Monsignor Xavier Mankel (1935-2017) - for most of my years in Knoxville, the pastor of the next-door parish to mine - died yesterday and will be buried next Tuesday, symbolically concluding a monumental era in the history of the Catholic Church in East Tennessee, a history which one can safely say he knew probably better than anyone else.
Monsignor had been ill and increasingly inactive these past couple of years. But, before that, he was a prominent presence at virtually every event. When I first moved to Knoxville, he was frequently the family's first choice to celebrate - or at least preach at - most of the funerals I was involved in. I can recall many a time sitting with him in the church sacristy, listening to his account of the deceased's life or the deceased's family's story or some other related episode in the local community's history. It seemed as if he knew everybody - and everybody knew him!
We who are members of religious communities move around often. In my almost 22 years of priesthood, I have had three assignments in three very different locations. Others have experienced even more moves in an equivalent amount of time. Whatever the advantages and disadvantages of so much moving around, one clear consequence is that one is unlikely ever to become so thoroughly rooted in a local community as those who were born and bred in a particular place. Monsignor Mankel epitomized that sense of community rootedness and a life-long love for and commitment to a local community that is so socially valuable and that has served both secular society and the Church so well.
Ordained for the diocese of Nashville in 1961, Monsignor Mankel became one of the "founding fathers" of the new Knoxville diocese when it was created by Pope Saint john Paul II in 1988. As a pastor and diocesan vicar general, he was involved in almost every aspect of local Church life, including Catholic education his commitment to which was especially noteworthy.
He was a great friend to the Paulist Fathers, who first came to Knoxville in 1973 and have since then staffed what was originally his home parish, the church where he was baptized - in the very same baptismal font we still use to this day (after we recovered and restored it several years ago). From the time I arrived to assume the pastoral care of his home parish in 2010, he was consistently supportive and welcoming - a true priestly colleague and a good friend. (The above photo was taken of him at my installation as Immaculate Conception's 24th pastor in October 2010.)
Later that year, there was a breakfast event in support of a local organization, at which various community leaders were present. Monsignor and I were both seated at the head table (he because everyone knew him and he was saying the prayer, I merely because the event was within my parish boundaries). When someone offered to get him breakfast, He asked for some eggs and toast. Soon enough, a waitress walked through the crowded ballroom with a plate full of toast. Seeing her, another priest, sitting at one of the tables with some of his parishioners, asked the waitress if he could have some of the toast. "This is for the priest," she answered. "What am I?" he asked. "You're not THE PRIEST," was the reply.
Indeed,however one recounts his accomplishments and his influence, he was always, above all, THE PRIEST.