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Memphis priest, prolific author, dies serving poor in guatemala

Father David Knight celebrates with the Poor Clare’s of Memphis one of their last masses together in the private chapel on Nov. 20, 2019. This was shortly before the Monastery of St. Clare closed at the end of 2019. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to The Daily Memphian)

Rev. David Knight, a Jesuit priest who served the Catholic Diocese of Memphis in various roles since the 1970s, often in sandals, had hoped to spend the rest of his days living with his dog, Growl, in a room at the Monastery of St. Clare in Frayser.

When the  opens in a new windowmonastery closed in late 2019, Cardinal Alvaro Rammacini of Guatemala invited Father Knight to help the Poor Clare community there. It was founded by sisters from Memphis 40 years ago.

Father Knight, who spoke fluent Spanish, had visited the  opens in a new windowPoor Clares in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, every year for decades. He planned to stay there for a few months, then return to Memphis.

“When COVID hit, he sort of got stuck there,” said Lynne Marie Becker, managing director of  opens in a new windowImmersed in Christ, Father Knight’s nonprofit ministry. “But he loved the people there. He kept giving his coat away. He emptied his bank account to help people there.”

A photo of author and Catholic priest Father David Knight shows him on May 14, 2018. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to The Daily Memphian)

On Sunday, Father Knight, who turned 90 last week, died of congestive heart failure in a small room at a Poor Clares monastery in Guatemala, where he had lived since January 2020. His remains positive for COVID-19, Becker said.

“We’re all devastated,” Becker said. “When he got sick, we made plans to med-evac him back to Memphis this week. We had a jet waiting on the runway. He wanted to come home. Now he will have to be buried there in Guatemala.”

Father Knight was best known in Memphis and elsewhere as a writer and retreat leader.

He published more than 40 books on Catholic faith and practice. His first book, “ opens in a new windowHis Way”, reflections on the spirituality of the laity, has sold more than 150,000 copies. He wrote every morning and had enough material to publish dozens more books.

He conducted more than 500 workshops, missions and retreats on religious vows and lay spirituality across the U.S., and in nearly 20 countries, including Haiti, Ireland, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Saipan, Sierra Leone, Sweden and Spain.

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He also taught classes in spirituality and theology at Catholic University University in Washington, Loyola University in New Orleans, Christian Brothers University in Memphis and Memphis Theological Seminary.

“Our happiness is not dependent on anything on this earth,” Father Knight often told people who attended his hundreds of spiritual retreats, as well as the parishioners at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where he served as pastor for 14 years.

“He was the closest priest to being the ‘body of Christ’ I have ever met,” said Beth Trouy, who grew up in Frayser and attended many of Father Knight’s workshops and retreats. “You could feel the love of Christ when you were near him.”

Knight’s “His Way” ministry was based on Jesus’ words in John 10:10: “I came so that they may have life and have it more abundantly.”

“I can condense the cutting edge of Christian faith (for Protestants as well as Catholics) into a focus on five practical goals that deliver the Christian experience of living ‘life to the full.’ You can’t ‘learn’ sanctity; you have to become a saint.

“The Good News is not just a system of doctrines, moral rules and ritual practices or devotions,” Father Knight wrote. “It is like breathing: you either experience it or you don’t. I can explain this experience and how to grow into it. It involves five commitments to living out five mysteries, which carry five promises, and constitute  opens in a new windowfive steps into the ‘fullness of life’ that Jesus said he came to give:

  • As a Christian who has “become Christ.”
  • As a disciple who gains mystical enlightenment as a student of the word of God.
  • As a prophet who is divinely empowered through the gift of the Holy Spirit to live a life of shocking witness.
  • As a priest through whom Jesus Christ expresses Himself in words and actions.
  • As a king who transforms society through faithful stewardship of God’s kingdom.

“In short, these five mysteries of Baptism are the roots of our Christian life and of every particular spirituality that helps us live it,” Knight said.

Knight’s work inspired lay people and theologians alike.

“I saw Father Knight as ‘Dorothy Day’ type Catholic,” said Dr. Peter Gathje, founder of  opens in a new windowManna House ministry and academic dean at Memphis Theological Seminary. “He was completely orthodox and loving of the church’s theological depth, while also consistently critical of an institution too often concerned more with its self-preservation and power than with the well-being of people, especially those on the margins. He did not waste time harping about what was wrong with the church; he simply built upon what was right and good, knowing that the heart of the Catholic faith was dynamic, life-giving, and engaged with the least and the lost.”

“He didn’t just talk about his”

David M. Knight was born March 16, 1931, in Dallas, one of four sons. One brother, Henry, died in infancy. He leaves two others, Mickey and Robert.

“My mother named me,” Father Knight told Joe Birch, WMC-TV Channel 5 news anchor and a fellow Catholic who was deeply inspired by the priest and his ministry.

Birch wrote a 2011 guest column for The Commercial Appeal honoring Knight’s 50 years in the priesthood.

“I feel my writing is somehow inspired by my mother,” Knight told Birch.

Knight’s mother, Elizabeth Ann Buell, was a devout Catholic who allowed her sons to explore their own spirituality.

His father, Marion Armstrong Knight, was a Baptist who had a “spirit of questioning,” who always made sure his sons attended mass each Sunday with their mother, even after they divorced when David was 6. “He wanted his kids to have their mom’s religion,” Knight said.

Father Knight’s great-grandfather was a Methodist campground preacher. Knight Campground Road near Shelbyville is named for him and his grave is on a hillside there under a tree.

Father David Knight poses at the Monastery of St. Clare on May 14, 2018. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to The Daily Memphian)

When brother Robert got out of the service after Word War II, he and David hitchhiked across the country. They stopped in Memphis and stayed at the YMCA in about 1946 or 1947.

After high school, David went to Holy Cross University for one year. He joined the practice football team because he heard football players ate better.

In 1948, David joined the Jesuits with his brother Mickey, taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Mickey left after a year or two, but David stayed.

David earned a master’s degree in philosophy from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, and took his priestly vows in 1961.

He was ordained in Lyon, France, then assigned as a missionary pastor in the African nation of Chad. Three years later, he returned to the U.S. to pursue a doctorate in theology from Catholic University in Washington.

“I felt God calling me into this field of spiritual theology,” he told Birch.

After he graduated, he was sent to lead two parishes 100 yards apart in Grand Coteau, La. — one black and one white. After Knight led the parishes to merge, he was reassigned to serve as spiritual director of the Jesuit community at Loyola University in New Orleans. “It was becoming a scandal,” Knight said.

In the early 1970s, he took a leave from the Jesuits to help a group of nuns start The House of the Lord, a new religious order in Memphis.

“Shortly after the order started, it had taken a completely different turn,” Knight told Birch. “Everything we had come up to do, they reversed it and we parted company. I was like a man without a country at that point.”

Bishop Carroll Dozier of Memphis offered Knight a job with the diocese that allowed him to focus on his writing and retreat work. He formed a new ministry called His Way Center for Spiritual Growth.

Along the way, Knight served as diocesan director of Cursillos, diocesan spiritual director of the Hispanic Catholic community and campus minister at Christian Brothers University.

Becker met Knight when she was a student at CBU in the mid-1980s.

“I was not into faith then,” Becker said. “I actually wrote him a list of 150 reasons he was wasting his life as a priest. He was very patient and responded to me point by point. Two years later, I was confirmed in the church.”

Knight presided at Becker’s marriage, baptized her children and persuaded her to help him with his ministry while he was alive and continue it after he died.

“He didn’t just talk about his faith, he lived it,” Becker said. “One day when I was a CBU, we were standing outside and he saw this family on the road. They had been driving through town and their car broke down. They had kids and they were poor and they didn’t know what they were going to do. I watched Father Knight go get the title to his car and sign it over to them right there on the spot. Who does that?”

In the late 1980s, Father Knight, who spoke four languages, volunteered to serve as pastor of Sacred Heart, a culturally diverse parish between Downtown and Midtown. He donated his annual salary to parish’s Hispanic ministry.

Parishioners loved his playful sense of humor and his joyful spirit.

“I can hear him now giving a homily like normal and then all of a sudden going into a voice like a fire-and-brimstone preacher, just for fun,” said Laura Noeth, a former Sacred Heart parishioner. “You just never knew what he was going to do. And I never once heard him talk about the devil or even say the word devil. The most joyful person I ever knew.”

They also loved his allegiance to Christ.

He didn’t allow national flags inside the church.

Every August for decades, he traveled to the desert with anyone who wanted to join him to pray on the anniversary of Hiroshima.

He visited U.S. military bases in Germany during Advent to pray with and for U.S. soldiers.

“These are prayerful people who are trying to find a light in the darkness of their winter,” Knight said in 2006. “They cling to the idea, the belief, the hope, that a light is still shining in the world. These are people who are experiencing the darkest of nights. Everywhere I went I heard a few horror stories. And yet everywhere I went I saw life and hope.”

During his homily on the mass on the 50th anniversary of his ordination, with several priests and church leaders behind him, he declared that anyone baptized in any religion could receive communion in the Catholic Church.

“His smile, wit and hint of mischievousness, combined with a knack for getting to the theological heart of the matter attracted people who wanted an adult faith that took their questions seriously,” Gathje said.

Father Knight served as chaplain to five different communities of women religious, including the Poor Clares in Frayser.

He lived and worked at the monastery for years, taking in a man who was homeless as well as a number of stray dogs, waking every morning at 4 to write and pray, and celebrating mass with the cloistered sisters and others at 8 a.m.

He loved to push logs and rocks around the monastery’s property with his tractor.

“Sometimes it wasn’t the right tool for the job, but he used it anyway,” said longtime friend Marsha Raus, who lives across the street from the monastery.

Father Knight and Raus rescued a litter of pups 12 years ago. “Three lived with me and one lived with him. He and Growl came over all of the time. We often joked that David was Growl’s pet and he lived at Growl’s house.”

In January 2020, after the remaining four Poor Clares left the monastery in Frayser, Father Knight wouldn’t turn the heat on.

“We’d get on him about it,” Becker said. “‘David, it’s 40 degrees in here.’ He’d say, ‘Well, the poor don’t have heat. Why should I waste money on heating this big old place? I’ll just bundle up.”

Before he left the monastery in Frayser, Father Knight threw out reams of notes, homilies and unfinished manuscripts. He sent his few belongings to a diocesan retreat house in nearby Stanton, where he planned to live when he returned from Gautemala. Thousands of his unsold books are in boxes in the basement at St. Anne Catholic Church on Highland.

“The image I have that is burned in my mind is him sitting at the monastery alone that January,” said Karen Pulfer Focht, a freelance photographer, fellow Catholic and longtime friend.

“He wanted to take communion, but you are not allowed to do communion alone so he had to wait for somebody else to come by. He was sitting in the room with his dog and two communion hosts, waiting for a friend to have mass with. He loved the mass and he love to celebrate the mass with others. He always told me that if people really understood the gifts of the mass, people would be lined up for blocks everyday to get into church.”

Last week, after Father Knight’s health began failing, and his breathing became more labored, he told Becker, Raus and others that he wanted to return to Memphis. They chartered a medical evacuation flight that was scheduled to bring him back to Memphis on Tuesday.

“He loved the people there, and they were so good to him, but he didn’t want to be in a hospital,” Becker said. “He wanted to be home. Memphis was home, his family. We had a jet waiting on the runway.”

Sunday morning, Father Knight awoke too tired to walk. He received communion and sat in a chair in a hallway joking with the Cardinal and the sisters. One of the nuns took his picture. Then he went back to his room to take a nap. A few minutes later, a nurse came out of Father Knight’s room and said he was dying.

“The nuns all gathered around him and prayed for him. He closed his eyes and fell asleep and didn’t wake up,” Becker said. “I’m sure he died at peace knowing he’d left it all on the field.”

Becker said Father Knight’s legacy won’t be his books or his “Five Steps” to spiritual growth.

“It will be the prayer he wrote, the prayer he said every morning, the prayer he left to all of us,” Becker said.

Jesus, I give you my body. Live this day with me. Live this day in me. Live this day through me. Let me think with your thoughts, speak with your words, and act as your body on earth.

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This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

David Waters
Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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