The gold Opus Prize medal hangs on a blue ribbon


In partnership with the Opus Prize,
Villanova honors inspiring humanitarians
who champion faith-filled change around the world



In partnership with the Opus Prize,
Villanova honors inspiring humanitarians
who champion faith-filled change around the world

Villanova University had the privilege only a few universities have had when it was selected to be the 19th host of the 2023 Opus Prize. The Opus Prize is one of the world’s largest faith-based awards for social entrepreneurship, with a top prize of $1 million and two $100,000 prizes for the runners-up.

The Opus Prize Foundation partners with a Catholic university each year to recognize individuals or organizations working to solve the world’s most persistent social issues. The partnership between Opus and Villanova—involving nominations of world-changing leaders; a dynamic collaboration engaging scores of students, faculty, staff and community leaders; and a vibrant slate of events on campus—fulfilled the dual purpose of the prize: to expand the humanitarian efforts of the winners, and to inspire people to pursue lives of service to others and their communities.

“It was impossible to read the Opus Prize Foundation's mission to champion faith-based change and not to think of our own Augustinian Catholic University mission and its call for us to be restless in our pursuit of truth, unity and love,” says University President the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, PhD, ’75 CLAS. “Partnering with the Opus Prize Foundation provided a tremendous opportunity for Villanova to work alongside an organization that is shining a light on unsung heroes who are igniting change around the world.”

As the host of the event, Villanova took charge of every aspect of the 15-month process that led to the awarding of the prize last November. The finalists—a pediatric oncologist improving health outcomes in Tanzania; an innovative educator operating a network of schools in Camden, N.J.; and the ultimate winner, a Catholic bishop building a community of peace in war-ravaged South Sudan—were honored with a large-scale, community-wide event. It was an enormous undertaking that opened Villanova’s campus, and Villanovans’ hearts, to truly inspirational figures doing essential work to address poverty and injustice.

A Noble Prize

The influence of the Opus Prize is far-reaching and impactful for the honorees, and for the institution selected as its host. At Villanova, plans began to take shape in fall of 2022, just after the partnership was announced, when Father Peter assembled the Villanova Opus Prize Committee—comprising 33 students, faculty and staff from nearly every administrative department and all six colleges. The committee’s initial task was to develop a theme that reflects the values and mission of both the Opus Prize and Villanova as the host institution.

“Our selected theme, Awakening Restless Hearts, aligns perfectly with our Augustinian Catholic identity and an important purpose of the Opus Prize, which is to awaken a sense of restlessness in others,” says Nick Tumolo ’10 COE, ’12 MPA, director of University Events and Initiatives. Tumolo was co-chair of the Villanova Opus Prize Committee with Alicia Dunphy-Culp, senior director of First Year Experience and special assistant to the vice president for Student Life.

With the theme established, Father Peter formed the Opus Prize jury, made up of 11 Philadelphia-area leaders of public service and social justice organizations. Jurors included Madeline Bell ’83 FCN, president and CEO of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; Chris Gheysens ’93 VSB, president and CEO of Wawa Inc.; Michael Nutter, former mayor of Philadelphia; and Sister Mary Scullion, RSM, activist and cofounder of Project HOME.

It was the jury’s responsibility to select the three finalists from among all the nominations submitted for the prize. Once the three finalists were named, Villanova students, faculty and staff served as ambassadors, accompanying the Opus Prize Foundation Board members as they conducted due diligence site visits and in-depth research into the missions and contributions of the three nominees.

The finalists, it should be noted, did not seek out this distinction. Nominees do not apply for an Opus Prize but are instead identified by the campus committee, chosen by the jury and evaluated by the ambassadors, and then the winner is decided by the Opus Prize Foundation Board.

Opus Prize Week, Nov. 6–9, 2023, brought all involved—the finalists, Opus Foundation representatives, jurors and ambassadors—to campus. The 2023 Opus Prize finalists were:

  • Bishop Paride Taban, founder of Holy Trinity Peace Village, Kuron, South Sudan
  • Jameka Walker, executive director of Catholic Partnership Schools, Camden, N.J.
  • Kristin Schroeder, MD, MPH, cofounder of the International Cancer Care and Research Excellence Foundation (iCCARE), Mwanza, Tanzania

Tragically, Bishop Taban passed away at the age of 87 in Nairobi, Kenya, just days before Opus Week began at Villanova. Dr. Margaret Itto, deputy chair of the board for Holy Trinity Peace Village and state minister for Health in Eastern Equatoria State, South Sudan, represented the organization during Opus Week.

By the time the week’s events began, it was clear that the Opus Prize had had a powerful impact on the Villanova community.

“The University was excited to say yes to Opus and was thrilled to host the event, but what benefited our campus community was the investment of time and energy that brought all of these inspiring individuals and stories onto our campus,” Dunphy-Culp says. “The gift that we received back for 15 months of planning and collaboration was so much more than we could have anticipated.”

An outdoor Opus Prize display on campus celebrating the three finalists


The Opus Prize Foundation Executive Director Kerry Alys Robinson returned to Villanova’s campus this spring as the featured speaker for the Rev. John Stack, OSA, Leadership Series, an annual event sponsored by Student Life to offer an inspirational message to the campus community. Robinson, who currently serves as the president and CEO of Catholic Charities, USA, delivered a talk titled “Living and Leading a Life of Service.”

To learn about the work being done by the three finalists is so important when preparing young minds to engage in the world.

Héctor M. Varela Rios, PhD, assistant professor of Theology and the Raquel and Alfonso Martínez-Fonts Endowed Assistant Professor in Latin American Studies

Igniting Hope

During the week leading up to the award ceremony, Villanovans had many occasions to interact with the visiting finalists. A well-thought-out schedule set by the Villanova Opus Prize Committee allowed for numerous classroom visits, meaningful conversations over meals, and chances to prayerfully reflect on pursuing a life of service. Events included a filled-to-capacity Life of Service panel discussion featuring alumni who have chosen careers in humanitarian work and civic engagement.

All three finalists joined a small group of Theology master’s program students for readings and dialogue in the course Theology and Suffering, taught by Héctor M. Varela Rios, PhD, an Opus Prize ambassador, as well as an assistant professor of Theology and the Raquel and Alfonso Martínez-Fonts Endowed Assistant Professor in Latin American Studies.

In the center of campus, a community mural that celebrated the 2023 Opus Prize was painted on a 25-foot shipping container, which visitors could walk through and read about the Opus Prize finalists while also discovering Villanova’s service initiatives and how Villanovans are making a positive impact in the world.

“We planned a week for our community to interact with the finalists and learn from them and be inspired by them,” says Tumolo.

Dr. Varela Rios applauds the student-centeredness of the Opus Prize events. “To learn about the work being done by the three finalists is so important when preparing young minds to engage in the world,” he says.

Meaningful connections flourished between the finalists and student organizations. A meeting between Dr. Schroeder and NOVAdance, Villanova’s student organization that raises money to support research for pediatric cancer initiatives, led to a Christmastime fundraiser in which members sold bags and bracelets made by the parents of children undergoing treatment for cancer in Tanzania. When Walker spoke to Nursing students about the needs of the families she serves in Camden, they decided to help by organizing free physical exams for schoolchildren in the nearby New Jersey city.

“As you learn about all of these organizations through the nomination process and building relationships with the finalists, you realize what a privilege and opportunity this is for Villanova,” says Tumolo. “That’s the power of the Opus Prize—it is transformative for a campus community.”

University President the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, PhD, ’75 CLAS stands at a podium surrounded by Opus Prize finalists and ambassadors
Dr. Margaret Itto sits at a desk in a classroom amongst Villanova students
Villanova celebrated and honored the work of the Opus Prize laureate and finalists with a week of events that included classroom visits and concluded with an award ceremony gala. PHOTO: VILLANOVA UNIVERSITY/JOHN SHETRON

Taking Root

During his remarks at the 2023 Opus Prize Award Ceremony in the Topper Theatre at the John and Joan Mullen Center for the Performing Arts on Nov. 9, 2023, Father Peter, who served as chair of the Opus Prize jury, noted that the award finalists have made a remarkable and lasting impact on the communities they assist. “Their unwavering commitment to improving the human condition, each in their own ways, is a testament to the boundless potential of compassion in action,” he said.

As the award ceremony reached its crescendo, Father Peter had the honor of announcing that the recipient of the 2023 Opus Prize—and with it $1 million—was Bishop Taban. It was a bittersweet moment for Dr. Itto and the other representatives of the bishop’s Holy Trinity Peace Village who were there to accept on his behalf.

Theresa Gardner ’24 MA, an Opus Prize ambassador for Holy Trinity Peace Village, recalls becoming emotional when she heard that Bishop Taban was chosen as the Opus Prize laureate. “After getting to know what the bishop had been through in the name of peace and in the face of incredible, continual violence—there didn’t seem to be anybody more deserving,” she says.

That sentiment was shared widely among the crowd gathered that evening for the festivities. “I remember getting chills,” says Ryan Maloney ’24 CLAS, who served as an ambassador for Walker’s Catholic Schools Partnership. “Seeing the finalists cheer, hug and support each other after the bishop’s delegation won shows how selfless and humble all of them are.”

The experience of hosting the Opus Prize at Villanova had a deep impact on the Villanovans involved, serving as a reminder that in a world filled with uncertainty and darkness, fears and challenges, there is hope.

“These backstage actors do God’s work without seeking any glory,” says Dr. Varela Rios. “It’s not about the accolades but about getting stuff done and helping people out. It’s something that will stay with me for a long time.”

Their unwavering commitment to improving the human condition, each in their own ways, is a testament to the boundless potential of compassion in action.

The Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, PhD, '75 CLAS, University President


Fourteen Villanovans—students, faculty and staff—were named 2023 Opus Prize Ambassadors. Tasked with accompanying members of the Opus Prize Foundation Board on due diligence visits, the ambassadors observed what moral heroes are made of as they spent time getting to know the three finalists under consideration for the $1 million prize. Here, three of the student ambassadors share their experiences.

Opus Prize student ambassador Theresa Gardner standing next to Dr. Margaret Itto

Theresa Gardner
’24 MA in Theology

Ambassador for nominee Bishop Paride Taban, Holy Trinity Peace Village, Kuron, South Sudan

Can you talk about the role of service in your life?

It’s part of my family culture to give back. My brother has Down syndrome, so as the president of the Best Buddies chapter when I lived in Washington, D.C., I was able to work with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Over spring break, I served as a leader for a Villanova Service and Justice Experience trip to North Carolina for Habitat for Humanity.

What was memorable about being an Opus Prize Ambassador?

Spaces and events were created for us to get to know each other on a personal level. When we would share a meal with the finalists, it was wonderful because you got to talk with them and see they are just regular people who do the work of saints and superhumans.

Which Opus Prize moment stood out to you?

When Bishop Taban won, it felt like you were witnessing history—the man had dedicated his entire life to bringing freedom and peace to the people of South Sudan, and the Opus Prize will contribute to the continuation of his legacy.

Opus Prize student ambassador Ryan Maloney with Jameka Walker

Ryan Maloney
’24 CLAS, dual major in Mathematics & Secondary Education

Ambassador for nominee Jameka Walker, Catholic Schools Partnership, Camden, N.J.

Can you talk about the role of service in your life?

It’s not just about doing the service—it’s about the chance to learn something from the experience. At Villanova, I give tours and volunteer at New Student Orientation and Special Olympics, and I was a Communitas Program facilitator this year. Through Villanova’s RUIBAL program, I go to a community center in Philadelphia once a week to support K–8 students in recreational activities, as well as tutoring and mentoring.

What did you take away from your visit to Catholic Partnership Schools in Camden, N.J.?

It’s student-centered. In every building we toured, there was colorful artwork on the walls. All of the eighth-grade acceptance letters to high school are posted so that the students feel celebrated. The teachers can be innovative with their instruction—one teacher has a podcast in which her students talk about growing up in Camden.

Have you applied any of what you observed to your teaching?

As an aspiring educator, I found the work Jameka Walker does transformative—she has reinvigorated the classroom space, allowing for incredible levels of creativity. Students come to love learning for its own sake. Teachers build classroom community. I will take this with me as I start my teaching career.

Opus Prize student ambassador Christopher Link putting his arm around Dr. Kristin Schroeder

Christopher Link
’24 FCN,

Ambassador for nominee Dr. Kristin Schroeder, International Cancer Care and Research Excellence Foundation (iCCARE), Mwanza, Tanzania

Can you talk about the role of service in your life?

I’m part of a club at Villanova called Friends for Pediatrics—we raise awareness and financial support for cardiac and oncology research. I also visit children receiving cancer treatment in hospitals around Philadelphia—I bring around a Wawa snack cart and offer tutoring.

What made you choose nursing as a career?

When I was 6, I was diagnosed with Stage III Wilms tumor, a childhood kidney cancer. I was treated with six months of chemotherapy, a bunch of surgeries and a few months of radiation. The nurses helped me through this chaotic time—they were so calm and understanding.

Did the trip to Tanzania change you?

To see how much Dr. Schroeder dedicates her life to the service of those battling cancer was life-changing. To be on rounds with her, you see the love, compassion and dedication she has—it moves you. You put Dr. Schroeder on a pedestal, but she tells you not to—that she’s just a regular person doing what she has been called to do. My goal after graduation is to return to Tanzania and work with iCCARE.

The Opus Prize finalists are just regular people who do the work of saints and superhumans

Theresa Gardner '24 MA


Before becoming the third Villanovan to receive the prestigious Marshall Scholarship, Gina Ngo ’24 CLAS received words of advice to help her prepare for her final scholarship interview from Opus Prize finalist Dr. Kristin Schroeder. Villanova’s Center for Research and Fellowships arranged the meeting between Dr. Schroeder, who specializes in neuro-oncology and improving outcomes for patients with limited access to health care, and Gina, who hopes to pursue a similar career path.

Champions of Change

The three finalists nominated by Villanova’s Opus Prize jurors exemplify the Augustinian values of Veritas, Unitas, Caritas—truth, unity, love. While the communities they serve—from Camden, N.J., to Tanzania to South Sudan—have unique needs and challenges, the finalists share a strong passion for and dedication to transforming lives.


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