Marquette University made history on Thursday, Feb. 7 when it brought together all 10 of the past Opus Prize recipients for a keynote program as part of its annual Mission Week, this year themed “The World is our Home.”Ten of the past Opus Prize recipients gather at Marquette University Thursday, Feb. 7, for a panel presentation as part of the university’s annual Mission Week. Pictured, left to right, are Msgr. Richard Albert, Brother of Charity Stan Goetschalckx, Peter Daino – representing Roman Catholic Religious Sr. Beatrice Chipeta, Jesuit Fr. John Halligan, Congregation of the Passion Fr. Richard Frechette, Marguerite “Maggy” Barankitse, Dr. Nelson Neumann – representing his mother, the late Dr. Zilda Arns Neumann, Aicha Ech Channa, Jesuit Fr. Trevor Miranda, and Dr. Jo Lusi – representing his wife, the late Lyn Lusi. (Submitted photo courtesy Marquette University)

It was the first university to partner with the independent nonprofit Opus Prize Foundation in 2005 to organize and execute the selection process and award ceremony for the $1 million Opus Prize, a faith-based humanitarian award that recognizes unsung heroes of any faith tradition, anywhere in the world, who are solving persistent social problems.

“For 10 years the Opus Prize has recognized unsung heroes, worldwide, doing groundbreaking work to relieve suffering and injustice and to attack their root causes, and this week is the first time all living prize recipients are represented at one place at the same time, along with close partners in service of those recipients who are no longer with us,” said Jesuit Fr. Scott Pilarz, Marquette’s president.

He said it was humbling and a privilege to share the stage with the recipients, including Msgr. Richard Albert, who won the first prize in 2004 for his work to create self-help programs and a network of charities providing Jamaica’s poor with services and skills to transform their lives, to the 2012 winner, Congregation of the Passion Fr. Richard Frechette, a physician. Fr. Frechette began the work of the St. Luke Foundation for Haiti in collaboration with a group of young Haitian leaders, to provide education, health care and dignified humanitarian outreach to 150,000 people each year while employing more than 1,600 Haitian staff.

“This has been a remarkable opportunity for our university to be embraced by such wonderful women and men who can be such an inspiration for our students,” Fr. Pilarz said of the 10 humanitarians who met with students and participated in public events from Feb. 4-8.

Don Neureuther, director of the Opus Prize Foundation, said the foundation was delighted to bring the 10-year celebration back to the first university to participate in the 18-month-long process, where a university uses its network of alumni and friends around the world to nominate potential Opus Prize recipients, gathers a panel of jurors to select three finalists to present to the Opus Prize board of directors, visits the nominees sites, and hosts the award ceremony and student and faculty interactions.

“We were delighted to bring it back here because of that, and because of the fact that the university has such a great commitment to the whole idea of service, and promoting service both domestically and internationally among its students,” said Neureuther.

During the interview, moderated by Ambassador Mark Dybul, executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, he asked the humanitarians to share their message about missions with students in the crowd.

Jesuit Fr. John Halligan, founder of the Working Boys’ Center – A Family of Families in Quito, Ecuador, won the Opus Prize in 2010, for his mission that has helped more than 6,000 families leave poverty forever. But he said it’s through the 15 college graduate volunteers each year that the mission continues.

“They keep God’s love for others young, active and strong, and it couldn’t be done without them. So, I think that if the young fellows and girls here would like to give a year or two of their lives, it will make a big change,” he said.

“Your life is a feast,” said 2008 Opus Prize recipient Marguerite “Maggy” Barankitse, founder of Maison Shalom, an organization that works to improve conditions for children while enhancing the lives of all Burundians who are emerging from nearly two decades of civil war between the Tutsis and Hutus.

“You must celebrate this feast, but to celebrate the feast you must invite others,” she encouraged.

Through her translator, Aicha Ech Channa, who received the Opus Prize in 2009, as founder and president of the Association Solidarite Feminine that serves single mothers in Casablanca, Morocco, said she was impressed by the humanism she found within the university. The Americans she met proved that there are no frontiers between human beings, and she prays that everyone continues their mission work.

“Because for me the Opus Prize is as important if not more important than the Nobel prize,” she said, speaking through a translator.

Jesuit Fr. Trevor Miranda, who founded and runs a system of 450 literacy centers in India known as the Reach Education Action Programme (REAP) to encourage families to continue sending their children to school, and established microfinance opportunities for women, said the students must look to themselves to change the world.

“If you want to see change, you must be the change,” he said. “That’s the message I give you; you must be the change.”

Neureuther said that the Opus Prizes have been a win-win for the university partners and the foundation because, in almost every case, the university or its students have continued a relationship with a particular recipient.

One that was touching to him was the relationship that has continued between Fr. Miranda and Lisa Hensch, a 2006 Marquette graduate, and one of the first students chosen to travel and do due diligence on finalists for the second annual Opus Prize in 2005.

“To see a student maintain a relationship for seven or eight years is pretty remarkable and there are a number of those kinds of stories,” Neureuther said of Hensch, who had dinner with Fr. Miranda one night, attended the liturgy another night and attended the keynote program.

Hensch and another Marquette student participated in site visits for that year’s finalists — Fr. Miranda in Mumbai, India, and Dr. Juliana Akinyi Otieno, a pediatrician in Kenya.

Hensch said the trip, and one particular experience from her time in India, shaped the way she interviewed for jobs following graduation.

“I had the opportunity one day with Fr. Miranda’s group to sit on the rooftop and talk to women who were receiving part of his microfinance loan program, how they bought the products that they were making and told stories of how their families’ lives had changed now that they are part of the contributing factor of building their family up, and one young woman challenged me at the end,” Hensch, 29, told your Catholic Herald in a telephone interview. “I was the only woman in our group traveling so she said to me, ‘It’s a blessing that you are getting a business degree. Don’t take it for granted, and make sure you go out and corrupt the corporate world.’”

A confused Hensch asked the translator to repeat what the woman said.

“Because what does that mean? Corruption in the U.S. is not a good thing,” she said. “And her description was find a company that you can be proud of and find a company that will let you do good work, and use their resources to do good.”

Hensch, who works as a project manager for the GE Foundation, set out to do just that when she graduated with her business degree in marketing and IT.

“Every time I sat down with a corporation, as an IT interview, I wanted to make sure they had programs that allowed me to give back or to be engaged in not only the local community, but around the world,” she said.

When Hensch began working at GE Healthcare in Wauwatosa upon graduation, she would once again meet Dr. Otieno, who received one of the two $100,000 prizes as an Opus Prize runner-up in 2005, thanks to GE Healthcare’s global health care program in Kenya.

“I was paired once again with Dr. Otieno at her hospital, so (the relationship) started with interacting with her and then connecting with Fr. Miranda on Facebook, and just following up with the READ newsletters,” she said.

The events during Mission Week gave Hensch a chance to reconnect with Fr. Miranda and the people who have had a lasting impact upon her life since that first experience in Mumbai.

“It was an experience that will forever make me grateful and remind me of the good people and the work that’s going on around the world,” she said. “So as we have a bad day here, or we want to complain about the things around us, you can sit down and think about Fr. Miranda working in Mumbai, or you can imagine what teachers are going through, or the life changes they’ve had by receiving an education and it just humbles you. So, it was a pleasure to see some of the Opus Foundation Board and some of the family members who helped create the organization throughout this week because they truly have impacted more people than I think they’ll ever imagine.”