Little Sisters of the Poor's mother provincial, Loraine Maguire, accepted the 12th Gaudium et Spes Award from the Knights of Columbus in Toronto, August 2. Photo by Michael Swan

Little Sisters are big winners as Knights gather in Toronto

  • August 3, 2016

TORONTO – The Little Sisters who fought the big system heard the cheers, held back tears and accepted the Gaudium et Spes Award from the Knights of Columbus at the Knights’ annual gala “States Dinner” in Toronto Tuesday, Aug. 2.

Little Sisters of the Poor’s mother provincial, Loraine Maguire, nearly cried as she described how happy she felt walking out of the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington D.C. after hearing a unanimous May 16 decision in Zubik v. Burwell. The Supreme Court ordered lower courts to find a compromise to exempt the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious employers from having to pay for health insurance that covers the cost of artificial contraception.

“I felt as if I was walking on air,” said Maguire. “It was one of the most hopeful, joy-filled days of my life.”

The Knights of Columbus in the United States provided $1 million to fund the exhaustive legal battle between the Little Sisters and the contraceptive mandate contained in rules for the 2011 Affordable Care Act.

“With a kind yet intrepid spirit, (the Little Sisters of the Poor) opposed government regulations that sought to force them to act against their consciences so that they may continue to carry out their longstanding service to the poor,” said the award citation.

The Little Sisters are the first religious order to receive the Gaudium et Spes award, which was first given to Mother Teresa of Calcutta in 1992. Other honourees include L’Arche founder Jean Vanier in 2005, Archbishop of Krakow Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz in 2010 and former Archbishop of Chicago Cardinal Francis George in 2015.

The award to the sisters fits into a religious freedom theme the Knights of Columbus are promoting at their 134th Supreme Convention in Toronto. The Knights have also brought bishops from Iraq and Syria to participate in their convention.

The Knights of Columbus played a significant lobbying role in persuading the United States Congress to declare massacres of Christians by Daesh (also known as ISIS) a genocide.

The Little Sisters of the Poor did not go looking for a high-profile fight against Washington regulators, said Maguire.

“We would never have chosen to become the public face of resistance to the HHS mandate,” she said.

The Health and Human Services mandate, also known as the contraceptive mandate, dates from 2000, when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that companies providing insurance for prescription drugs to their employees but excluding birth control were violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Little Sisters of the Poor argued in the 3rd, 5th, 10th and D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals that the mandate violated their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion by forcing them to indirectly pay for forms of contraception that violate Catholic teaching. Each of these courts ruled the burden on the Little Sisters’ religious freedom rights was not significant.

The Supreme Court found that the lower courts should have sought a compromise which would allow the order of Catholic sisters a way out of paying for contraception.

Rather than trying to win legal points, the Little Sisters want to get on with running their 27 homes for vulnerable, elderly Americans, Maguire told about 2,000 Knights gathered in Toronto’s Allstream Centre.

“In this current cultural context, we wish nothing more than to continue serving the needs of the elderly poor,” she said.

She also hoped the media spotlight would help her order with new vocations.

“This gathering, for me, is a glimpse of the heavenly banquet,” she told the Knights. “I have never known the power of prayer as I have experienced it over these past three years.”

This year the Knights are celebrating US $175 million raised worldwide for worthwhile causes and more than 73.5 million hours of volunteering. Their 2015 global fundraising was US $1.5 million higher than in 2014. Last year was the 17th year in a row that the Knights set records for both hours of service and dollars raised.

In Canada the Knights of Columbus in 2015 raised $22.2 million and gave more nine million hours of volunteer service. Quebec was Canada’s most generous province for the Canadian knights.

The convention has attracted knights from the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Poland, Mexico, Mindanao, Guam, the Dominican Republic and all parts of the United States.

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