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Knights Templar leader calls misconceptions amusing, embarrassing

CHICAGO — The aura of the warrior monks who founded the Knights Templar nearly 900 years ago has stirred controversy and fed the appetite of conspiracy theorists for years.

In Dan Brown's 2003 novel "The Da Vinci Code," which became a film starring Tom Hanks, the Knights were depicted as a cultish society linked to the Vatican and concealing church secrets, including the location of the Holy Grail.

Today there are dozens of Knights Templar organizations worldwide that have spawned from the medieval military order, and the new face of one of the largest groups is Tinley Park Village Clerk Patrick Rea.

Rea, 69, a retired Army Reserve brigadier general, was unanimously elected in November in Lisbon, Portugal as the grand master of the International Knights Templar. Now in the group's No. 2 position, Rea will begin an eight-year term as its leader next fall.

The organization of about 5,500 members was founded in 1804 and follows in the Christian philanthropic tradition of the original Knights Templar, but the group still is plagued by misconceptions.

"Most of the time it's amusing, some of the time it's embarrassing, and a little bit of the time I have fun with it," Rea said. People have called Rea asking if he knows the location of the Holy Grail, a cup Jesus is said to have used during the Last Supper.

"Three years ago I said yes, and there was sort of a gasp on the other end of the telephone line," Rea recalled. "(He) said, 'Where is it?' "

Rea told the caller the Holy Grail was under a railroad station in southwest suburban Tinley Park, Ill. Then he told the police chief to be on the lookout for someone digging around the tracks. And with that, Rea belted out a laugh.

Warrior monks founded the medieval Knights Templar in the early 1100s to protect Christians visiting the Holy Land from bandits. They amassed enormous wealth as pilgrims donated land and money to them, said Helen Nicholson, a reader in medieval history at the Cardiff University in Wales.

About 200 years later they were accused of heresy and blasphemy, among other claims, so royalty could seize their wealth, Nicholson said. Many were tortured into confessions. Some were burned at the stake. The Knights eventually were found innocent but were disbanded. Experts still disagree on where the Knights' wealth and treasure went, if any ever existed.

The International Knights Templar claims no direct lineage to and does not share the original Knights' mysterious past.

Rea's Knights hold public meetings, and roughly half of the members are from the United States and the other half from about 30 other countries, he said. About 50 percent of members are Roman Catholic and the others a mix of Eastern Orthodox and Protestant religions. Women, called Dames, also are members, though most Templars are men. Non-Christians can be associate members, a nod to the group's philosophy of outreach and understanding world religions.

Templars don white capes with a red cross on the left shoulder and a matching cross around their neck, but mainly during ceremonies inside churches for new members, Rea said.

Knights must be 21 years old, proven leaders — that includes soldiers to PTA presidents — and recommended by three people in the order. Charity and peacekeeping are the group's main objectives.

"Mostly this is a giving situation," said Rea, who became a Templar 17 years ago. "What you're able to do is influence international issues by meeting with international officials and supporting the churches as they try to carry out their missions."

The Knights and Dames in this organization range from the who's who in royalty and the military to local bishops and village workers. Tinley Park Mayor Ed Zabrocki is a Templar. So is Metropolitan Christopher, who leads the Serbian Orthodox Church in North and South America.

Rea, who has been dubbed a count of a province in Spain, includes dukes, princesses and other royalty among his friends. Because of his Templar ties, many members who come to Chicago often stay in Tinley Park.

As grand master, Rea's role will be to maintain and develop relationships between religious leaders around the globe, a duty he's been performing for years. He's hosted a reception of worldwide church heads to honor a late Palestine Liberation Organization Cabinet member.

"I'd be foolish to say that there isn't a little risk" when traveling to potentially dangerous lands, said Rea, a retired banker who served under President George W. Bush as a Small Business Administration regional administrator.

Princess Renate zu Windisch-Graetz, a Templar and former German Consul in Chicago, said Rea stood up in her wedding, and years later planned her husband's funeral.

"If your car breaks down, he has somebody who has another car, and if you're hungry he'll find a family who has too much food," she said.

Besides sending delegates to United Nations conferences to offer their expertise, Knights also start philanthropic projects with their annual $100 dues, Rea said.

Templars have shipped 30 tons of school supplies to Afghanistan, transformed three railroad cars into a roving church along the Siberian border, and set up a clinic in Cameroon to fight the high mother and infant mortality rate, Rea said.

The Templar's Knights and Dames say Rea's knowledge of the order as well as his organizational and diplomatic skills helped him earn his new role.

"He had his fingertips on all of these things," said Ronald Matthewman, the Grand Prior of Canada and a nominating committee member. "He was the obvious person to choose."

HISTORY OF THE KNIGHTS TEMPLAR

1120, Knights Templar founded to protect Christians visiting Jerusalem from bandits.

1307, King Philip IV of France, in desperate need of money, confiscated Templar property, accused them of heresy, sodomy and blasphemy. Many were tortured into confessions while others escaped or were killed.

1312, Pope Clement V disbanded the Knights, declaring their innocence but saying they'd been so badly defamed they could not continue.

1804, International Knights Templar is founded. It's one of dozens of Templar groups (and thousands of Knights and Dames) that sprouted in the centuries after the medieval warrior monks were disbanded.

2003, fictional best seller "The Da Vinci Code" is released, renewing interest in the Knights Templar and leading to misconceptions about Templar groups and their origins.

2009, Patrick Rea of Tinley Park is elected head of the International Knights Templar, one of the largest Templar groups in the world.

Sources: Helen Nicholson, reader of medieval history at Cardiff University in Wales; Katherine Kurtz, author of Knights Templar books; International Knights Templar