By Bill Lewellis
Every church should be poor, not because members are not generous, but because it gives away what it has. –Don Knapp
Father Donald Knapp will celebrate 60 years as a priest on May 27. He was ordained a priest in 1957 for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Youngstown. He was received as a priest in the Episcopal Church June 13, 1968 in Philadelphia by the late Bishop Robert DeWitt. He ministered for 24 years as rector of Grace Allentown before retiring in 1994.
I met Don after having resigned from the bishop’s staff of the Diocese of Allentown – both of us then former RC priests. During my first Sunday at Grace, I listened to the best social justice sermon I’d ever heard, matching the scripture readings with a story from that morning’s newspaper. In the liturgy, from the pulpit and among his parishioners, Don was nothing if not current. I used to joke years later that Don preached the sermon he prepared at the early service, then read The Morning Call, and preached a second sermon at the later service, referencing stories in the newspaper.
Monica and I eventually asked Don to preside at our wedding. Neither of us had yet been received into the Episcopal Church. Don did the deed, without ecclesiastical permission, in the Schuylkill County home of Monica’s parents. He was not concerned about a "godly admonition." He had already received one.
He and Virginia shepherded us at Grace, with grace, through our early years as Episcopalians.
One day, Don asked me how I found him. “I kept a file on you. You were a former RC priest serving in another denomination within the five-county confines of the Diocese of Allentown." Don loved it. “You had a file on me?” he used to boast out of context whenever he needed to smile.
I suspect that few now remember that Don was among those who laid the groundwork for the ministry of lay Eucharistic Ministers in the Episcopal Church. In 1985, he spoke with the late Mark Dyer, then Bishop of Bethlehem, requesting that Grace Church be permitted to begin a pilot program of preparing lay Eucharistic Ministers for ministry to the sick and shut-ins of the parish over a period of one year. Bishop Mark asked Don to submit an evaluation of the program after the year’s duration. He then carried the evaluation to the 1986 General Convention in Phoenix, where it was passed and given official status. Bishop Mark conveyed the good news to Don from Phoenix by telephone.
Don also focused at Grace on preparing the parish to use the 1979 Prayerbook; with it, the study of liturgy and the use of newer styles of contemporary music.
During those early years in Allentown, he helped eliminate the parish debt by the sale of the rectory and the parish choir camp in the Poconos. This enabled Grace to greatly expand its physical facilities and open itself to ministry in Center City Allentown. The parish inaugurated a 4-A Day Care Center, a food bank, a clothing bank (which later developed into a partnership neighborhood thrift store with Trinity Methodist Church), a Senior Citizen Craft Shop, a Prison Ministry, Saturday afternoon movies and popcorn for neighborhood kids, Grace Montessori School and the Aids Outreach ministry. The ministry of Grace Church became “grace in the city.”
As the center city ministries were developing, Don worked with the parish in expanding its Sunday liturgy to include contemporary modalities, especially a family liturgy where everyone gathered around the altar, especially children, and an uplifting style of music was used. The music of the Celebration Community, based in Aliquippa, contributed much to this style.
During his years in the inner city, Father Knapp was active in a number of social and justice-related commissions. He was a founder of the Lehigh County Prison Society, a member of the Mental Health Association, served on the Community Action Development Corporation and was a member of APSO (Appalachian Peoples Service Organization). He served on the Diocesan Council, the Social Action Committee, the Diocesan Liturgical Commission and was a founding member of the Diocesan Clergy Association.
A Lehigh County judge told me that whenever he saw Don in court he knew he was soon to hear a plea for a poor or marginalized defendant. And he girded himself – "Here comes Father Knapp" – for what he suspected would be a sermon after court.
“I had no master plan,” Don said, “but as the needs of people and opportunities surfaced, the Grace Church parishioners and building were there, offering a helping hand. I attribute all these years to God’s gracious love and the sacrifices of many, both within Grace Church and other citizens and churches in the area. Within, and at the heart of all this, was our worship, fellowship, prayers, and ministry to the borning, the living and the dying.”
Before coming to Grace, Don served as rector of Holy Sacrament Church in Upper Darby. After retirement, he continued in ministry as interim rector in Sinking Spring, Hellertown, Lebanon and Kutztown, as supply priest wherever needed and as an active member of the Diocesan Peace Commission, the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding and St. Anne’s Church in Trexlertown.
Don’s spouse, Virginia, is a retired elementary teacher, currently music director at St. Anne’s. They have three grown children: Lorraine Frycki of Massachusetts, Mary Giannelli of Allentown and Donald of California. They have four grandchildren: Stephanie, Matthew, Rachel and Elena Grace.
Now 88, Don suffers the general physical difficulties associated with his age, including loss of his eyesight and balance. He and Virginia live at Luther Crest Senior Living Community in Allentown. Virginia reads his email to him, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don was never timid about challenging people from the pulpit. He once proclaimed one of the best stewardship quips I've heard: "Every church should be poor, not because members are not generous, but because it gives away what it has."