On Feb 23, McNicholas High School brought Rwandan Genocide survivor Imaculée Ilibagiza to speak to the student body, faculty and staff, and other guests. Ilibagiza, a Roman Catholic and Tutsi, has written seven books, worked with the United Nations, and has received the Mahatma Gandhi Award for Peace.
Enabling Ilibagiza to come to McNick was a ten month process, according to Theology teacher Ms. Teresa Davis. After Stephanie Marks, a witness to the Holocaust during WWII, spoke to the McNick community at the end of 2014, Davis and fellow Theology teacher Mrs. Mary Beth Sandmann wanted another motivational speaker for this year. They contacted Ilibagiza via her , and heard back from her manager within ten days. Then, fundraising started.
McNick received its first sponsorship from the Sisters of St. Joseph for $1,000. McNick then reached out to the Mayerson Foundation, the Archdiocese Social Action Office, and Catholic Charities of Southwest Ohio. The remaining costs were paid for through the Go Fund Me page and the McNicholas community. Thanks to the Interfaith Community Center sponsorship, which enabled Xavier University to give the Cintas Center free, McNick only had to pay Audio/Visual. Ilibagiza spoke at the Cintas Center the night before her McNick speech. The time of year for Ilibagiza’s speech was simply decided on because it was an open time for McNick, Xavier, and the Archdiocese.
Davis gave three reasons for wanting Ilibagiza to come speak to McNick. “[First, Ilibagiza] is a great Catholic, prayer, role model. Her message of forgiveness and mercy is a lived telling of forgiveness and mercy; we have a living witness. [Third], when we ask ‘Who is our neighbor?’ we need to know a woman in the bathroom during a genocide in Rwanda is our neighbor,” Davis said.
When Ilibagiza first arrived, Davis, Sandmann, and seniors Sierra Meyer, Emma Kapp, and Meghan Schoening drove her from the airport. “When [we] picked her up from the airport she greeted us with a hug rather than the formal handshake. She truly makes a connection with each person she meets and takes time to listen to their story,” Meyer said.
During her speech, Ilibagiza recounted her experience during the 1994 massacre of the Tutsi people by the Hutu people in her native Rwanda. She told her whole story, starting from the Wednesday the genocide started through her 91 days in a small bathroom with seven other women.
During the days in the bathroom, the women had to be silent. It was throughout this time that Ilibagiza thought about life and her situation, and began speaking to God, praying the rosary, reading the Bible, and wrestling with the idea of forgiveness. “The veil was unveiled from me,” Ilibagiza said. When reading the Bible and praying, lines about forgiveness would pop out at Ilibagiza, especially “Forgive them Father, they don’t know what they do” from the Lord’s Prayer. Ilibagiza began understanding that this was the key to forgiveness. “When all the anger and turmoil was there, I couldn’t see,” she said, and when she found God and peace, she realized this. “When I prayed [the rosary], I could breathe” she continued, and when she stopped, the anger would come back. “Forgiveness can be freedom, freedom to be happy…. All I needed to know was there is a possibility of change in their hearts.” She explained that no person is evil. They do evil things and when they realize what they’ve done and their hearts change, they will know this, and then she was able to forgive. Furthermore, she said that “you have to ask for justice, for help, when you go through abuse, but forgiveness [is always yours].”
Near the end of her presentation, Ilibagiza shifted her focus to more general life advice. “We’re all going to die. It doesn’t matter how or when. What matters is how we live,” she said. “Every day is another chance to make things better for us,” she continued, adding that “whatever you’re dealing with throughout your life, you should know how to deal with it.”
With a standing ovation, Ilibagiza ended her presentation by saying “from my heart to yours, no matter how bad things get… remember there’s always hope.”
Reflecting on Ilibagiza’s speech, Davis said, “She’s countercultural, especially now in this political season and hard life. People want a certain kind of justice, but God’s love and mercy is countercultural to it… [Ilibagiza] is spreading the Gospel and giving us a new way to look at [that] love and mercy.”
“I thought her speech was so inspiring,” Meyer said. “I really took her message of forgiveness to heart. It seems like nowadays we hold grudges towards people who have wronged us, but even though Immaculée’s family was murdered, she was able to forgive their killers,” Meyer continued. “We should take from Immaculée’s story the love she shows to everyone she meets, and we should learn to forgive others because we don’t want to leave this earth having a heart full of hatred when we could have a heart full of love.”