KEARNS — Growing up in St. Aloysius Orphanage in Greenville, R.I., VJ Simonelli was impressed by the men in capes and chapeaus who would visit often. He didn’t know at the time that they were Knights of Columbus, but he admired them from afar.
“Someday, I want to be in the same position as them,” he thought. Several decades later that wish came true: Simonelli became a Knight and has served faithfully in councils in three different states for more than 25 years.
Ten years ago, he and his wife, Loretta, moved to Utah and he became part of Council 5214, associated with Saint Francis Xavier Parish.
“Our brother Knights all work together, all share together, make it happen for our parish,” he said of the council.
Simonelli was honored as the 2019 Utah Knight of the Year at the May 4 Utah Knights of Columbus convention.
“VJ is a very, very dedicated person,” said Council 5214 Grand Knight Phil Garcia, who nominated Simonelli. “He’s probably the hardest-working person I’ve ever seen in the Knights and in the parish. … He’s a remarkable person; so many people say they wish he went to their parish when he moved here. We’re lucky we got him; he stepped right in and took on a lot of responsibility.”
Simonelli, who never had a family until he married and had three sons, says he found an extended family in the Knights of Columbus.
“I found friendship, camaraderie and brotherhood among the Knights,” he said.
Along with those gifts, Simonelli discovered a way to give back, he said.
“I give back to God what God has given me,” he said. “I learned that in the orphanage, where I was taught to be more of a Catholic. It stuck with me, so I give what I can.”
What Simonelli gives is full-time volunteer work that benefits both his parish and his council. With some help, he takes care of all maintenance of the church and St. Francis Xavier Elementary School. The former police officer also serves as the weekly cook for the council’s Friday night parish games program and prepares an average of 180 meals for the participants. Each Sunday morning he makes more than 400 cups of coffee for the after-Mass coffee and donut social.
“I go into the church every Sunday morning around 7 and VJ is already there getting things ready,” Garcia said.
Simonelli purchases all the supplies for both programs. He serves as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion and counts the money collected at Masses from the parishioners.
He has also been a uniting force between the parish’s Spanish-speaking and English-speaking communities, Garcia said.
Simonelli has gained international recognition for one of his projects. Second Chance, a project Simonelli developed for his council, matches juvenile offenders who must work off court-mandated community service hours with opportunities to help in the community and the parish. The project received the Knights of Columbus International Service Award in 2017. Simonelli is the program’s sole administrator.
He has also served in leadership positions in the organization. A former Council 5214 grand knight, Simonelli was a Fourth Degree district master for two years.
“During the past years, I have worked with VJ on multiple council, assembly and state-level events and ceremonies,” State Deputy Greg Keller said. “At all times, he plans, prepares and executes any activity he is involved in with professionalism and purpose of duty. He is always mindful of the people helping him and is quick to provide praise to those deserving recognition. He is also a master of juggling work at the parish and with the Knights of Columbus to ensure everything is completed on time and with excellent results.”
Nearing the age of 80, Simonelli said that although he will remain active in his council, he thinks it is time for younger Knights to serve in state positions.
“Everybody has different talents; we are each challenged to share them in different ways,” he said. “I feel I’m just a messenger acting on behalf of what God has given me. I share this award with all my brother Knights in Utah.”
The Simonellis were named Family of the Year by the Utah Knights of Columbus five years ago.