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Bill Crowder is an organized Knight

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Giving back to the community has always been important to St. Mary of Sorrows parishioner Bill Crowder, a former colonel who served 26 years in the U.S. Army. Raised in Alabama as "a good Southern Baptist," he has been married for 42 years and is a father, grandfather and Past Grand Knight.

Crowder is president of Marian Homes, Inc., a local nonprofit organization that provides group homes for individuals with intellectual disabilities. Established by St. Mary of Sorrows Knights of Columbus Council No. 8600, the organization is renovating its third group home, "Queen of Peace," in Springfield, which is scheduled to open July 1.

Marrying "a good Catholic" propelled Crowder's journey in faith toward joining the Catholic Church. A few months after getting married in 1972, the Crowders were transferred to California, where Bill attended St. Frances de Sales Church in Oakland with his wife, Mary.

"It was there that I started understanding the Catholic faith," he said.

Jesuits would give the homilies at Mass, and two sermons stand out in his memory: the Good Samaritan from the point of view of the mule and one on the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi.

"Lord make me an instrument - it has stood me well over time," he said.

Following the birth of their first child, the Crowder family received an assignment in Germany.

"The second child came, and I said, 'It's time.' I went to the chaplain at the airbase and said I need to take some classes. He put me on the 'bucket docket' shortly before Christmas and had me confirmed at Easter," Crowder said.

After he was transferred to Frankfurt, Crowder decided to get more involved in his faith, so he became a lector. "One Sunday, I'm sitting there with my wife and two daughters in the back of the church and this hand drops on my shoulder. Father said, 'You're the lector today and you're also the altar boy' - that was my training. Been a lector ever since."

After serving in Germany for four years, Crowder was assigned to Fort Eustis in southern Virginia, and the family attended St. Jerome Church in Newport News. They joined St. Mary of Sorrows Church in Fairfax in 1983. After a two-year stint in Japan, Crowder was assigned to the Pentagon in 1988, and the Crowders moved back to Fairfax. He transitioned out of the Army in 1993, but still serves on the Army Science Board. He also serves as senior fellow at Logistic Management Institute in McLean.

Crowder is an active member of Council No. 8600, which established Marian Homes, Inc., in 1995 to meet a need in the community for affordable group home housing. In 1998, they opened "Marian House" in the Brecon Ridge development in Fairfax, which is the home of five intellectually disabled adult women.

"Regina House" was opened in the Greenbriar development of Fairfax in 2010 where five intellectually disabled adult men live in a suburban neighborhood setting.

The homes are a testimony of the Knights' faith and belief in Catholic social teaching, rooted in a respect for life and the Gospel call to put faith into action. From the very beginning, Crowder said they turned to their faith for guidance.

"The day I put in a proposal (to Fairfax County), I went to the 6:15 Mass that morning," he said. "I turned in the proposal at noon. I saw Father (James) Barkett and told him that I was really nervous, that all of us were taking a leap of faith that we could make this work.

"'That's the way God wants us,'" Father Barkett told Crowder. "'He wants us nervous so we can see His power.'"

Crowder received the news in mid-December that their proposal had been accepted by the county.

"Ten months after we found the house and submitted the proposal, we're going to have residents in here," Crowder said. "That only comes about because everybody is committed to make all their pieces work."

The success and speed of the project reflects the commitment of the council's 500 members, including the 15-member Marian Homes, Inc. board of directors who have worked as a team to get the home up and running.

"We took possession Feb. 26," he said. "By that afternoon, I called them and said, 'OK, you guys can start.' By that weekend, we had knocked out all of the sheetrock and got it prepped for the contractor to come in and start taking down the actual studs and walls."

Over the course of three days, 15 to 20 guys came and pitched in, Crowder said. They walked away every night knowing they were doing something important.

Marian Homes, Inc., is paying a construction company to remodel the home to meet county and state codes, including Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations.

"Our council has always prided itself in our ability to raise money and give it away. That's what we do well. We said we can do this," said Crowder.

"This is the first time we have gone after county money, and one of the first things they asked us was, 'What do you pay your board of directors?'" he shared. "I said, 'Nothing .' They responded, 'What do you mean, nothing?' I said, 'Because this is what we do.'"

After he was elected president, Crowder had to find five new board members. Everybody has a gift to share, he said, so the challenge is finding a way for them to apply their gift.

"I have a gift for organization," Crowder said. "Bill Baker has a gift for seeing how you put a house together. Walt Purdy has a gift for getting publicity. You find what somebody's strength is and you let them go.

"The Knights are an amazing collection of Catholic men who are trying to make a difference in the world," he said.

KOVAR, a Virginia Knights of Columbus Charity established in 1971 to provide financial assistance through grants and home loans to tax exempt organizations, helps Marian Homes with money.

Crowder hopes that assistance will continue as they try to open a fourth home. The challenge, he said, is, "can we accelerate as fast as the county wants us to?"

The county is running the same program next year, which covers the purchase price of the home. Marian Homes, Inc., is covering the conversion and operating costs.

"They are encouraging us to put in a proposal again next year," Crowder said. But that means raising another $200,000 in the next 10 months.

Crowder said that there is at least one other council in the country trying to do the same thing that's being done in Fairfax.

"It's pretty daunting when you think about it," he said. "That's the challenge - getting people in faith to take on that long-term commitment."

Crowder said right now he needs donations, and he invites other organizations that want to do something similar to give him a call.

Part of their charter is to reach out. He said that there is one other council locally that is trying to do that, and we are "nurturing them along." One goal is to get more people involved, including companies that will support the project.

"It takes time and effort," Crowder said. "We are expanding our outreach, asking other Knights and parishes and other faith groups to support what we are doing. If you think it is important, be a part of it." Marian Homes, Inc., was recognized by the Virginia Knights of Columbus as the community program of the year in 2013.

"We always start our meetings with the Lord's Prayer and end with the Prayer of St. Francis," Crowder said. "The bottom line is, you have to have faith that it's all going to work, and you have to do the work to make sure the pieces all fall into place."

Socarras is a freelance writer from Annandale.

Find out more

Go to marianhomes.org.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015