April 26, 2009 — With careful taps of a sword in a solemn ceremony Saturday at Frederick Evangelical Lutheran Church, V.I. Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen and four other prominent Virgin Islanders were dubbed knights and dames into the Order of St. John, a charitable organization claiming that it dates back to the Crusades and that it once owned St. Croix before selling it to the Danes. The newly knighted also included Derek Burnett, Sean Coursey and Julie Dukes.
But even as participants undertook the quiet rites and pledged service to the sick and the poor, some have cried foul. They said they reject the organizations historic claims and say Chistensen and other members at Saturdays ceremony may have been duped by stateside promoters hijacking a chivalric legacy to recruit wealthy members and raise money under a trademarked name.
"They are absolutely making a claim that is not true," said Cem Martin, an attorney and representative from the Rome-based Order of Malta, a 930-year-old Catholic order that he said holds trademark for the names "Order of St. John," "Order of St. John of Jerusalem," and "Knights of Malta" — all of which have been used by the stateside parent organization of the Virgin Islands branch that celebrated on St. Thomas Saturday.
The Catholic Order of Malta, which is allied with several other international Protestant orders all unrelated to the Virgin Islands group, is known for its work caring for the sick and poor worldwide. Recognized internationally as a sovereign entity with diplomatic relations with more than 100 countries and international organizations, the Order of Malta has been in the news for responding to disasters and other humanitarian crises, including the recent earthquake in Italy and the refugee crisis in war-ravaged Sri Lanka.
The parent order of the Virgin Islands group also lays claim to global good deeds, although on a smaller scale, including building a well for a village in Haiti and donating to hospitals and other health care facilities in the Virgin Islands.
Critics emphasized that the controversy lies not in the work they do, but in the name under which they do it.
"If they want to call themselves the Knights of St. Thomas or something like that and do good work, well thats fine," Martin said. "But they are not and never have been, nor can they ever be, a part of the official Order of Malta."
Martin said officials in Rome are scrutinizing the Virgin Islands group and have established members of their own Order of Malta on St. Thomas as a countermeasure.
Their official website warns of "mimic orders" that try to "represent themselves as legitimate and recognized orders of Saint John.
"Besides creating misunderstanding and confusion," the website states, "they hurt the good will the Order has established over many years."
Order in the Virgins Islands
Saturdays ceremony marked the reincarnation of the group in the Virgin Islands under a downsized name and its first appearance on St. Thomas. First formed as an offshoot of the Eastern U.S. chapter of a group calling itself The Sovereign Order of St. John of Jerusalem, based in Palm Beach, it officially incorporated as a nonprofit with the V.I. Government on St. Croix in 2004 as "The Sovereign Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Knights Hospitaller, Commandery of the West Indies, Inc."
At that time it knighted its first local members on St. Croix, including former V.I. governor Dr. Roy Schneider and Dr. Alfred Heath, who has served as its commander since 2007. The group reincorporated in 2007 as "The Order of St. John, Inc.," and has over the years recruited more accomplished Virgin Islanders, mainly from the heath care field, including former Gov. Charles Turnbull, Clive Banfield, Luz Suarez de Highfield, Delores Adams-Gumbs, Rodney Miller Sr., and Holland Redfield II.
"We are an ecumenical group dedicated to feeding the poor, clothing the naked and housing the homeless," said Dr. Alfred Heath, director of Sea View Nursing and Rehabilitation Facility and the current commander of the Order of St. John in the Virgin Islands.
"What is so distressing for me is that there is a religious and civic organization trying to help the poor and there has to be all that kind of conflict," Heath said when asked about the groups background.
At Saturdays ceremony, he reminded the newly knighted that they were "an order of many people of different religions. We are bound together by our motto to serve humanity."
For her part, V.I. Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen said she did not know of the claims to Crusader history or former ownership of St. Croix and knew nothing of a disputed international trademark. Knights and dames were welcomed into the order Saturday with hugs and kisses.
"I just know that many good friends, reputable people Ive known and respected, asked me to be a part," Christensen told the Source. "I didnt see any claim to the original Knights of Malta when I joined."
After the ceremony Saturday, the once ordinary men and women doffed their robes and headed to the Marriott Frenchmans Reef Beach Resort for cocktails.
Former owners of St. Croix?
Despite the members shrugs and rebuffs, the group openly recruits and promotes itself by advertising its alleged link to the Crusades. Saturdays event, their literature says, fell on "This 25th Day of April in The 2009th Year of Our Lord and The 961st Year of The Order."
In 2004, when the order first sailed down from Florida and landed on St. Croix, an internal newsletter boasted that while planning their first event "it was discovered that The Order had made history in the region. Knights of The Order of St. John originally came to the Caribbean from Malta. On May 21, 1651, The Order purchased St. Croix from King Louis XIV of France who acted on behalf of the French Indies Company."
The marketing was effective, not only with new recruits but with the media. The Virgin Islands Daily News has called the Order of St. John "the oldest order of chivalry still in existence" when reporting on the groups local events, and said it was "also known as the Knights of Malta" with "connections to the Virgin Islands that go back centuries."
Heath called those claims "an error of reporting" and dismissed any disputes over pedigree as frivolous. But all throughout Saturdays ceremony, Clive Banfield and others repeated the claims, and the program handed out for Saturdays event, over which Heath presided, again claimed the order was "directly descended from the Order founded in Jerusalem in the late 11th Century."
Martin, the attorney, said such "self-styled" orders have been sued by the Order of Malta "all over the world" for making similar claims. He serves on a committee that recommends legal action against such groups to officials in Rome.
"A lot of people think, by their claims, to be joining an order thats part of a hundreds-year-old history," he said. "But this group is clearly misrepresenting itself."
"Its a trademark. Its like Nestle doesnt want someone else making chocolate and selling its product as a Nestle candy bar," Martin said. "We want to make sure that when something is done in the name of the order that it is done by the order. The order has a great and important reputation around the world."
Duncan Hurd, a Connecticut-based spokesman for the group who acted as emcee for portions of Saturdays ceremony, said he rejects the Catholic and Protestant claims to the name, Order of St. John. Known as "The Herald" in his order, Hurd said his group and its members have just as much right as anyone else to call themselves knights and dames and heralds.
ont know how anyone can say that any one order is any more or less legitimate than the Catholics," he said Thursday in an interview at the Marriott after a sail. He was among a dozen or so officials from the United States and Europe who arrived on St. Thomas this week for the ceremony.
"We say that the Order of St. John has been in existence for 900 years, but we dont deny that in those 900 years that there havent been splits," he said. "We dont make the claim that we are the one and the only."
Playing knights and dames
The group that recently opened a branch in the Virgin Islands started in Canada and moved to the Virgin Islands via Palm Beach.
Joyce Piersanti, who founded the East Coast Priory in Palm Beach that first established a branch on St. Croix in 2004, said she resigned her post when officials in the organization used meetings to make personal business deals and "cherry-pick from the business class."
She said new knights and dames pay $2,500 to join and $450 annual dues and are required to recruit friends on behalf of the order. The initiation and dues pay administrative costs and donations go to charity.
"They come in from outside to pick the top of the crop," she said, "on the backs of good people who put in their own time, effort and treasure."
With the help of other defectors who came forward after her resignation, Piersanti said she researched her groups past and concluded it had no claim to the chivalric history. While insisting that she and most of the members of the Order of St. John do good work for the sick and poor and believe themselves to be part of the chivalric legacy, she said she cant live with the deception.
"They are selling the knighthood under the banner of the original group when they dont have the right to," she said. "When youve got these really good, fine people willing to give their houses, yachts and treasure, you owe them the truth."
She says she fears shes created a monster that now has a life of its own.
"I feel terrible about what has happened here. Ultimately, though, I do believe that out of this good things will come," Piersanti said.
"What they do is fine," she said. "They just need to change their name and stop playing knights and dames, because none of us are."
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