Fighting in a different way: the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem

North Texas Catholic
(Oct 9, 2021) Feature

The Knights and Dames of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem at the celebration of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth 50th anniversary in 2019. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

The Knights and Dames of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem at the celebration of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth 50th anniversary in 2019. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

They began as knights during medieval times and fought in the first religious wars to recapture, protect, and guard the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Today, instead of riding into battle on horseback to protect the sacred place where Christ was crucified and was buried, the Knights and Dames of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem (EOHSJ) fight in a different way.

“Resources of the Order are no longer weapons, but brotherly support of the Christians in the Holy Land. In spirit, we are still Knights of the Holy Sepulchre,” said Bill Ross, who along with his wife, Tessy, serve as EOHSJ section leaders for the Diocese of Fort Worth.

The origins of the EOHSJ date back to 1096 during the First Crusade (1096-1099 AD). The primary mission of the order is to support the Christian presence in the Holy Land through prayer, presence, and purse.

Their work is crucial. In the Holy Land, the Christian population has declined from 30 percent to less than two percent in the last 60 years.

The Order’s work in the Holy Land helps to build and support churches, convents, schools, higher education, and seminaries all with the underlying focus of helping to promote the Catholic population’s presence in the area.

“Many of the restrictions for Christians there affect their ability to make a living and support their families. Not only is our support enabling them to remain in their native land, but most especially giving the Latin Patriarchate (the Catholic episcopal see of Jerusalem) the ability to maintain the churches, build new facilities, educate the children, and serve the faithful in the Holy Land,” Tessy stated.

The funds benefit Christians in the Holy Land, and Muslims and Jews who are serviced by the facilities. The Order has funded and supports the operation of 40 patriarchal schools in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan.

“Today over 19,000 students attend these schools, and on average the student breakdown is 60 percent Christian (Catholic, Orthodox, etc.) and 40 percent Muslim,” Bill said. “It is hoped that these schools will generate mutual respect and help to get people of different races and religions used to living in peace.”

Father Mel Bessellieu, pastor at St. Ann Parish in Burleson, was inducted into the EOHSJ in October 2019, at St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

“I would like all Catholics to know just how important this Order is in maintaining a vital presence in Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land,” Fr. Bessellieu said. “The number of Christians living in the Holy Land has dwindled considerably, and the Order is making sure that there will always be a Christian presence in Palestine.”

John M. Pritchett Sr., a parishioner at St. Patrick Cathedral and EOHSJ member since 2009, was attracted to the Order because of its fidelity to the Gospel, ancient traditions, and promotion of pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

“Each member aspires to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This is not always possible, but one of the charitable works the Order does locally is to attend the funeral masses of deceased members,” Pritchett said. “The consolation it provides to surviving family members, and the hope in the resurrection it expresses, points to the ultimate pilgrimage we all will make some day.”

Pritchett said the Order is quiet about its work, but its work is not secret.

“Any adult Catholic interested in growing their faith and serving the Church and who is able to provide financial support to our fellow Christians in the Holy Land ought to seriously consider participating in the work of the Order,” he said. 

Prospective members are nominated by current members, pastors, or the bishop and must be certified by their pastor and the local bishop.

Section leaders Bill and Tessy Ross were invested in October 1999 and have attained the rank of Knight and Dame Grand Cross. They have served as section leaders since 2008 and were among 40 pilgrims who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2006 with Bishop Kevin Vann.

The Southwestern Lieutenancy, one of 52 lieutenancies worldwide, includes members from Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Every fall, one of the dioceses within these four states hosts the Annual Meeting and Investiture.

This year in October, members of the Order from the Diocese of Fort Worth will host the meeting and investiture.

“The Annual Meetings include awe-inspiring music, liturgies which are spiritually enriching, and the solemn rites of knighthood. The processions include our Grand Prior, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishops and bishops from the Lieutenancy, and member priests and deacons, as well as the Knights and Dames in full regalia,” Tessy said.

Tessy described their distinctive dress, “The Knights, regalia includes a white wool cape bearing the red Jerusalem cross of the Order — a link to the Crusaders who wore a white mantle with the Jerusalem cross. Knights wear a black velvet beret with a patch indicative of their rank within the Order. Those who have completed a Holy Land pilgrimage also wear a pilgrim shell secured on the center of the Jerusalem cross.

“Dames wear black capes and cover their heads with a mantilla, attire that was typical to dress approved for women attending the Papal Court in the Vatican during the late 1800s when Pope Leo XIII invited Dames into the Order,” she explained.

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