Those attending Nov. 2 annual SOAR! Award Dinner in Washington included, from left to right, Sister Kathleen Lunsmann, an Immaculate Heart of Mary sister who is president of SOAR!; the Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Award recipients – Father William Byrne, the pastor of St. Peter Parish on Capitol Hill, and Sister Deirdre Byrne, a member of the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts; comedian Mark Russell, the evening’s master of ceremonies; and Michael Rodgers, the chairperson of SOAR!’s Board of Directors.
Those attending Nov. 2 annual SOAR! Award Dinner in Washington included, from left to right, Sister Kathleen Lunsmann, an Immaculate Heart of Mary sister who is president of SOAR!; the Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Award recipients – Father William Byrne, the pastor of St. Peter Parish on Capitol Hill, and Sister Deirdre Byrne, a member of the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts; comedian Mark Russell, the evening’s master of ceremonies; and Michael Rodgers, the chairperson of SOAR!’s Board of Directors.
At its Nov. 2 annual dinner in Washington, SOAR! (Support Our Aging Religious) presented its highest honor, the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Award, to siblings - Sister Deirdre Byrne and Father William Byrne.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl praised the honorees, saying they offered "wonderful examples of everything the Church holds up to us... This is what the priesthood is all about, this is what religious life is all about."

Comedian Mark Russell, the master of ceremonies at the awards dinner, noted that Father Byrne "is pastor of St. Peter Church on Capitol Hill, where members of Congress come to atone."

Russell noted that Sister Dede is a woman religious - a member of the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts - and also a medical doctor for the Spanish Catholic Center and an officer in the military. "Sister Doctor Colonel - she wears three hats, and one of them is a helmet," Russell joked.

This past year, SOAR! distributed nearly $1 million in grants to religious congregations for their retired members, and since the group's founding in 1986, the group has given $12 million for retired religious across the United States. About 300 guests attended this year's awards dinner at the Andrew Mellon Auditorium which raised $275,000.

Genevieve Murphy, one of the event's co-chairs, noted that the nation's religious have served millions in Catholic schools, hospitals and in programs for the poor. "(They are) living beacons of love and selfless service," she said. SOAR!, she added, is dedicated to helping elderly sisters and brothers "live their golden years the way we want our parents to."

Cardinal Wuerl, who just returned home to Washington after serving at the nearly month-long Synod on the New Evangelization in Rome, said bishops there expressed gratitude for the "great gift to the Church" offered by men and women in consecrated life. The cardinal noted the historic legacy of the nation's "women religious (who were) really the builders of the Catholic educational and health care effort across the country."

Sister Kathleen Lunsmann, an Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister who serves as president of SOAR!, also praised that legacy.

"The contributions of Catholic sisters to American culture are not small. Sisters built the nation's largest private school system and non-profit health system," she said. "During a time when many women did not work outside the home, they were the nation's first large network of female professionals."

SOAR!'s president also noted that, "Sisters worked well beyond the normal age for retirement yet for many years received no retirement benefits or pension plan... Like many Americans, religious communities face the monumental challenge of funding elder care. In 2011 alone, the total cost to support elderly religious was over $1.1 billion dollars."

At the dinner, Rita Hofbauer Grants for retired religious were presented to the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales of Childs, Md. Father Mark Mealey from that religious order expressed thanks for the grant. "Your support assures us we have many friends to help and support us as partners in our ministry."

That grant was also presented to the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart in Baltimore, for the purchase of a wheelchair accessible van for the retired sisters there. "Our sisters are so grateful for all you do, for all you've done for us," said Sister Loretta Cornell, noting that previous support from SOAR! enabled her religious community to put in accessible bathrooms and to install storm windows and doors at their residence.

Jack Rust, the brother-in-law of the Elizabeth Seton Award recipients, noted that Sister Dede has served the poor in need of medical help in Washington, in Haiti and in Sudan. "She has a big heart. It's big enough to hold all those in need. Today she reaches out to anyone in need around the world."

Joking about the sibling honorees, Rust said, "Tonight you are honoring two people whom you can truly say are holier than thou."

Sister Deirdre, who is known for her humility, declined to give a speech after her award, but her brother Father Byrne, who also serves as the Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington, thanked SOAR! for the honor and for its support of retired religious.

"The cause is so magnificent," Father Byrne said, noting that the group's help makes a big difference to retired religious who've "given their life to Christ."

He encouraged the dinner's guests to pray for and support vocations to the priesthood and religious life. "Sister loves being a sister, and I love being a priest. It's great being a priest. It's great being a religious. This is a huge and powerful gift."

The calling to be a priest or a religious "is a wonderful life," Father Byrne. "The Church needs men and women religious. The Church needs good priests. We need sisters who are the hands of Christ, educating kids, working in hospitals" and serving the poor, he said, adding that the Church likewise needs priests to administer the sacraments and preach the Gospel.

The priest thanked their parents, the late Dr. William D. Byrne and Mary Byrne, for the example of their lives of faith and fidelity.

And in a lighter note, Father Byrne joked that there are other advantages to being sisters and priests - veils make you look younger, and black clothing is slimming, he said.

Russell followed the priest to the stage and said, "Father Bill, if your homilies are that funny, I'm there every Sunday, taking notes (and with an envelope)."

(More information on SOAR! can be found online at www.soar-usa.org .)