Courageous Missionaries

Pope Francis challenges young people in his letter Christ Alive, “Learn to swim against the tide, learn how to share Jesus and the faith he has given you.”

We asked students to write an essay explaining how and with whom they share the Good News of God’s love.

Students in grades 6–8 (Division I) and grades 9–12 (Division II) were eligible to enter Maryknoll’s 2019 Student Essay Contest.

For future news of the Maryknoll Student Essay Contest, stayed tuned to this site.

2019 Essay Contest Winners in each Division will receive:

  • $1,000 for First Place

  • $300 for Second Place

  • $150 for Third Place

Thank you to all who participated in the contest.

2019 Essay Contest Winners

Our theme “Courageous Missionaries” references Pope Francis’ letter Christ Alive in which he challenges young people to “Learn to swim against the tide, learn how to share Jesus and the faith he has given you.” Students were asked to write an essay explaining how and with whom they share the Good News of God’s love. We received 2,847 essays from students competing in two divisions (grades 6-8 and grades 9-12). Following are the winning essays.

DIVISION I (Grades 6-8)

Navigate to:
1st Place2nd Place3rd Place

1st Place – Tatiana Orsburn

Tatiana Orsburn, an eighth-grader at St. Mark School in Catonsville, Md., wins the $1,000 Bishop Francis X. Ford Award, named for the Maryknoll priest who was in the first group of Maryknoll missioners to China and died in a prison there in 1952.

How I Share My Love with My Story

I believe one way that I show God’s love to others is by sharing my story. You see, I didn’t have a family when I was little but it was because of God’s love that when I was 3 and a half, I got adopted and have the best family ever. God’s love also saw me through my medical complications that now make me an amputee.

I was born in Smalanks, Russia. I lived in an orphanage, with ladies that took good care of me but no family. When I turned 3, my name and picture went on the international database. That is when my parents in the U.S.A, who had been praying for a baby saw my picture and heard my story. They fell in love with my pictures and started the adoption process. Even though the adoption process can take years, for my parents it was five short months. They had to make two trips visiting me and the second one brought me home.

When I was born, I had some medical complications. I was born with a hole in my heart, an extra digit on my left hand, an extra rib (also on my left side), and several deformities in my left leg. At the age of 2 and a half I had a surgical procedure in Moscow. At this point they removed the extra thumb, and amputated my left leg. In Russia, people don’t make prosthetic limbs for amputees, so I would never have walked if I stayed in Russia.

I know firsthand how awesome God’s love is and how miracles can happen for a little baby. God’s love stretched halfway around the world.

Since God’s love was shown to me with such great magnitude, I try to show God’s love through all of my actions that I do today. One way I show God’s love is by taking care of other people, and helping others (no matter how hard it is). Another way I show God’s love is by respecting others, treat people with kindness, sharing, and listening to my parents (even if it’s hard to do). The way I help others is by feeding the poor (like making a few lunches), and donating my toys and clothes. Another way I help others is by helping pick up books that someone dropped. A few ways I respect other people is by not making fun of them, and respecting their privacy and their personal space. A way I treat people with kindness is by helping them, caring for them, and respecting and celebrating their differences. A way I  listen to my parents is by doing what they tell me to do, not doing stuff behind their backs, and only having to be asked once.

Since I am an amputee, I have participated in Paralympic swimming. I have worked hard and traveled to several different states for National Championships and Para World Games. I hope to be on the Emergent Team for Team USA this year. My long-term goal is to participate in the Paralympic Games in Paris in 2024. This travel and competition allow me to show how you can overcome obstacles through God’s love.

God’s love has made me the person that I am today. Since I started life without what most people consider necessities, a family, a home, a leg, I appreciate things differently. I try my best to show God’s love as it was shown to me.

2nd Place – Lizzy Fields

Lizzy Fields, an eighth-grader at Immaculate Conception School in Columbus, Ohio, wins the second-place prize of $300 in Division I of the 2019 Maryknoll Student Essay Contest.

Following “the little way”

The way that I share the good news of God ‘s love is mostly by being an example of what God’s love is really like. I do this by serving others, loving others, and spreading joy. Doing these things can be difficult, especially in the world we live in today. So, I decided to follow “the little way.” St. Therese of Lisieux called how she shared the good news of God’s love “the little way.” She spread his love by doing little things throughout her day to serve others, love them, and spread joy. The way that I’ve learned to do this is from two things: my mom and my encounter with Jesus Christ. From these two things, I’ve come to know the goodness of God and how his love should be shared with other people.

I’ve had two experiences in my life that have allowed me to actually not be afraid to share the good news of God’s love. The first one was my mom. She had cancer for 10 years before she passed away. My mom’s loving demeanor and child-like faith have truly shown me how to love people. Even through her suffering and pain, she still showed everyone around her the love of Christ. She showed selfless love, service, and she expressed God’s joy by doing little things for those around her. From her incredible example, I’ve learned that I need to serve and love others with joy. Saint Mother Teresa said, “Joy is strength.” This is what my mom lived by every day. Her strength came from all of her joy.

The other experience that allowed me to share the good news of God’s love was my encounter with Jesus Christ. The first time I truly realized his love for me and what he did because of it, I learned that I needed to follow him to spread God’s love. I always think about this Bible verse when this encounter comes to mind: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). I think the only way to share the good news of God’s love is knowing that God loves you. By knowing how infinite God’s love is for me, it has allowed me to share this abundant love with everyone else.

From these experiences, I’ve learned the ways I use to share the good news of God’s love. I do it by helping and serving others, by loving them, and by spreading God’s joy. I always try to help others when anyone needs it. When someone drops their books in the hall, I go over and help them pick them up. When a kindergartner or first-grader is lost in the halls, I can go over and help them get to class. Even the smallest things can help someone. The next way that I try to share the good news of God’s love is by loving people. Just by going to people and asking them if they need me to pray for them, or by giving them a hug or a compliment is spreading the good news of God’s love. These things can show people how loved they are in the eyes of God. The last way that I share the good news of God’s love is by spreading joy. I do this by smiling at people and laughing with them. This is my favorite way to spread God’s love because joy can help people to see that they are loved and seen, and it shows people that God is SO good. God’s love is so evident in the joy that he gives us.

By doing these things, I share the good news of God’s love. Even though the things I do may not be super major, they still make a difference. Spreading God’s love is so important because it helps people to see the true meaning of why they love each other. I always try and share the good news of God’s love with everyone around me. I share God’s love with my classmates, family, and friends. All of humanity deserves to know the love of God and know that they are loved. It’s always going to be hard to do this. The world is always going to tell us that we shouldn’t share his love. We need to learn to swim against the tide, be different, and be unafraid of the people who will try to tell us otherwise. We need to be bold in our faith and bold in sharing the name of Jesus. That is what I try to do every day. God’s love isn’t meant just for me. It is meant for all of humanity.

3rd Place – Mairead Reitzel

Mairead Reitzel, an eighth-grader at St. Mary School in East Islip, N.Y., wins the third-place prize of $150 in Division I of the 2019 Maryknoll Student Essay Contest.

Providing a home for the holidays

In Pope Francis’ letter to young people, Christ Alive, he invites us to “swim against the tide and share our faith with the world.” Attending a Catholic school has given me many opportunities to do this through groups such as the Junior St. Vincent de Paul, National Junior Honor Society, Anti-Bias Ambassadors Program, and Young Leaders Club. My school has also given its students a safe place to .express our beautiful faith. Outside, however, it can be difficult to go against what most people my age feel is important and speak up for what my faith has taught me instead. In today’s world, it is even more important to try to be a courageous missionary, not just within the walls of church and school, but in the broader community also.

One of the ways I have been invited to be a courageous missionary takes place each year. Every Christmas my family serves meals to the needy in our local community. My father’s friend from high school started this effort many years ago, in honor of his mother, and got many of his friends’ families involved. Since the first year, Eileen’s Home for the Holidays has grown into a large event that gives hundreds of people not only a hot meal, but a welcoming environment in which to celebrate the Christmas holiday, surrounded by warmth and loving people.

The mission has always been from its inception to serve others, as we are commanded to do in John 13:1-17. Jesus tells us, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Although we do not know everyone that comes in personally, each person is touched in a unique way through the love and service that is there. Before the doors are opened, we all gather in prayer, giving thanks for the opportunity to help serve as Jesus calls us to, and for everyone who has helped the event.

We share our service with each person who comes in. Large families who can’t afford meals for everyone come, filling up two or three tables. Their children are excited to look for toys and meet Santa, and their parents are overjoyed watching them. Everyone is thankful for the coats and extra food they get to bring home. Homeless, sometimes lonely adults come in by themselves and get to talk with their tablemates. Elderly people who no longer work come in and share stories with the children and waiters. Some of the visitors come every year and have made friends with each other and the servers, and some are first-timers. These special friendships and unities are part of what makes this sharing of our faith so unique and special.

Although we are doing this for others, I can honestly say that this is my favorite part of the Christmas season. It is also true that this event, which I am lucky enough to be a part of, makes me feel better and enables me to enjoy the other parts of my day more.

I feel much more fortunate to open presents after seeing all the children who benefit from the event. I feel luckier to spend Christmas with my family after seeing all those who didn’t previously have anyone to share the day with. I feel so much more blessed to be eating a Christmas meal, knowing that I have helped gift other people with that same blessing.

Although working at Eileen’s Home for the Holidays is missionary work, it does not require a lot of courage, because I am surrounded by adults and friends. However, it is teaching me, guiding m.e, and instilling in me the values that I will need when it is one day my job to spread the good news as a leader myself.

I am so fortunate to be able to share the faith Jesus has given me with others in so many ways, and to have parents and teachers that involve me in my faith so often. But, becoming a courageous person can be hard when it seems that we are judged harshly for sticking with our beliefs. Spreading the word of Jesus can be a challenge, but we must remember that Jesus wouldn’t give us anything we couldn’t handle.

DIVISION II (Grades 9-12)

Navigate to:
1st Place2nd Place3rd Place

1st Place – Sophia Allen

Sophia Allen, a 12th-grader at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Anniston, Ala., wins the $1,000 Bishop Patrick J. Byrne Award, named for the missioner who died on a forced march in Korea in 1950.

Sharing God’s Love with Special Children

Before I leave my house, I never forget to tell my mom that I love her. When my friends are leaving school, the last thing I always say to them is, “Drive safe, I love you.” Saying “I love you” has become the societal standard for exhibiting love in the most basic and concrete way. However, although we may mean it, we are not always intentional in saying it. Intentional love is exhibited in our actions, which speak volumes more than a simple phrase. I have found that the greatest love in the world is found in gestures of care and compassion. After all, God cannot stand in front of us and say, “I love you,” but his love is still undoubtedly present. God’s love protects us, nurtures us, and blesses us with opportunity.

This past summer, I had the eye-opening experience of working for the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind. One morning after church, I checked my phone and saw a text from an unknown number. In the text, a woman introduced herself as the coordinator for a summer camp held at the Alabama School for the Blind. She stated that one of her lifeguards had backed out last minute, and my friend Emma had told her that I might be able to fill the spot. Admittedly, I was initially reluctant to accept her offer because I would have to start the very next day and drive an hour to get there. I had always wanted to do something like this, but I felt that the timing was just not right. However, I absolutely love children and had gotten lifeguard certified the month before, so this offer was impossible for me to resist. I texted her back and informed her that I would be there bright and early on Monday. It was not until I arrived the next morning that I realized what an amazing experience this would be. Immediately, I recognized that the Lord was at work, and that his timing was perfect.

Every weekday for the next month, I lifeguarded at the School for the Blind in Talladega, Alabama. On my first day, I helped a girl who was bound to a wheelchair get in the water for the first time. It was beautiful to watch her amazement in doing something that we so often take for granted. I got to share God’s love by protecting the vulnerable that could not see or hear. Pope Francis once said, “How many pages of the Sacred Scripture speak to us of God’s presence, closeness and tenderness for every man, especially for the smallest, the poor and the troubled! The greater our need, the more His gaze upon us is filled with mercy. He feels compassion and pity towards us because He knows our weaknesses.” As I engaged with these young children, I was reminded of the special place in his heart that Jesus has for children. It was incredibly beautiful to be able to help children swim for the first time. For other kids who loved to swim, it was the only time that they got to the whole year. The excitement on their faces was priceless.

I realized that God’s love is limitless. It is not bound by earthly disabilities or physical inabilities. When I was blessed to get to share God’s love with the deaf, blind, autistic, and severely mentally disabled, I realized that everyone has their own way of exhibiting love. Love cannot be defined in a phrase or specific action. Love is personal. It relates to our deepest insecurities, inabilities, and failures. That is why it is so beautiful and intimate. While working at the Alabama School for the Blind, I recognized that God knows our shortcomings, accepts them, and loves us for them. His love is completely unconditional, and sharing this love with others is the most pure and heartwarming feeling in the world.

2nd Place – Cotter Welch

Cotter Welch, an 11th-grader at Mercy High School in Farmington Hills, Mich., wins the second- place prize of $300 in Division II of the 2019 Maryknoll Student Essay Contest.

A league of love

I was surrounded by my closest friends and family in the sterile smelling hospital room. I peered over the edge of the bed, and into my mother’s arms, to see two miniature, ocean blue eyes staring back at me. I made my way onto the bed and held out my arms as the fragile baby was placed into them. I could feel her heartbeat against my chest and everything was quiet. My baby sister had just been born and my life was about to change forever.

Now, my sister and I are best friends. When I come home from school, her warmhearted smile and embrace fill me with joy. I always look forward to seeing her at the end of my day. Sometimes she asks me to play and other times we just hang out together like ordinary siblings, but my sister is extraordinary. My sister has autism. But refusing to let it define her, she treks off to physical, occupational, and speech therapy to improve her fine and gross motor skills every day. Her perseverance can only be fully captured through Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Her determination and trust in God’s plan have inspired me to help others in situations similar to hers.

The way that I found to do this is through Miracle League. Miracle League is a foundation that allows kids with special needs to play sports. I specifically help kids play baseball by helping them swing the bat or running the bases with them. One of the most rewarding experiences is when I get to talk with the parents after the game. I have had parents tell me stories similar to my sister’s in that their child has never been able to play sports before or that they have never seen their child run that fast. I love hearing the children’s laughs and seeing their smiles as they get their first home run or hit the ball for the first time. The best part of the League is that everything feels normal, something that is rarely felt in these families. I know that in my life people will talk differently to my sister or act differently around her because she is not the societal ideal of “normal.” The thing is, there is no “normal” in God’s eyes. God created everyone in His Image and Likeness and each of us completely unique with different strengths and talents.

Unfortunately, society today does not recognize this fundamental principle and looks down upon being different, when, in reality, everyone is different. This is why Miracle League is such an important part of my life. I have the opportunity to show these children that they are equally loved by God and that they are no more different than everyone else is. God does not see the societal norm. He sees a human being that He created out of His Eternal Love and will love forever. Sharing God’s love with these children, who often need it the most, is a feeling that can never be replicated. I feel that even through a simple game of baseball there is so much of God’s love on the field.

Being able to share God’s love through helping these children play an everyday game is truly one of the most powerful experiences in my life. The smiles, laughs, and hugs of the children at Miracle League are proof of the love surrounding the organization. I am so fortunate to have found Miracle League to be able to transfer my passion into actions to help these children truly feel God’s love. I can never thank Miracle League enough for allowing me this opportunity, but I will always keep trying because “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” Philippians 4:13.

3rd Place – Caroline Berardo

Caroline Berardo, a 12th-grader at St. Christopher Religious Education in Parsippany, N.J., wins the third-place prize of $150 in Division II of the 2019 Maryknoll Student Essay Contest.

Games for Grandma

As Christians, we are so blessed to know Jesus. We are so very lucky to live in God’s loving presence. As His chosen ones, we are called to love God with all our hearts, all our minds, and all our souls.
It is not enough, however, to love and be loved by God. We are also called to share that special bond of love with all mankind. After all, Jesus, Himself, instructs us to love our neighbor as ourselves.
For the past 10 years, my grandmother has valiantly battled with Alzheimer’s Disease. For the past eight, she has lived in a memory care facility run by the most caring, devoted, and loving people. From these incredible caregivers, I have learned true stewardship. I have seen with my own eyes, the love of Jesus poured out in everything they do each day.

Four years ago, as I was preparing to enter high school, I began work on a project that has become immensely important to me. Having spent time in the company of my grandmother and her friends, I grew to recognize them as God’s special children, despite their advanced years. As members of God’s family, they craved what we all crave, acceptance and love.

Together with some of my friends, I worked to create a social group in this memory care facility, that centered on mental and physical stimulation. We called phase one of the project, “Games for Grandma.”
Working with the Activities Director at the facility, I developed a bean bag toss game that incorporated many activities that appealed to the residents, from texture in the bean bag materials to bright colors in the boards. We themed the game around a myriad of holidays and worked to create easy manipulation and storage for the games.

Designing the games was only the tiniest part of this project, however. The real part came in creating a social environment where my grandmother and the other residents could feel engaged and loved. I recruited friends whenever I could, and invited them to come with me on “game days.” What started out with a small group of friends evolved into a fellowship of teens and octogenarians, playing together in God’s grace.

Later we added sing-alongs, and even theme nights, like mock camping trips or sea voyages, where we treated the residents to food, fun, and festivity!
As the years passed, the population in the memory care facility aged. Sadly, as time moved on, the dementia became more and more pronounced. This past year, I lost many friends to the disease, and found that many others were no longer able to play the games or participate in the activities. While previously vibrant and full of life, my friends were becoming increasingly quiet, withdrawn, and still. It was then that I realized how deeply they all needed God’s love. I needed to find a new way to share what was in my heart.

Back to the drawing board I went. I again worked with the Activities Director and this time, we met with the Director of Maintenance. Together we brainstormed activities for the now immobile residents. I designed fidget boards and texture mats for the residents and called upon my army of friends to once again come to help me implement my new games!

We were a quieter group now. We sat with our elders and told them stories, while their tired hands worked the new activity boards. Through touch and texture, we bridged the gap of their inability to communicate. Sometimes words weren’t necessary at all; just a loving presence to sit with.

This project changed me. I never spoke a word about God. I never verbalized His love for us. That, I believe, is what made it most astounding of all!

Working with these beautiful people, who had lost their ability to communicate in the traditional sense, I SAW how God’s love could be shared silently, caringly, deeply. I felt His presence in every single visit. I was blessed to have been His vehicle to bestow His love upon those who needed Him most.