Angel Mortel to Receive 2023 Bishop McCarthy Award

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The Maryknoll Lay Missioners award honors returned missioners for continued service to mission and justice.

By Meinrad Scherer-Emunds

Maryknoll Lay Missioners will honor Angel Mortel with its 2023 Bishop John E. McCarthy Spirit of Mission Award on World Mission Sunday, Oct. 22. The award is conferred annually for continued justice and mission service after missioners have returned to the United States.

Mortel has dedicated her life to accompanying and working with people living on the margins, helping them to improve their lives. Before joining Maryknoll Lay Missioners with her husband, Chad Ribordy, in 1997, Mortel worked for Bread for the World and the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.

Since returning from her 16 years in mission in São Paulo, 12 of them with Maryknoll Lay Missioners, Mortel has continued to work to help people advocate for and bring about change. For the past five years, she has been a community organizer for LA Voice in Los Angeles.

“We are honored to present Angel Mortel with this award, ”Maryknoll Lay Missioners’ interim executive director, Elvira Ramirez, says. “In so doing, we highlight the power of individuals like Bishop McCarthy to transform the world through their faith in action. The ‘spirit of mission’ describes a way of life that continues to demonstrate a commitment to the values of inclusion, respect for the dignity of every human being, and advocacy for the marginalized wherever she finds herself.”

After World Mission Sunday Mass at St. Ferdinand Church, pastor Father Jason Torba and Cardinal Blase Cupich greet the congregation, including all those who do mission in Chicago. (Julie Jaidinger, Chicago Catholic/U.S.)

As a Maryknoll lay missioner who served with her husband and family in Brazil for 12 years, Angel Mortel assisted the families of at-risk children in favelas, or shantytowns. Her community-based approach to organizing, she says, was learned in mission and is based in relationships. (Sean Sprague/Brazil)

Ramirez will present this year’s Bishop McCarthy Award on Oct. 22 during the 9 a.m. Pacific time (noon Eastern) Mass at Dolores Mission Church in Los Angeles, where Mortel is a parishioner. The Mass and award presentation will be livestreamed on Dolores Mission Church’s Facebook page.

­­“We celebrate Angel’s compassion, dedication and talents, which impact the lives of many in Southern California and all who have known her throughout her life,” Ramirez says.

The award, now in its fifth year, is named after the late Bishop John E. McCarthy of Austin, Texas. Known for his social justice and advocacy work, Bishop McCarthy was dedicated to promoting Catholic Social Teaching and the role of the laity in the Church. An indefatigable promoter of mission and ardent supporter of Maryknoll Lay Missioners, he was also a strong advocate for the rights and dignity of migrants and refugees.

Mortel and Ribordy served with Maryknoll Lay Missioners for 12 years in the São Paulo area of Brazil. Their two daughters — Cecilia and Elisa — were born during this time. Mortel’s ministries involved organizing community health volunteers, coordinating an income generation project for women and fundraising for the national prison ministry of the Brazilian Catholic Church.

Her primary work was with a ministry of the Brazilian Catholic Church called Pastoral da Criança (Children’s Pastoral). She was part of and eventually became the coordinator of a team of volunteer health promoters that engaged families in favelas (shantytowns). The national program, which was awarded the World’s Children’s Prize in 2003, provided education about nutrition and hygiene as well as advocating for improved child and maternal health.

Mortel coordinated a group of 20 community leaders, offering support and training to equip them to accompany families with children at risk of malnutrition. In their visits, they not only assessed the children’s health needs, but also explored concrete solutions to community problems.

“We reached over 300 families in three different favelas,” Mortel says. “Over the years, we developed deep and trusting relationships with many families.”

It was during that time — more than 6,000 miles from home — that Mortel says she “discovered what it feels like to authentically belong. … I learned that belonging has less to do with where you were born and more to do with how the community, the network of relationships that holds us all together, accepts you, values you, and recognizes you.”

She says the shared experience of motherhood bonded and connected her with the other women, as together they learned to support each other.

Maryknoll Lay Missioner Joanne Blaney, who served with Mortel in São Paulo and still serves in Brazil today, says, “Angel’s mission spirit of welcome, courage and engagement helped to transform people and communities. In her ministry with the Children’s Pastoral in poor communities, Angel built relationships and worked to empower families to assume leadership.”

Blaney says Mortel lives out her faith in action in the Maryknoll Lay Missioners’ spirit of “nonviolence focus, service and commitment to social justice.”

After World Mission Sunday Mass at St. Ferdinand Church, pastor Father Jason Torba and Cardinal Blase Cupich greet the congregation, including all those who do mission in Chicago. (Julie Jaidinger, Chicago Catholic/U.S.)

Members of the Mortel Ribordy family (from left, Cecilia, Angel, Chad and Elisa) are shown in 2008 at their home in Ibiuna, Brazil, while serving with the Maryknoll Lay Missioners. The couple lived in Brazil for 16 years, and their daughters born there. (Sean Sprague/Brazil)

After leaving Maryknoll Lay Missioners, the family stayed in São Paulo for another four years. Mortel and Ribordy worked teaching English as a second language, and Mortel continued to collaborate with her fellow Maryknollers through fundraising for the Brazilian Catholic Church’s national prison ministry.

Upon the family’s return to the United States in 2015, Mortel managed the faith community outreach program for a social justice documentary film company. In 2018, she joined LA Voice, which is a multiracial, multifaith network of faith congregations that says it aims to “awaken people to their own power, training them to speak, act and work together to transform our county into one that reflects the dignity of all people.”

By helping people to advocate for change, Mortel says, “our hope and goal is to build an LA County in which all feel they belong and all are included.”

Mortel has worked to engage voters around several propositions on the California ballot that would bring resources to schools and communities, especially funding for rent relief, youth development and alternatives to incarceration. Outside of the election season, LA Voice is mostly involved in advocacy around immigration, affordable housing and criminal justice reform.

Mortel says that her time in mission taught her what she considers the “core of organizing: building inclusive community founded on authentic and deep relationship. It’s in that web of relationships where our power to change unjust systems is rooted.”

She adds that her time in Brazil was great preparation for her current work as a community organizer. “When people ask me what I do, I say that I bring people together across differences to discover their shared purpose, so that together we can build a new world where everyone belongs. In organizing … we say that power is the product of relationship, and we define power as the ability to act. … We cannot build authentic and sustainable power without first being in relationship with each other.”

Mortel says, “The years we spent with Maryknoll in Brazil changed my life, but also had an impact on my children. The injustice we saw up close in Brazil strengthened my own resolve to commit my life to changing unjust structures. The added bonus is that the experience also formed my daughters, the next generation, our future leaders, our hope to take up this commitment.”

Featured image: Returned Maryknoll Lay Missioner Angel Mortel will receive the 2023 Bishop McCarthy Spirit of Mission Award on World Mission Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023, at Dolores Mission Church in Los Angeles.

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About the author

Meinrad Scherer-Emunds

Meinrad Scherer-Emunds is director of communications for the Maryknoll Lay Missioners.