BRONX, N.Y. — A Jesuit priest working in Ecuador and a Malawian nun ministering in the northern part of her country were chosen the winners of the Opus Prize in a Nov. 11 ceremony at Fordham University’s campus in the Bronx. They split a prize of $1.1 million to be used to further their work.
One winner, Jesuit Fr. John Halligan, is the founder and director of the Working Boys’ Center, which also is an NGO and has served more than 6,000 poor families in the heart of Ecuadorean capital, Quito.
Fr. Halligan began the center in 1964 in a church attic. His aim was to provide lunch and spiritual inspiration to a few dozen “shoeshine boys” who worked in the streets of Quito to support their families. Three years later, he was joined by Sr. Miguel Conway of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary who continues to help him lead the center’s efforts.
Today, it serves approximately 400 families annually (2,000 individuals) with a staff of 32 and 1,000 volunteers. The center offers services for the whole family, including three meals a day, daily bathing, daily Mass, as well as schooling, technical job training and certification in 11 vocational programs, savings programs, and health and dental care.
Fr. Halligan instills 10 basic moral and spiritual values in those he serves: loyalty, personal development, family, religion, education, economy, work, recreation, health and housing. The Working Boys’ Center places close to 100 percent of its graduates in jobs, provides a home-ownership program, and owns and manages a beauty salon and a bakery.
Milwaukee is home to the Working Boys’ Center’s U.S. fund-raising organization, Family Unity International. The organization, headed by Sr. Miguel’s sister, Patricia Parks, a member of St. Mary Parish, Elm Grove, raises much of the funding and coordinates volunteers for the center. For years, Milwaukeeans, including students from Divine Savior Holy Angels and Marquette University high schools have made trips to the center. Several Marquette University graduates have spent a year volunteering there after graduation and several archdiocesan parishes, including Lumen Christi in Mequon are key supporters of the Quito center.
The other winner, Rosarian Sr. Beatrice Chipeta, directs the Lusubilo Orphan Care Project, a nongovernmental organization that serves thousands of orphan children and caregivers in northern Malawi. A former teacher, Sr. Beatrice began ministering to the poor on her own in the impoverished and AIDS-stricken area of Karonga with the mission of empowering every child and adult.
Today, at age 68, she oversees a staff of 60 in 10 to 12 villages that support themselves by farming without the aid of machinery. Sr. Beatrice and Lusubilo have developed infant feeding programs, a youth-led agriculture program, an HIV/AIDS support group, and preschool and primary school education programs for the poor in these rural villages, where more than 280 orphan-headed households are supported.
Born a Presbyterian, she became a Catholic as a young woman and joined the Rosarian Sisters soon afterward.
According to an announcement on this year’s recipients, Opus Prize winners combine entrepreneurial spirit with an abiding faith to empower the disenfranchised, give opportunities to the poorest and inspire others to pursue lives of service. To date, 16 individuals from around the world have been recognized by the foundation since the first award was presented in 2004. One of the largest humanitarian awards, the Opus Prize is designed to provide a single significant infusion of resources to advance humanitarians’ work. This year marks the first time in its seven-year history that the award will be shared, according to Don Neureuther, spokesperson for the foundation.
“After several visits and a thorough review of each organization’s operations and commitment to the poor, the board determined that these two recipients were equally deserving of the top prize,” Neureuther said. “Sr. Chipeta and Fr. Halligan embody every aspect of the Opus Prize selection criteria. We’re delighted to honor these two faith-based social entrepreneurs who have dedicated their lives to addressing some of the great social issues of our day.”
The grant is a “significant donation for our organization and provides us with some breathing room during tough economic times,” according to a release from Family United International, noting that the funds cover about 100 days of operational expenses of a $1.7 million annual budget.
More than 6,000 families or 30,000 individuals have “left poverty behind forever because of their Working Boys’ Center education,” according to the release, yet there are more than 100,000 shoeshine boys working in Quito, and the Center serves only 1 percent of them and their families.
“We need to give the Working Boys’ Center opportunity to more families and to do so, we need more investors willing to make significant financial contributions like the Opus Prize Foundation.
“We hope this honor will inspire more to do what the Opus Prize Foundation has done for us,” it said.
Maryangela Layman-Román, Catholic Herald Staff, contributed to this story.