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March 22, 2005

Contact Pat Kerrigan at 796-3041 or


LA CROSSE, Wis -- Sister Marie Leon LaCroix-founder, director, and promoter of Viterbo theatre; Father Bernard McGarty-a proponent of ecumenism and a better understanding of world religions; and Obang Okello-a man who escaped the genocide near Sudan to share his story of faith and courage, will be honored by Viterbo University.

The three are scheduled to receive the 2005 Pope John XXIII Award for Distinguished Service in a ceremony to be held on campus Monday, April 18.  Recipients are selected by the Viterbo Board of Advisors and the award represents the highest non-academic honor conferred by the university.

As an FSPA educator, Sister Marie Leon LaCroix has opened the minds and hearts of students to “beauty, truth, and goodness” by emphasizing the Arts and its place in their young and developing lives. Her career as founder, director, and promoter of Viterbo theatre spanned 40 years until her retirement in 1994.
 In 1955, she founded the Viterbo University Theatre Arts program and soon after, Christmas on the Village Square débuted in the Murphy Center gymnasium, beginning the theatre legacy that would become the quality trademark of Viterbo.
The growth of the theatre required the attention of a woman who possessed a strong constitution and Sister Marie Leon, with tenacity and perseverance, was a good match for the job. Early on, she was willing to try new forms of theatre, which were considered brave and experimental. These same capacities served her well when it came time to design and build the Fine Arts Center. She was a critical member of the faculty who would work with the architects on this very challenging, magnificent showcase to the fine and performing arts. In all, she directed 75 productions, costumed 123 separate performances, and designed 40 shows.

She has earned the title Professor Emerita, Viterbo's Black Box Theatre is named in her honor and she has been a recipient of Viterbo's Teacher of the Year Award.

Father McGarty currently serves as Visiting Scholar of Ecumenical Studies at Viterbo University, promoting a better understanding of world religions and the relationship to Catholicism.

Within the Diocese of La Crosse, McGarty has served as Vocation Director, Director of Communications, Times Review Editor, Director of Ecumenism and co-founder of LARC (Lutherans, Anglicans and Roman Catholics) in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. He has been pastor of several parishes within the Diocese including: St. Patrick's Parish in Onalaska, St. Patrick's Parish in Eau Claire, St. Matthew's Parish in Wausau, and most recently, Blessed Sacrament in La Crosse. He has also served as chaplain for St. Rose Convent in La Crosse.
McGarty is the author of Meditations for Weekdays in Lent (1985), Biking and Canoeing in Western Wisconsin (1988), John Donne as a Persuasive Preacher (1989), and is co-author of The Encyclopedia of American Catholicism (1997).  In 1999, he received the Bishop John Paul Award for distinguished service to Catholic education. Next month, he will serve as moderator of “Ecumenism Today” a national conference to be held at Viterbo May 24-25.

At Viterbo, the majority of his work has concentrated on creating a better understanding of the Catholic religion and its relationship to those who practice their Lutheran, Protestant, Islamic, Jewish and Greek Orthodox faith.

Obang Okello was an 11-year-old when his life dramatically changed. Living in a border village between Ethiopia and Sudan, he was a constant witness to the endless peril of war. One day in school, the building was bombed and in the resulting inferno he escaped and began a treacherous 1,000 mile, 40-day barefoot walk to the refugee camps of Kenya. Eventually, he resettled in the United States where he began a new life. He is a graduate of Bethel College in St. Paul where he studied business and theology.
In addition to his job in the banking industry, Obang Okello shares his story, particularly with youth, about how courage, tenacity, and faith can contribute to our ability to survive under the most extreme of circumstances. In his case, he survived the violence of war. For youth, he draws parallels to the pressures associated with resisting drug and alcohol use and the challenges of peer pressure.

The ceremony and banquet, which will be held in the Fine Arts Center, is set for 6:30 p.m. April 18. Call 608-796-3070 for ticket details.

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