I don’t know how the other five Catholic universities that hosted the Opus Prize Foundation awards did, but I can’t imagine that any one pulled it off with more spirit, sensitivity and sentiment than the University of St. Thomas Wednesday evening.
St. Thomas hosted the 6th annual awards ceremony to honor the work of three social entrepreneurs around the world – unsung heroes who are working to solve society’s most vexing and persistent problems. The winner, Aicha Ech Channa of Morocco, received $1 million and the other two, Sister Valeriana Garcia-Martin of Columbia and Father Hans Stapel of Brazil, each received $100,000.
The crowd at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis was large and enthusiastic; people got to their feet for a half-dozen standing ovations.
The music from the Symphonic Wind Ensemble and Festival Choir was spirited.
The video stories of the three winners and their organizations were graceful.
The introductions of each honoree by St. Thomas students were insightful – and the remarks from master of ceremonies Carol Breuss and Father Dennis Dease were thoughtful.
“They had a grand vision and, just as importantly, a steely resolve to make life better for those who struggle,” Father Dease said in presenting the Opus awards. “I know that I, for one, will take away from this experience a desire to do more.”
Finally, the organization of the event, right down to the three translators (French, Portuguese and Spanish), was meticulous.
The most impressive part, however, was the winners themselves: Aicha and Association Solidarité Féminine and its work with single mothers and their children; Sister Valeriana and Hogares Luz y Vida and its work with children who have physical and mental disabilities; and Father Hans and Fazenda da Esperanca and its treatment centers for drug and alcohol addicts.
The work of the three is inspired by their faith in God, their belief that they can change things, their unbridled optimism and their loving concern for fellow human beings. All this made for a feel-good evening, a testament to what good people can do to improve the human condition—with a combination of compassion, concern and courage.
Most encouraging was the number of students in the audience – I estimate at least a couple of hundred – and their enthusiasm over the winners. One of those students was junior Sahr Brima, who met Father Hans on a due-diligence trip to Brazil and introduced him to the Orchestra Hall audience.
“My experience in Brazil exposed me to the power of faith lived out and the indomitable nature of love. Father Hans and Nelson (Giovanelli) are addressing socioeconomic and spiritual needs in people around the world,” Sahr said. “I pray that God will use me in a similar capacity.”
One of my long-time friends, Sister Mary Frances Reis of the Visitation Monastery of North Minneapolis, attended the ceremony and called Thursday morning. “Dave,” she said, “did you look at the faces of those in the videos, the teenagers and the children? I really do believe you could look into them and see the face of the Lord.”
She may be right. I looked into the faces of the winners and saw someone my age – Medicare eligible – still behaving as though they were just starting the race. That means I’m still in the running.