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The contributions of Catholic sisters in the history of America and Western New York are exceptional, particularly in the area of education, said Maureen Orth, renowned author and special correspondent for Vanity Fair.

Orth, who is also the widow of political journalist and Buffalo native Tim Russert, was the keynote speaker Thursday at the 2013 Catholic Education Dinner, which was attended by about 1,200 people in Buffalo Niagara Convention Center.

“Whether it was the Mercy nuns in South Buffalo, the Josephites in North Buffalo, the Felicians on the West Side, so much of the day-to-day spiritual, charitable and educational infrastructure of the community was built and maintained by the good sisters,” said Orth.

A San Francisco native who graduated from the University of California-Berkeley in 1964, Orth recalled the indelible impression that was left on her husband by his seventh-grade teacher, Sister Lucille Socciarelli, who went on to become a lifelong family friend and was in attendance at the dinner.

In fact, Russert established an award in her name, which was presented during the event to Mary Jane Liszewski, a third-grade teacher at Immaculate Conception School in East Aurora.

“She was the first nun from Buffalo I ever met, and I really marvel that whenever Sister Lucille has gone with our family, whether she was on the set of “Meet the Press, trading quips with Bill Clinton or at Luke’s graduation in Boston with a hierarchy of Jesuits and the president of Boston College, she charms them all, while definitely letting them know her views and exactly where she stands,” said Orth.

“That can-do spirit, ready to take on the world, is exactly what Tim learned as a seventh-grader at St. Bonaventure School 51 years ago, when Sister Lucille urged him to take his excess energy and put it into a school newspaper, the Bonette, Tim’s first experience with journalism,” she added.

After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Orth said, the young staff of the Bonette forwarded copies of their paper commemorating the fallen president to President Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s widow, Jaqueline, and his brother Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

“And when they all responded, Tim said that was the moment when his first interest in media and politics blossomed. He had gotten a reaction,” said Orth.

She also recalled her own early experiences with a nun in her native San Francisco.

“Sister Austin’s examination of conscience has stayed with me, or shall I say haunted me, all my life all over the world from Hollywood to Tajikistan. For that is one of the overwhelmingly important roles in our female religious play. Along with our parents, they are how we learn love of God, right from wrong, discipline and order,” Orth said.

“There is probably not a single one of us who grew up in a Catholic family or went to a Catholic school during that time who does not have a story of a woman religious who did not put an indelible mark on us,” she continued.

The dinner was the major fundraiser for Catholic education in the Buffalo Diocese. According to Diane Reveals, co-chairwoman of the Thursday night event, about $355,000 was raised, which will support nearly 300 scholarships to Catholic elementary schools for local children from needy families. Of the 12,000 students enrolled in schools operated by the diocese across the eight counties of Western New York, there are nearly 1,700 Catholic and non-Catholic students who require tuition assistance.

Also attending the dinner was the newly appointed superintendent of local Catholic schools, Sister Carol Cimino of Albany, who will officially take over the reins June 1.

Sister Carol said she has not been a part of talks in the diocese on consolidations and mergers.

“But I am really impressed with the process they have used. The process has really called upon local people to make the decisions, and I really believe in that,” she said.

Bishop Richard J. Malone, who also attended his first Catholic Education Dinner in Buffalo on Thursday, will be part of a National School Choice Week breakfast gathering this morning in Statler City, where more than 200 people are expected to push for an expansion of educational options for kids, including charter schools, magnet schools, private schools and home schooling.

The rally, part of a “Whistle Stop Tour” in 14 cities across the country, also will feature comments by State Sen. Mark Grisanti, Tapestry Charter School Principal Lynn Bass, Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, New Creation Fellowship Academy Pastor Stephen J. Andzel, Buffalo District Parent Coordinating Council leader Sam Radford and Andrew Campanella, president of the National School Choice Week.

“This is not just a religious issue. This is not just a teachers issue. This is not just a political issue. It’s an issue that affects the entire Buffalo community,” said Will Green, who helped organize the event.

email: hmcneil@buffnews.com