This year, the Lay Mission-Helpers celebrated their 60th anniversary of sending lay workers into Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific with a Gala at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles on Sept. 12.

Lay missionary Betty Risley was honored as the first recipient of the Ernst Ophuls Award in honor of her missionary work.

The award commemorates the life of Ophuls, who applied to be a Catholic lay missionary in 1960. Born in San Francisco, he was a member of the sixth group of Lay Mission-Helpers to be trained and sent to Ecuador for a three-year assignment. He was an expert aviation mechanic and small craft pilot.  In Ecuador, Ophuls flew missionaries and cargo between mission sites.

Ophuls wrote on his application, “It would be a pleasure to have a job directly concerned with helping others.  Helping the Church in Her mission work is a most worthy end in itself and a means of drawing nearer to Christ.”

Only six months into his mission trip, Ernst became gravely ill from eating contaminated meat.  He was flown to Quito for treatment, but died from the illness on June 22, 1962.  He was 26 years old.

The chaplain caring for Ophuls wrote, “Ernie died praying, with full consciousness, with a smile on his lips.”

Risley also applied to work as a missionary in 1960. She served in Nigeria for five years until the Biafran War forced the Lay Mission-Helpers to Cameroon, where she worked for two more years.  

In 1993, after retiring as a professor, Risley returned to missionary service in American Samoa.  She came back to the United States in 1996 after serving for three years in the Pacific.

She wrote of her experience, “This was a chance to experience a different culture, meet people of diverse backgrounds, deepen my faith life, share my God-given gifts, and to live a much simpler, less hurried, more spiritual and focused life.”