Rwanda genocide survivor to speak at women's conference - Catholic Courier

Rwanda genocide survivor to speak at women’s conference

The fourth-annual Rochester Catholic Women’s Conference in March will feature an international speaker and a new format.

This year’s half-day conference, “A Morning with Immacul√©e,” has been scheduled for March 18 at Aquinas Institute in Rochester. The speaker is Immacul√©e Ilibagiza, a survivor of the Rwanda genocide in the 1990s, who went on to write seven books and is the recipient of the Mahatma Gandhi International Award for Reconciliation and Peace.

As in past years, the program will begin with Mass celebrated by Bishop Salvatore R. Matano followed by the keynote address, Benediction and refreshments, said Amy Degnan, cochairperson for this year’s planning committee with Celeste Veloski. Participants also may have their books signed by Ilibagiza.

The organizers chose to switch from a full-day to a half-day program so that more women will be able to attend, Degnan added. Feedback from past conferences had indicated that a full-day program posed conflicts with other family activities, she said.

“We want to take everyone’s needs into consideration,” she said.

Excitement has already been building for the conference due to Ilibagiza’s personal witness of faith, hope and forgiveness, noted Degnan, who is a parishioner Our Lady of Victory/St. Joseph in Rochester.

“We hope lots of women will want to see her, and young adults as well,” she said.

When she reached out to Ilibagiza and she accepted right away, Degnan took that as a positive sign, she said.

“God wants her here in Rochester,” she remarked.

Ilibagiza’s parents and two of her three brothers were massacred in Rwanda, and she survived by hiding in a 3-by-4-foot bathroom with seven other women for 91 days, Degnan said. During that time, Ilibagiza prayed the rosary and taught herself English with help of a Bible and a dictionary, Degnan said.

After she was able to flee Rwanda, Ilibagiza met the man who killed her mother and one of her brothers, Degnan added.

“She was able to offer complete forgiveness,” Degnan said. “That in itself is amazing. I’m so excited that she’s coming here.”

Liz Witkoski also is looking forward to hearing Ilibagiza speak, as her daughter, a freshman at Our Lady of Mercy High School, has been reading one of her books for a class.

“It’s interesting timing,” she said.

Witkoski has attended every conference and has enjoyed the experience. She expects no less this year, she said.

“It’s really food for the soul,” Witkoski said of the conference. “It’s really great to be surrounded by all different women, from college-age students all the way up to great-grandmothers, celebrating Mass together with the bishop and hearing the speakers. It’s energizing and keeps me going to keep living out my faith in the world.”

In past years, her favorite speakers have always been the women religious, noted Witkoski, a parishioner of Our Mother of Sorrows in Greece.

“They have this sense of humor,” Witkoski said of the sisters she has heard speak. “You realize they’re actually real people, not just an untouchable religious ideal.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Rochester Catholic Women’s Conference costs $25 and $15 for students (including college students). For more information or to register, visit


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