By Mark Schmeltzer
Dennis Fitzgerald retired long ago from the Chicago Police Department. But he still has his marching orders—to get the word out about the Knights of Columbus’ Police Council 12173.
His mission takes him to meetings and events throughout the Chicago area, where he speaks with groups about joining the Knights’ only council for Catholic members of law enforcement. This month, the Council will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a dinner-dance at Mayfield Banquets on South Archer Ave. in Chicago.
Most of us who grow up Catholic know something about the Knights of Columbus. Maybe we recall the distinctive regalia worn by its honor guard. Or we think about members trading Tootsie Rolls for donations to its annual Campaign for People with Intellectual Disabilities. And we typically associate them with a particular parish, such as our own. In fact, most of the 15,000-plus local councils that make up the Knights of Columbus around the world are tied to parishes.
But the Police Council’s membership of active and retired law enforcement makes it unique. Members come from all over Chicago and more than 40 surrounding suburbs. At its monthly meetings at the FOP lodge on the city’s near West Side, members propose different causes and charities to support.
Among the many organizations the group supports is the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation, Gold Star Families, Police Chaplains Ministry, NAMI and Blair School. Members organize a variety of fundraising events, such as this month’s dinner dance as well as an annual golf outing. They collect toys for children at the Blair School during the Christmas season. And they, too, hold a Tootsie Roll drive.
Fitzgerald says that members do whatever they can to help the neediest in the community. And while their contributions convince him that “good deeds come in all sizes,” he often tells members, “you should leave these meetings feeling 10 feet tall about the good that you do.”
While the Police Council gives law enforcement professionals opportunities to give back while off duty, it also serves as a kind of support group for members. “You have access to people who have experienced what you have.”
Fitzgerald described a number of unforgettable moments from his 33 years on the force. While working as an officer on the West Side in the late 1960s through the 1990s, Fitzgerald was routinely called into intensely difficult situations. He recalled a six-month stretch in 1969, in which 30 officers were shot in the line of duty. His own partner was shot twice. “Those were challenging times.”
Fitzgerald credited his Catholic faith for strengthening his resolve in the face of adversity on the job. “It’ll test you. It’ll test anybody,” he said.
In 1979, Pope John Paul II’s first visit to the U.S. and to Chicago inspired Fitzgerald to join the Knights of Columbus out of St. Celestine parish in Elmwood Park.
Founded in 1882 by Fr. Michael J. McGivney, the Knights of Columbus is the world’s largest Catholic lay organization with nearly two million members. Its councils provide members and their families with volunteer opportunities in service to the Catholic Church, the community, families, and young people.
In 1998, the Knights founded the first and only Police Council, and thankfully for Fitzgerald, located it in Chicago. In 2014, the now retired officer transferred from St. Celestine to the Police Council. “And I dare say I haven’t missed a meeting since,” he said.
Today, Fitzgerald serves as the Council’s Grand Knight. He spends much of his time, with the encouragement of Council Chaplain Fr. Dan Brandt, recruiting new members. Fitzgerald takes to this task with passion, traveling constantly and meeting with groups all over the area. He views it as a labor of love, and he’s grateful for the support he receives from his wife, noting that his speaking engagements sometimes take him to midnight roll calls at police districts throughout Chicagoland. “When I get involved in something, I put my all into it,” Fitzgerald said.
“I’m not on the clock. I’m not looking at my watch.” And even in social situations, the recruiter in him rarely stops to rest. “I can easily segue into conversation about the Knights of Columbus.” He finds it gratifying when others receive the message and join the group.
In addition to their charitable and fraternal focus, some members are called upon to perform the honor guard at the funerals of fallen police officers. Fitzgerald and Council members did so last month at the funeral of Commander Paul Bauer, a 19-year member of the Police Council, who was shot and killed while attempting to stop an armed suspect in the Loop.
“I like to remind our officers daily or as often as possible that they are doing God’s work,” Fr. Brandt said. “And when they lose their life in the line of duty—whether in a violent act, a heart attack after some event, or an accident—I remind their family that they died doing God’s work. And for that they will be rewarded with, as St. Paul calls it in his letter to Timothy, the crown of righteousness.”
Fitzgerald said that the Council will soon name a special award for selected members in Bauer’s honor.
He also sees members making a difference in the way the public understands the police as well. “We’re all about doing good and spreading the word,” Fitzgerald said. “And I think people see that. They recognize that.”
The Police Council’s 20th anniversary dinner is open to the public. For more information, go to knights12173.com/.
Mark Schmeltzer is a Chicago-based writer
who works in non-profit communications.