Early in 1896, a small group of our Catholic men became interested in the formation of a Council of the Knights of Columbus in Utica. Their interest had been kindled by published accounts of the work of the Order, and was enhanced by a visit from a committee of Albany Council, which then had been only recently organized. Their exposition of the Orders, Aims, and Objects created a very favorable impression. The local men were members of various existing organizations for Catholic men. They recognized and warmly approved the great work accomplished by these societies in their respective spheres, but felt the pressing need for a society organized on broader and more attractive lines-one which had the approval of the church; a society which could appeal to young men as well as old, engage them in activities and keep a continuous hold on their interest. In this spirit, and animated by these high ideals, the founders of Utica Council studied the principles, scanned the history, and learned with approving interest the high accomplishments of the Knights of Columbus wherever it had been established. By distribution of written and printed work, and by earnest personal advocacy among those who at that time seemed especially desirable and eligible as members, this band of pioneers gathered together a charter membership which, in character and numbers, was a credit to their zeal and discretion. They were a mainstay and bulwark to Utica Council. Foremost among the men associated together on this founders’ committee were Rev. James M. Murphy, P.J. O’Reilly, John E. Carberry, and others.
After a number of meetings a charter was applied for, and the new Council was instituted Sunday, September 6, 1896, by Albany Council under the leadership of State Deputy John J. Delany of New York. A large delegation from Troy Council lent their offices in conducting the pilgrims to Knighthood.
The first meeting of the new Council was held on September 23, 1896, and arrangements were made to assist at the institution of Syracuse Council on October 4th. P.J. O’Reilly was elected the first Grand Knight, and the Council, with its fifty-six charter members embarked on what has since proven to be a long and illustrious career.
With the immediate growth in membership, it became necessary to secure larger quarters and in 1899, the first permanent home of the Council was opened in the Seneca Building. The formal opening took place in December 1899, with a smoker for the members and their friends.
In 1902 a special committee was appointed to investigate and report upon the organization known as the Daughters of Isabella, with a view of establishing that Order in Utica. As a result of the work of the Committee, a Court of the Daughters of Isabella, with a charter membership of sixty-nine, was instituted on April 17, 1903. This year also marked another move on the part of the Council for more commodious quarters were secured in the Foster Building and the formal opening took place on August 18, 1903.
From the beginning, The Utica Council was singularly blessed in its choice of Grand Knights, for each possesses exceptional ability, and if the space allotted to the history of this Council would permit, their achievements would be set forth in detail. Without detracting in any way from the accomplishments of any of them, the telling of the story of Utica requires, on occasions, the introduction of the names of Grand Knights who, by reason of their long years of service in that office, are identified with the story itself.
The long and efficient service rendered to Utica Council by Robert E. McCreary, as its Recorder, had its inevitable sequel in his election as the eighth Grand Knight. He served in this office from 1907 through 1916, with the exception of 1909 and 1910, during which time he served as State Secretary.
The Council had shown since its organization in 1896, in each succeeding year through all the intervening administrations, and under circumstances not always auspicious, a steady, healthy growth, not only in membership but in character and influence, as well. Under the leadership of the various Grand Knights, the gain in membership was gratifying, but to Brother McCreary was reserved the distinction of giving to the Council an administration so able, so successful, and so attractive to the benefits and merits of our fraternity, as to more than double the membership during his first regime. During those two years membership increased from 261 to 860, a net gain of 599.
Perhaps the most important act of Brother McCreary’s first administration was the purchase and transformation of the property at 309 Genesee Street. The new home was formally opened to members on Wednesday evening, February 26, 1908. Shortly thereafter the new Auditorium was completed, and on the occasion of its formal opening, the Supreme Knight was the guest of honor. Upon resuming the Grand Knight’s chair again in 1911, Brother McCreary took up the matter of providing a place for Catholic boys and young men with facilities suitable and adequate for their physical and moral betterment. By successive written and verbal appeals he created in the Council a growing sentiment in favor of practical steps to that end. In February 1913, an opportunity arose to purchase the property at 307 Genesee Street, and to sell the premises at 309 to the National Order of the Daughters of Isabella. The deal was carried through and plans and specifications were approved for the remodeling of the house at 307, and erection on the same property of a building for Boys’ Department, in which provisions were also to be made for an Assembly Hall and other needs of the Council.
The formal opening of the new clubhouse at 307 Genesee Street took place on November 11, 1913, at which time Supreme Knight James A. Flaherty was present and the home was blessed by State Chaplain William M. Dwyer.
Brother McCreary was succeeded by Brother Maurice F. Sammons, who held the office for six years, until August 1922, when his business-related relocation to another city forced him to tender his resignation. During Brother Sammons’ regime, many momentous events occurred. In 1916, plans were approved for the erection of a new hall and gymnasium, and at an impressive ceremony on April 12, 1917, the cornerstone was laid by Mayor James D. Smith. A month later, the 22nd Annual State Convention was held in Utica, and the delegates and friends of the Order were greeted with a hospitality which will long be remembered.
From the outbreak of World War I, The Utica Council took a prominent part in the Knights of Columbus War Work. Its club facilities were open to all servicemen and the Council conducted smokers, boxing matches, and various activities which were of keen interest to men way from home, particularly to the servicemen who were training in the Utica War Plant. Utica was also a stopping off place for many trains en route with servicemen. These men were marched to the clubhouse for a shower and a swim, and returned to their trains greatly refreshed. Utica Council took part in Liberty Loan drives and numerous patriotic activities and did its full share at all times in all civic and national emergencies.
On July 29, 1918, the official opening of the new hall and gymnasium was held and the new facilities were opened to the public for inspection. A Council Chamber to seat fifteen hundred people, gymnasium, swimming pool, handball court, basketball court, bowling alleys, running track, game rooms, library, boys’ department, shower baths and locker rooms, were a welcome adjunct to the already commodious quarters which had been purchased in 1913. A physical director was employed and placed in charge of the physical education department and swimming classes and athletic instructions were given to men, and to boys and girls as well.
In November 1919, The Utica Council purchased the Utica Baseball Park for the promotion of athletic events and successfully conducted baseball, football, and other athletic events, bringing to Utica outstanding national and collegiate teams, and the unfortunate experience to have a disastrous fire destroy the grandstand and bleachers. This did not, however, hinder efforts to continue the athletic events. Having been unable to rebuild the grandstand, the park was disposed of to other interests in 1926.
The growth of The Utica Council, its activities and facilities were such that it required the attendance of someone with responsibility at all times in the clubhouse, and in 1922 a full-time secretary was employed. On September 12, 1925, Utica Council unveiled its Memorial Tablet to the men who served in the World War, and Stare Deputy Daniel A. Tobin officiated at the exercises. Ten members had made the supreme sacrifice. They were: James A. Conway, Arthur DeLester, Julius M. Donley, James P. Donlon, Alonzo J. McInrow, Willard Cooney, Joseph L. Dillon, Dennis F. Donnelly, Edward A. Garry, and Dr. George P. Wankel.
The Depression Years were difficult ones for the Council. Due to a dropping membership, expenses piled up and for a number of years it was indeed a struggle to keep going. A large mortgage had been placed on the property to help finance the many improvements, and this was a matter of deep concern. However, through the zealous activity of its loyal members, the Council weathered the storm.
In 1934 a complete reorganization of all Council activities for the productive use of its facilities was put into operation. To develop these various projects, on July 18, 1934, William E. Burke, of Niagara University, was engaged as Activity Director.
In January, 1938, Deputy Grand Knight Joseph J. Foley succeeded to the office upon resignation of Grand Knight Edward T. Russell, who had accepted a position in another city. Grand Knight Foley was subsequently reelected and served during the terms of 1939-40-41-42. Grand Knight Foley’s administration proceeded on a planned program of debt retirement, and in the fall of 1942, with justifiable pride, Grand Knight Foley announced that all indebtedness had been paid and the last shackles of financial worry had been removed.
Despite the burden of troubling financial problems through the years, Utica Council had never neglected the program of the Order, and its achievements in educational, religious, and charitable fields have been legion. No worthy appeal has ever fallen on deaf ears, and despite the leanness of its purse at times, the Council has demonstrated time after time that Charity is, and always will be, its cardinal principle.
On May 25, 1939, Brother Burke assumed the office of Financial Secretary combining it with his duties as Activities Director, under the new title of Executive Secretary. He was the first in the history of the Council to hold that office. Brother Burke served in this capacity until October, 1975, when the Board of Directors appointed his successor, William M. Virkler, who is the current Executive Secretary.
William E. Burke died on July 24, 1983 after having served Utica Council faithfully for nearly fifty years. It is well-recognized that due to the life-long efforts of Brother Burke, Utica Council remains financially viable and extremely strong in the local, state, and national activities of Columbianism. On September 20, 1983, at a Council meeting, the membership unanimously voted to rename the Council to William E. Burke Council 189.
During the late 1970s the Council enjoyed a resurgence in membership growth. At one point in the early ‘80s, the Council grew to over 2600 members, ranking first in size in New York State and the third in the entire Order.
Several new programs were begun and established programs were revamped. The Senior Knights group was formed in 1983 and was an immediate success. To this day, the Seniors enjoy a monthly luncheon, as well as weekly shovelboard, golf, and bowling leagues. They are very interested in our Prayer Services at Wakes.
Perhaps the proudest accomplishment in the past decade has been the unprecedented success of our Youth Activities. Hundreds of boys and girls enjoy instructional and organized basketball, baseball, and weight training. The success of our children’s programs has been a major factor in attracting new members for our Council.
Utica Council has been fortunate throughout its history to have been blessed with outstanding leadership in the position of Grand Knight. Using a system which has proven very efficient, it takes a man many years to become Grand Knight of Utica Council. During those years a man has to prove not only his dedication to Columbianism in Utica Council but also the leadership qualities that are so necessary to guide a council of this size. Pat Grand Knight is the most prestigious fraternal title recognized in the Utica area.
Here’s to another hundred years!