by Todd Habiger
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The Leaven may be a small paper in terms of staff size, but it packed quite a punch in the Catholic Media Association’s annual journalism contest on July 7.
The Leaven won 18 CMA awards, including seven first-place awards and took third place for Best Weekly Newspaper with 1-5 full-time staff members.
Father Mark Goldasich, editor of The Leaven, was pleased with the newspaper’s awards and noted a change in this year’s award competition.
“For the first time this year, instead of The Leaven competing with newspapers of similar circulations, we competed with newspapers with similar-sized staffs. Which really gave us a chance to shine, I think,” he said.
Reporter Moira Cullings was the big winner on the night with seven awards.
“What a treat it was to see Moira, who is also our social media editor, break out this year with six writing awards! What a testament to her versatility,” said Father Goldasich.
Cullings’ article, “It’s a Very Raw Experience,” was a hit with the judges, taking home three first-place awards in the categories of Best Feature Writing, Best Reporting on Social Justice Issues and Best Story and Photo Package by two or more individuals. (She shared this last award with freelance photographer Kathryn White).
“It’s a Very Raw Experience” chronicled the work of Uplift, an organization that delivers meals and supplies to the homeless of Kansas City.
The judges wrote, “Most readers haven’t been or ever will be homeless. Moira Cullings’ piece takes readers to the streets of homelessness and provides us with the experience of them and the volunteers.”
Cullings said the story was special for her because she saw the hard work and emotion that the volunteers put into Uplift.
“Some stories never leave a writer, and ‘A Very Raw Experience’ was one of those for me,” Cullings said. “I still think about the situations I witnessed when I followed Ross Dessert and his team of volunteers on a route to serve the homeless.
“I could tell from talking with Ross and watching him work that volunteering for Uplift wasn’t just something he did on the side. It was a passion he cared deeply about and would do anything for. He didn’t judge the people he served — he simply loved them.”
Leaven freelancers were a huge part of The Leaven’s strong showing. Freelancers Karen Bonar, Jill Ragar Esfeld, Therese Horvat, Jay Soldner and Kathryn White all won awards for their work in The Leaven.
“The only way we can produce a paper of this quality with so few people is with the support and contribution of so many terrific freelancers. So, I was very pleased to see several of them recognized this time around,” said managing editor Anita McSorley.
Bonar was rewarded for her efforts documenting the return of Father Emil Kapaun’s remains to his home Diocese of Wichita. Her multistory and photo package took first place in the Best Analysis/Background/Roundup category.
Bonar grew up in the Wichita area and attended Kapaun High School, so the news that Father Kapaun’s remains had been found was emotional for her.
There were several events involving Father Kapaun’s remains over a period of five days. Bonar was there for all of them.
“I knew there would be long days. I knew it would be taxing physically, but I underestimated how emotional the experience would be,” she said. “My friend Travis Heying is a photojournalist for the Wichita Eagle. He has been covering this story for years. When I finally entered the church in Pilsen, after much of the crowd subsided, I saw Travis up at the front, in tears. This is a man I respect tremendously, and who has very high professional standards . . . and he was standing at the foot of the altar, weeping.”
In the article “Be Brave” freelancer Ragar Esfeld told the story of Elinor Swartz who was one of the first female aircraft communicators during World War II. That article won first place for Best Personality Profile and took home an honorable mention in the Best Reporting on a Special Age Group category.
“I’m so glad I could tell Elinor’s story in a way that let people know how incredibly brave and forward-thinking she was” said Ragar Esfeld. “It wasn’t difficult — she was so talkative and engaging. Women are an important part of our history; their stories need to be told. I’m very happy I was able to tell Elinor’s.”
For his collection of photos of Catholic schools taking part in the state swim meet, Soldner was awarded first place in the category of Best Multiple Picture Package – Sports. The judges were impressed with the variety of photos and angles he was able to get from the event.
“The most difficult part of photographing a state swim meet is staying creative for the duration of the event — while dealing with water everywhere,” Soldner said. “I usually wear shorts and bring a few microfiber towels with me. I know I’m going to get wet, but if that’s what it takes to get the shot, I’m all for it.”
Kathryn White has been to the National Catholic Youth Conference many times as a youth minister but 2021 was her first time covering the event as a journalist. Her efforts at NCYC were recognized by the CMA as she took first place for Best Multiple Picture Package – Feature.
“Photos effectively and creatively tell the entire story,” the judges said. “Photo package depicts the myriad event elements as well as the fun energy, purpose and accomplishments achieved.”
White felt that her time as a youth minister helped her capture that faith and emotional aspects of NCYC.
“As a former youth minister, I used to take large groups of students to NCYC,” she said. “Going as a photojournalist versus as a youth minister had its perks and its challenges. Representing the entire archdiocese, I strived to connect with chaperons from every parish (not just those of my own parish) multiple times a day in order to capture how the teens were participating and praying throughout the conference.”
A series of articles by Therese Horvat under the banner of “Antisemitism” was praised by the judges for being a “wonderfully put together collection of articles.” This package won two second- place awards for Best In-Depth News/Special Reporting and Best Analysis/Background/Round-Up News Writing.
“Everyone should read this,” said the judges. “An in-depth historical presentation of challenges between Christianity and Judaism. The writing is well researched, very clearly presented and informative.”
Horvat said that it was a challenge to compress two millennia of history into its final format.
“This feature took a lot of time to research, organize and synthesize while keeping the finished product engaging and easy to read,” she said.
She added that it was her hope that the readers would learn from her stories and respond with love.
“As Christians and Catholics, we are called to love one another and, as individuals, we are called to make choices that respect life and the dignity of all people — in spite of history and popular sentiments,” she said.
In the category of Best Writing One Shot National Event, Cullings took second place for her story, “20 Years after 9/11.”
Cullings was a third grader at Nativity School in Leawood when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened and remembers being on the playground watching a plane turn around and head back toward the airport. That scene was captured by a photographer at Nativity and the photo was published in The Leaven.
“It was fascinating speaking with educators about what took place at their schools that day and comparing how similar the events were to what I experienced. It felt cathartic to mark the 20th anniversary by sharing the stories of people who were uniquely impacted by 9/11,” she said.
In other awards, Bonar took third place for her story, “Reboot on Life,” which told about how Tammy Drake-Gannon found religion in prison and a faith community at Sacred Heart Parish in Sabetha.
Cullings and Soldner shared a third place award for “Behind the Scenes,” which gave readers an inside look at how Camp Tekakwitha comes together each year to give campers a faith-filled experience. “Behind the Scenes” also garnered an honorable mention in Best Feature Writing.
Another third place award was given to Todd Habiger in Best Sports Journalism for his story about blind runner Jude Nickson, age 9, and his guide and mother Joanna. Habiger also won an honorable mention for Best Front Page.
Finally, Cullings capped a stellar performance at the CMAs by taking an honorable mention in the Best Feature Photo category for her photo “Magic,” which features Scott Henderson performing a levitation trick with Nativity School, Leawood, fourth grader Alexa Hancox.