President Travels Around the World to Witness Global Catholic Work

Manhattan College's President Brennan O’Donnell embarked on a journey to Africa in January to witness the work of Catholic Relief Services.

Since Manhattan College was first established in 1853, it has been committed to an educational mission that puts service to others at its core. When Manhattan’s president, Brennan O’Donnell, Ph.D., recently received an invitation to travel to Africa to witness the work of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), he saw it as an opportunity to deepen the College’s connection with the U.S. Catholic Church’s preeminent global service organization.

“I hope that the college presidents who went with us on this trip, including President O’Donnell, got to see how we are all part of one human family, and how solidarity really can transform the world. I hope they also saw how we learn from those we serve,” says Ken Hackett, former president of CRS, who traveled with the delegation. “Finally, I hope they were inspired to find ways to collaborate with CRS to bring our experience on the ground.”

On Jan. 9, O’Donnell traveled from New York City to the city of Kigali in Rwanda, a nation that is still recovering from the 1994 genocide that killed approximately 1 million people. Accompanied by Mary Lyons, Ph.D., president of the University of San Diego; Sister Anne Munley, IHM, Ph.D., president of Marywood University; and Rev. Stephen Privett, S.J., president of the University of San Francisco; O’Donnell and the group began their trip throughout Rwanda and Burundi with CRS.

CRS is the official humanitarian agency of the U.S. Catholic community and is dedicated to assisting impoverished and disadvantaged people around the world regardless of their race, religion or ethnicity. The organization started its work in Rwanda more than 50 years ago and planned a full itinerary for the group to hear about the history, culture and progress CRS and its partners have made there.


Above photos by Sala Lewis for Catholic Relief Services

Part of the delegation’s first day was spent visiting the Genocide Memorial, which is built on a site where more than 250,000 people are buried. The memorial opened in 2004 on the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, and as O’Donnell explains, “stands as a memorial of what we are capable of when we allow ethnic hatred and an ideology of violence to obscure our common humanity.”

“To stand in the midst of a modern city with that history under your feet is deeply moving and deeply disturbing,” O’Donnell says. “It reminds us of how fragile peace can be, and how vigilant we all need to be in building peace.”

The remainder of the first day was spent visiting the Community Healing & Reconciliation project, which is sponsored by the Catholic Church in Rwanda and sustained by CRS. The project focuses on bringing members of both the Hutu and Tutsi communities together to recognize the reality of the genocide, foster forgiveness and move forward living peacefully as neighbors.

“We heard moving testimonials of survivors who somehow had been able to forgive those who killed members of their families, as well as of perpetrators who had found forgiveness and had been able to be reintegrated into their communities,” O’Donnell says.

Akazi Kanoze Youth Livelihoods is another program that CRS helps to maintain and is funded through the U.S. Agency for International Development. On the second day, the delegation witnessed how the program is teaching job training and financial and professional skills to youth ages 14-24. Among their projects is an “internal lending community,” through which a cooperative collects dues and distributes them in the form of small loans or grants from its community aid fund.

“It really was impressive to watch the teenagers interact so professionally, as they considered the merits of the loan requests and enforced the basic rules of the cooperative,” O’Donnell adds.

While in Rwanda, the delegation met Prime Minister Pierre Habumuremyi, Archbishop Thaddée Ntihinyurwa and U.S. Ambassador Donald Koran, and was also featured on Rwandan television. That same evening, O’Donnell had dinner with Manhattan College’s Lasallian Outreach Volunteer Experience (L.O.V.E.) group visiting Rwanda and heard about the experience the students and leaders were having volunteering at the Duha Complex School and orphanage.

The following day, the delegation left for Burundi to learn more about the changes CRS is implementing, and in particular, to see how the one of the world’s poorest countries is slowly rebuilding itself after several years of war, violence and poverty. The delegation also received the chance in Burundi to meet with Archbishop Evariste Mgoyagoye, Second Vice President Gervais Rufyikiri, and U.S. Ambassador Pamela Slutz.

In Bujumbura, Burundi, the delegation visited an AIDS clinic that is part of the One World One Family project and is committed to improving and preserving the dignity of people living with HIV/AIDS.

“The incidence of HIV is down from double digit percentages, and in Rwanda is under three percent,” O’Donnell says. “The clinic we visited was among the more heart-wrenching of our experiences, as it was in a desperately poor neighborhood, where we saw a kind of grinding poverty that is difficult for us in the U.S. to imagine. The staff works heroically in very challenging conditions to educate expectant mothers and fathers, care for mothers and infants upon delivery, and treat and counsel those infected by HIV.”

As the delegation wrapped up its trip in Burundi after seeing much of the work CRS is doing to improve the livelihood of the country, the college presidents prepared to share the experience with each of their communities.

Rev. Stephen Privett wrote in a Jan. 24 letter to the University of San Francisco community, “what is most noticeable in all these efforts was the role that CRS plays in supporting local groups through workshops and courses that train community members in basic leadership and organizational skills and offering resources to jump-start various projects. CRS is not a big brother/sister organization, but one that forms genuine partnerships with highly motivated, determined and intelligent, if not formally educated, members of the community.”

On Jan. 31, the presidents shared their experiences at a session held at the annual national convention of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. O’Donnell also presented his experience at a recent faculty convocation for faculty and staff.

“I returned from Africa with a renewed sense of how important it is for us, as a Catholic and Lasallian institution, to have a global vision and a deep sense of our connection with our brothers and sisters in need,” he said. “I look forward to working with our faculty, students and staff to strengthen our relationship with CRS as part of our mission of encouraging our students to develop a vision of global solidarity and service.”