was invested in 2004.

“The defense and support of the Holy Land is rooted in that spiritual reality that this is the place of the Lord — those holy places where our Lord suffered and died. It also is a celebration of what it is that we believe and the power of God that continues to compel and motivate us” as Catholics.

here are several websites with more information on the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. They include:


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