The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland began Deo Gratias, the annual donor recognition event, in 1945. It includes Mass celebrated by the bishop, a brunch and presentation of the highest diocesan honor, the Archbishop Edward F. Hoban Award. Guests at the event, coordinated by the Catholic Community Foundation, included a number of Catholic Charities donors.
On Dec. 5, Sister Rita Mary Harwood, SND, who retired in August after 27 years as secretary for parish life and development, was presented with the Hoban Award by Bishop Edward Malesic.
During Mass in Sacred Heart Chapel at the Center for Pastoral Leadership, the bishop said the word Eucharist means thanksgiving. “So I am celebrating this Mass in thanksgiving for all of you. You are generous to the diocese and especially annual Catholic Charities Appeal. After this Mass, we will have lunch and honor Sister Rita Mary’s work at Grafton Prison and in other ways. Sister, you inspire all of us to give more, be better and love as God has loved us,” he said.
Life requires us to set priorities, the bishop said. “Sometimes we get it right; sometimes we get it wrong.” He told the congregation to “take the time, to ask the right questions, to test the quality of our faith that is important.” Jesus said if we believe in him, we will live forever. “That is the goal for all of u – to become saints. And how will we do that? By believing in Jesus,” he added.
The bishop reminded the group that faith is a gift, a virtue that needs work. God wants us to have a good relationship with him and he wants to help us fill in the valleys, level the mountains and straighten the roads so that he can come to us and we can go to him.
Bishop Malesic explained that Scriptures use the image of building a highway between us and God, with God doing the heavy lifting. But we have a part to play in the construction of the level road between us and heaven, he added.
As we make straight the paths so the Lord can come to us more easily, we must practice what we believe and be more loving, more faithful to God and more Christian, the bishop said. “That means getting rid of the anger that we sometimes are filled with, the road rage of life that happens when someone else does something we don’t like. We need to let go of the tendency to be filled with revenge and to be filled with forgiveness, instead.”
Advent is a time “of doing Christian roadwork within ourselves so that God can come to us and show us his mercy and we can go to God and give him our very lives,” he said.
“Let’s do our best to prepare our hearts to welcome him once again now, at Christmas and at the end of our lives,” Bishop Malesic said.
Frank Legan, chair, Catholic Charities board of directors, welcomed the group before lunch and Auxiliary Bishop emeritus Roger Gries offered the invocation.
Bishop Malesic shared some thoughts about Deo Gratias, noting the event was canceled last year because of the pandemic. “Nearly 40,000 faithful donors so far this year are helping us exceed our $13.5 million goal,” he said, mentioning some of the agencies aided by those funds.
Grafton Correctional Institute and the “Welcoming the Stranger” initiative to aid immigrants and refugees are among the programs being highlighted and are among those that Sister Rita Mary supported. He noted the inmates at Grafton made 40,000 masks for Catholic Charities and created a garden that helps feed those who visit the Bishop Cosgrove Center. The men were named Catholic Charities Volunteer of the Year for their efforts.
He also mentioned Sister Rita Mary’s efforts to assist immigrants, migrants, refugees and their families. That work was further detailed during remarks by Andrew Mathay, volunteer coordinator for Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services.
“Sister Rita Mary’s work with Grafton and MRS are all true and impactful, yet probably only represent a small percentage of her total efforts,” the bishop said, calling that work “an inspiration and testament to the work Catholic Charities is doing to change lives. To meet people where they are, to accept people and to offer hope and inclusion at all times”
Bishop Gries said he spent 45 years as a Benedictine monk before being named auxiliary bishop, noting he was familiar with the Benedictine abbey and its work, but not the broader work of the diocese. “I should never have asked Sister Rita Mary to show me around,” he quipped, noting how many ministries she served and how she helped get him involved.
After accepting the award, Sister Rita Mary told the group, “This isn’t about me.” She said so many distinguished people have received the Hoban Award that she feels undeserving. She also shared the story of an Afghani refugee family – father, nine-month pregnant mother and two children ages 2 and 4 who recently arrived in Cleveland. She had one day to help prepare temporary living quarters and settle them. “They arrived at about midnight on Saturday and the following Wednesday, the mother gave birth to her third child,” Sister said.
She talked about purchasing new pajamas for the children and leaving them on their beds. “They were ecstatic,” she said.
Sister Rita Mary also shared the story of taking the family to purchase needed items, including groceries and how overwhelming Walmart was for both her and them. When Sister invited a woman behind who was behind them in the checkout line a chance to go ahead of them, she refused and instead said how grateful she was to see them, offering her support and best wishes for the family. “She said she was honored to be near them,” Sister said, and told them we could all learn from their courage.
Within days of their arrival, the family was settled into a comfortable duplex on Cleveland’s West Side. An MRS caseworker ensured they had the necessities and support they will need to acclimate.
“Thank you to all who have shared their resources with us,” Sister Rita Mary said, noting much has been accomplished, especially with regard to migrants, immigrants, refugees, prison ministry, the poor, homeless and others struggling with difficulties.
“I want to say Deo Gratias – thanks be to God – to all of you,” she added.
The Hoban Award was named after Archbishop Edward F. Hoban, who became bishop of Cleveland Nov. 2, 1945 at age 67. Expectations were modest, but he proved to be a dramatic leader, a man of vision coupled with action. He directed a period of growth and expansion in the diocese that remains unmatched. His impact can be felt in education, religious vocations and charity. In recognition of his extraordinary service, Pope Pius XII gave him the title of archbishop, an honor usually reserved for prelates who lead an archdiocese. Archbishop Hoban died on Sept. 22, 1966 at age 88.
p Hoban died on Sept. 22, 1966 at age 88.