Survivor of Rwandan genocide to speak at St. Andrew the Apostle Parish

Immaculee Ilibagiza, who survived the Rwandan genocide of 1994 in which nearly a million people were killed — including nearly every member of her family — will speak Oct. 29 at St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in Chandler.

Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculee Ilibagiza gestures while sharing her story of survival and forgiveness at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Alexandria, Va., in 2006. During another speaking engagement, Ilibagiza stood before 600 people April 18, 2007 on the stage of the Caldwell College student center auditorium in Caldwell, N.J., and discussed how the power of prayer saved her life 13 years ago. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Ilibagiza visited the Valley in 2009 and briefly addressed attendees at the Knights of Columbus’ Guadalupe Festival held at the Jobbing.com Arena in Glendale. John Jakubczyk, a Knight since 1981, remembered hearing Ilibagiza’s stirring speech at the event.

“She was impressive in her humility as she described some of the horrors she suffered. She expressed her love for the Blessed Mother and explained how God watched over her,” Jakubczyk said. “I think people will appreciate how God can and does move in our lives if we are in tune with the Gospel if they are able to hear her in Chandler.”

Beth Ruggiero, chair of the English department at Seton Catholic Preparatory, was unable to attend the 2009 event, but is looking forward to meeting Ilibagiza in person when she speaks to Seton students Oct. 30.

“I’ve read all of her books,” Ruggiero said. “I think that she has such a powerful faith that everyone can learn something from her.”

Paula Osterday, Seton’s advancement director, said Ilibagiza was invited to speak to students because of her extraordinary faith and determination.

“A number of years ago our students and faculty came up with four charisms to describe our patron saint at Seton: love, faith, courage and determination,” Osterday said. “Each school year, we designate a charism and try to use it systematically throughout our curriculum, our publications and our events.”

The entire student body — including incoming freshmen — is required to read a book chosen by faculty that illustrates the charism chosen for the school year. This year Ilibagiza’s “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust” was selected.

Ilibagiza, who spent a harrowing 91 days huddled in a tiny bathroom with seven other women in a desperate effort to avoid being killed in the brutal conflict, credits her survival to her Catholic faith and devotion to the rosary. She lost nearly half her body weight during the ordeal but emerged nevertheless with a willingness to forgive her persecutors.

“When we realized the enormity of her story, and how impactful she is, we decided to open up her evening session to a larger section of the community,” Osterday said. Normally speakers address Seton students and parents only.  St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, just a couple miles from the Seton campus, agreed to host Ilibagiza on Oct. 29. The Chandler parish has room for 1,200 attendees.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted is also enthused about Ilibagiza’s upcoming visit.

“Immaculee Ilibagiza offers a compelling witness to the power of forgiveness to turn hatred on its head. As a friend of mine likes to say, ‘Forgiveness is the best revenge,’” the bishop said. “It is the only response that can stop a cycle of violence and begin a culture of love.”

Her words are compelling, he said, because “she herself has lived the message that she conveys. Moreover, she found the ability to forgive in her Catholic faith and her devotion to the Mother of God, especially through praying the rosary.”

Marissa Eink, a junior at Seton Prep, read “Left to Tell” over the summer and said she was inspired by it.

“As soon as I put it down, I automatically knew that it was going to be one of those stories that really stays with you,” Einck said. “She taught me that you need to stay strong in your faith no matter what the circumstances are, if they’re good or bad.”

Einck said her classmates are similarly excited about the upcoming presentation by Ilibagiza. “It will be interesting for her to re-explain the power of prayer and how God had this huge impact in her life. God’s miracles are just so amazing,” Einck said.

More information

Immaculee Ilibagiza, Rwandan genocide survivor, tells her story of faith and determination at St. Andrew the Apostle Parish Oct. 29 at 7 p.m.

General admission tickets are $15 and can be purchased online at www.SetonCatholic.org or call (480) 963-1900.  Reserved seating tickets are $50 and include a meet and greet reception at 6 p.m.

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