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St. Lawrence County laymen receive top honor from Pope Francis

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MASSENA - Three people from St. Lawrence County – two from Ogdensburg and one from Massena – will receive the pope’s highest honor given to laym people next month.

Catherine Denny, Ogdensburg, Mary Besio, Massena, and Sister Mary Teresa LaBrake, Ogdensburg, will receive the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross from Pope Francis.

Diocese of Ogdensburg Bishop Terry R. LaValley will confer the awards on behalf of Pope Francis at a special vespers service at 3 p.m. Dec. 8 at St. Mary’s Cathedral.

“It’s so fitting that we recognize the faith and dedication of these generous men and women in this Year of Faith. Their tireless dedication and outstanding service clearly demonstrate their love of God and his Church. It is people like these recipients who truly open the doors of faith for our world,” Bishop LaValley said in a news release.

Sr. LaBrake, who recently retired from parish ministry at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Ogdensburg, where she served for the last 16 years, was surprised by the announcement.

“I felt very humbled,” Sr. LaBrake said Thursday. “It’s an awesome experience to receive such an honor.”

Sr. LaBrake has a history of service in Catholic education and parish ministry. She was an elementary teacher at Catholic schools in Ogdensburg, Jackson Heights, and Atlanta, Ga., and a principal in Catholic schools in Ogdensburg, Eden, and Buffalo.

In 1990, she became assistant superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Ogdensburg, a position she held for seven years. In 1997, she became pastoral associate at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Ogdensburg, a position she held until her retirement in June. She continues as a volunteer at the cathedral, visiting the sick and leading the evangelization team.

“I have enjoyed working with faith-filled people, and seeing their enthusiasm and their interest in spreading the faith and word of God,” she said.

Mrs. Denny, a parishioner of Notre Dame Church, Ogdensburg, worked for many years as a therapy aide at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center until her retirement.

She also has been an active member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society and a member of the Knights of Columbus Women’s Auxiliary.

“I was very surprised,” Mrs. Denny said. “I thought there were many other people who were deserving of the award.”

Mrs. Denny said she has been a member of the Roman Catholic Church “all her life.” She said she enjoys helping to bring patients at St. Joseph’s Nursing Home to chapel for daily Mass and serving as a lay associate for the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart.

“I admire the work of Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart – all around the world – but especially the work they do in Ogdensburg,” she said.

Mrs. Besio is a parishioner of St. Mary’s and St. Joseph’s Church in Massena. She became the parish secretary at St. Mary’s Parish in Massena in 1973, and served in that capacity for 33 years. After her retirement in 2012, Mrs. Besio continues as a volunteer in the parish office.

Mrs. Besio could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross was instituted by Pope Leo XIII in 1888 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his ordination, and was originally bestowed on those who aided and promoted the celebration.

The award is given for distinguished service to the Roman Catholic Church. It can be awarded to a lay person or a cleric. It is the highest medal that can be awarded to the laity by a pope.

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