Virgil C. Dechant, the past supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest fraternal service organization, died Sunday, February 16, 2020, at his home in Leawood, Kansas. He was 89.
A native Kansan, Dechant and his family moved to Connecticut in 1967 so he could work for the Knights of Columbus full-time at its New Haven headquarters. He was soon appointed supreme secretary, and in January 1977 he was elected supreme knight, succeeding Dr. John W. McDevitt.
It was a post he would hold until 2000, making him the longest-tenured supreme knight in the Order’s 138-year history.
During his two-plus decades of leadership, the Knights of Columbus achieved unprecedented success: the Order added more than 5,000 councils, membership rose to more than 1.6 million, and the Knights’ assets grew by more than 1,000 percent.
Known by colleagues as a hands-on executive, Dechant acquired his business savvy on the plains of Kansas, where he began a business career as a farmer and automotive and implement dealer following graduation from the St. Joseph Military Academy in Hays, KS, known today as Thomas More Prep-Marian High School. Also in Kansas, Dechant met and married the former Ann Schafer, who had been raised on a family farm.
Widely regarded as one of the world’s most influential Catholic lay leaders, Dechant focused his Knights of Columbus administration on family life, Catholic education, religious vocations, and assistance to the Holy See. His vision was for the Knights to assist the church quietly in its efforts to evangelize.
Among numerous honors, Dechant held 16 honorary degrees and was named a Knight of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a Knight of St. Gregory the Great, a Knight Grand Cross in the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, and a Knight Grand Cross in the Order of Pius IX, the highest honor granted to a Catholic layman who is not a head of state. At the time of his death, Dechant was serving as a Consiglieri to the Vatican City State.
Dechant helped strengthen the Order’s close ties to the papacy. He and his family were received in private audience by Saint John Paul II just three days after his 1978 election as pope, the first of what would be more than 70 personal encounters between the two men over the next two-and-a-half decades. Among many projects for the Holy See, the Knights of Columbus in 1985 underwrote the restoration of the fašade and statuary of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
The pontiff and other church leaders admired Dechant for his dependability, dignity, and discretion.
Dechant served as a Gentiluomo, or “gentleman of His Holiness,” during Saint John Paul II’s 2005 funeral at St. Peter’s Basilica, where he escorted U.S. President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura to the service.
In 2012, Dechant received the Gaudium et Spes Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Knights of Columbus, awarded only in special circumstances to individuals of exceptional merit. Dechant joined a list of past recipients that included Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Cardinal John O’Connor, among others.
Dechant was preceded in death by his father Cornel, his mother Ursula, brothers Emerald, Harry, LaVerne, and Donald; and sisters Bernice, Mary Ann, Delores, Rosie, Carol, and Jeanette. He is survived by Ann, his wife of 68 years; their four children: Tom (Maggie) of La Crosse, KS; Dan of Lampe, MO; Karen (Bob Thompson) of Leawood, KS; and Bob (Gina) of Ashburn, VA; 11 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren. Other survivors include his sister Peggy Norris, brother-in-law Francis Haberman, and sisters-in-law Lucy Dechant, Leola Gottschalk, and Karen Depperschmidt.
A Mass of Christian burial will be celebrated at Church of the Nativity in Leawood, KS on Saturday, February 22, at 11 a.m. The visitation will be held at Church of the Nativity Friday, February 21, from 5-8 p.m. A rosary is planned for 5 p.m.
A memorial Mass is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. at St. Michael Church in La Crosse, KS on Monday, February 24, followed by interment at the La Crosse Catholic cemetery. A visitation is planned in the hour preceding the memorial in La Crosse.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Virgil C. and Ann L. Dechant Scholarship awards for seminarians at KofC Charitable Giving, 1 Columbus Plaza, New Haven, CT 06510 or at www.kofc.org, or to the K of C Charities Aid Foundation.