The annual St. Francis of Assisi Awards honor Catholics from across the Anchorage Archdiocese who embody lives of stewardship in the spirit of the much beloved founder of the Franciscans.
This year, eight individuals or groups were honored for their selfless dedication during the Oct. 8 awards banquet at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral in Anchorage. It marked the first time the banquet was held on parish grounds, rather than in a hotel.
“This year’s St. Francis dinner was the most relaxed and joy-filled since we began,” Archbishop Roger Schwietz said. “Being in our own territory at Our Lady of Guadalupe was part of that positive atmosphere and the number of truly deserving parishioners who were nominated was impressive, giving much to be grateful for.”
“It was lovely, very festive,” said Laurie Evans-Dinneen, director of the Office of Stewardship and Development for the archdiocese. “Everyone felt at home, and people were really engaged, up and about visiting.”
The awards banquet began in 2001, and named in honor of Anchorage Archbishop Emeritus Francis Hurley’s patron saint. Nominations for awards are open to anyone in the archdiocese. This year nearly 50 nominations were submitted. The Archdiocesan stewardship committee made the final selections, with the approval of Archbishop Schwietz.
This year’s winners are listed below.
BRIAN CLEARY: Reviving Catholic education
Brian Cleary is beginning his third year as principal of St. Mary School in Kodiak. But “principal” does not fully encapsulate the role Cleary has played in the renewal and rebounding of a school which was struggling before he arrived on the scene to offer both personal and professional expertise.
“Morale and the school’s reputation in the community were low,” said St. Mary pastor Father Frank Reitter. Symbolic, perhaps, were 18 holes in the slides on the playground as well as enrollment dipping to 47 students.
Cleary is well known and respected in Kodiak. His own children had attended the school and he decided to come out of retirement to take on the task of saving St. Mary’s. Today, enrollment is at 77 students and growing. The kitchen has been remodeled and a hot lunch program launched. Academic programs have been added or enriched, including computer education, art and music.
Father Reitter described Cleary as “a gentle, loving presence and a driving force behind the new programs. He’s hired wisely and his work ethic and compassion set a tone which is charismatic and brings out the best in people.”
COLLEEN HELLIGSO: Saving a Catholic school
Along with Cleary, Colleen Helligso was one of two honored for her role in the turnaround at St. Mary’s School on Kodiak Island. Helligso served as the school secretary for 30 years, and is today the volunteer bookkeeper. Someone who nominated Helligso said, “It’s no exaggeration to say St. Mary’s School would have closed two years ago if not for Colleen.”
Helligso was instrumental in recruiting principal Cleary, and at a time when the school faced closure, she organized a campaign of donors who have supported the school and allowed it to remain open when it looked all but impossible. As an unpaid special assistant to the principal, she volunteers for everything from supervising building maintenance to helping prepare classrooms for opening. When others saw a school destined for closure, Helligso, a long-time parishioner of St. Mary’s, put all her efforts into resurrecting the institution.
ALICE YOUNG: ‘A heart for the benefit of others’
Since moving to Alaska in 1948, Alice Young has been a dedicated steward of her church and community. The parent of an adult child with disabilities, Young used her experience to enrich families with similar challenges. She helped establish the Joy Community in Anchorage, a Catholic group which brings together those with disabilities for worship and socializing. She and her husband Ken established a local chapter of the Down Syndrome Society, and she assisted in founding The ARC of Anchorage and served on its board.
Young assisted Father Fred Bugarin in bringing AFACT, (Anchorage Faith in Action Communities Together), a community organizing group, to St. Anthony Church and served on its board. She has been active in three Catholic communities: Holy Family Cathedral, Holy Spirit Center, and St. Anthony, where she now helps with religious education and other ministries. Her community activities extend to Camp Fire and serving as a foster parent. Her daughter said, “I grew up with a mother who tirelessly gave of her time, her talents and skills, and her heart for the benefit of others.”
MIKE & AMY REIDELL: A heavenly garden
Mike and Amy Reidell share Saint Francis’ love for the environment as well as Pope Francis’ call to respect our natural world by extending their love of gardening to their church, their community and newcomers.
The couple manages and maintains St. Anthony Church’s community organic garden, working tirelessly despite the fact that both have full-time jobs. They successfully wrote a proposal for a $15,000 grant which expanded the garden. During the planning of the garden expansion, they encouraged community input and dedicated much of their own labor to make sure the grant went as far as possible. The Reidells are a constant presence working in the garden, even building a large tool shed for equipment and a sheltered porch for gardeners who want to sell their produce. Since many gardeners are refugees or recent immigrants, often from Bhutan or Nepal, the Reidells have gone out of their way to help them succeed, even providing transportation to farmers’ markets where the gardeners earn a significant part of their income.
In the summer 2014 issue of Alaska Catholic magazine, Amy Reidell described the garden as “a place of great joy,” and described how gardening can connect you to people even if you don’t speak the same language.
CHARLIE EBENSCHWEIGER: Adopting a parish
A parishioner at Sacred Heart Church in Seward, Charlie Ebenschweiger is so dedicated to the parish community that someone who nominated him wrote, “Charlie gives to our Lord and Sacred Heart his time and talent almost seven days a week all year long.”
Ebenschweiger is one of those parishioners that every parish covets, but whose deeds are often accomplished out of the limelight. Before each Mass on weekdays and Sunday, he prepares the altar and is always available to help with the offertory or other duties.
He is a gardener who loves to beautify the church by planting and tending to the flowers that make Sacred Heart a spot well known to visitors who admire his talent. Additionally, he is the unofficial parish photographer, frequently recording major events or holidays and offering photos to parishioners.
Ebenschweiger is a single man who has adopted families at Sacred Heart as his own and has contributed to the strengthening of the faith community at that parish.
LOIS ROBBINS: Charity in action
Lois Robbins’ life is charity in action. She serves both Resurrection Chapel at Holy Spirit Center and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in South Anchorage. At Resurrection Chapel, where coffee and snacks are provided after each Mass, Robbins serves as hospitality coordinator, acts as sacristan for Mass preparation and serves on the board. She ensures fresh flowers are before the altar and has assisted with renovations to the dining room at the Center.
At St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Robbins helps coordinate perpetual adoration, and in addition to her own hour, is often available to help substitute for those unable to fulfill their time slot. Robbins is also well known for personal acts of charity — attending to dying parishioners with meals or with long visits at their bedsides. This applies as well to her position as a school secretary at a large local high school, where she often goes above and beyond to assist students in difficult situations — like providing a prom dress for a student too poor to buy one.
ARCHANGEL ATTIC: In service of others
Archangel Attic is a second-hand store next St. Benedict Church in Anchorage. Its mission has always been to serve the community by providing lower income neighbors with affordable shopping and welcoming personal interactions. Income from Archangel Attic is dedicated to Lumen Christi High School, a ministry of St. Benedict Church.
Over the years, the volunteers at Archangel Attic have made steady improvements. With the help of St. Benedict’s Knights of Columbus, they completely refurbished the physical structure. The number of volunteers working at the store has increased to more than 25, enabling the store to be open six days a week. The store supports Catholic Social Services by providing clothing for refugee families and supports the HUGGS program with coats in the fall. Archangel Attic donates glasses to the Lion’s Club, and passes along other items to Access Alaska or the Bishop’s Attic thrift store and other community efforts.
MICHAEL’S YOUTH GROUP: Charitable youth
For the past four years, the middle school youth group at St. Michael Church in Palmer has met regularly on Friday afternoons. Teens often gather in the summer as well. Launched at the suggestion of teens and devoted to charitable efforts in the parish and community, the group tackles service projects like painting bunk-beds at St. Therese’s Catholic Camp, helping with moving at Our Lady of the Valley School and running bake sales and car washes to raise funds for medical expenses for a local deacon.
Teens visit residents at the Alaska Veterans & Pioneers Home and support a child through the international program, Unbound, raising money themselves. They support each other while extending hospitality to youth outside the parish.