CHARLESTON—Hundreds of men in white capes and women in flowing black capes, all decorated with large red crosses, were quite a dramatic sight as they lined up outside Blessed Sacrament Church.
These were members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a papal order founded in the 11th century that is one of the oldest in the Church.
They came to Charleston from six southeastern states that make up the order’s Southeastern Lieutenancy for their annual meeting, held Oct. 18-20.
The Order was founded in 1099 during the first Crusade led by Godfrey de Bouillon, when men who fought in battle were awarded with knighthood at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, located at the site of Christ’s tomb in Jerusalem.
The original Knights filled a military role defending that church and other holy sites from invaders. After Jerusalem fell, the Knights became a lay order, with members around the world who dedicated themselves to spreading the faith and protecting Catholic interests in the Holy Land. The Order came under the protection of the Holy See in 1847 under Pope Pius IX. Women were first allowed to join in 1888.
The term “equestrian” does not currently mean that the membership rides horses. It dates back to a social class in Ancient Rome that included knights.
Today, members focus on raising funds to aid the Church and other Christian interests in the Holy Land, with money going to build schools, seminaries, and hospitals. They also provide assistance to the region’s Christian community, especially those displaced by violence. Membership is estimated at about 30,000 in 60 lieutenancies around the world.
On Oct. 20, 18 men and women from the Diocese of Charleston joined the order at an investiture ceremony and Mass celebrated by Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans.
They were part of a group of 90 new members from around the Southeast, one of the largest in recent memory, said Mark Rodi, lieutenant of the Southeastern Lieutenancy. South Carolina’s new Knights include three priests: Fathers C. Thomas Miles, Renaurd West and Paul MacNeil.
Membership is by invitation only to men and women who are at least 25 years old and practicing Catholics of good character who show interest in the Holy Land. They must receive approval from their pastor and bishop and have support of other members of the Order.
Members also must make a generous donation to aid the Holy Land and commit themselves to supporting work there throughout their lives.
During the investiture, men were knighted by Bishop Aymond who tapped a sword to their shoulders. They also touched a plate holding a pair of spurs that symbolize the Order’s equestrian roots. Women who were invested as Dames of the Holy Sepulchre received a blessing and a jeweled insignia.
The new members were then vested in the Order’s distinctive dress. Men wear black berets and a white cape, while women wear black capes and black veils or lace mantillas. All of the capes are decorated with large red Jerusalem crosses, which symbolize the five wounds Christ received during his crucifixion.
Deborah Allen became a Dame and husband Michael Allen is now a Knight. Both are members of Transfiguration Church in Blythewood,
“I really felt like I had been called to take another step on my Catholic journey, and this was it,” she said. “I prayed a lot leading up to this and asked God if I was really worthy, and it was very humbling and an honor to be invested.”
George Felton, former coach of the University of South Carolina men’s basketball team, said joining the order is one of the high points of his life. Felton attends Precious Blood of Christ Church on Pawleys Island.
“This is all about serving others and serving the Good Lord,” Felton said. “It’s a tremendous experience to be associated with this group of people.”
Leonard Byrne of Greenville was drawn to the Order after he made a trip to the Holy Land with his late wife, Ginny.
“The Holy Land is so important, with Christians, Muslims and Jews living there together,” he said. “We need to keep that place sacred and we shouldn’t let politics affect our dedication to it. Protecting the Holy Land is something that is at the very root of our faith.”
Visit the Vatican’s website to learn more about the Order.