Toronto, Canada, Aug 3, 2016 / 09:29 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The Little Sisters of the Poor have received the Knights of Columbus’ highest honor for their fight for religious liberty and their continued service to the elderly poor.

“We Little Sisters are honored and profoundly humbled to have been chosen to receive the Gaudium et Spes Award,” Mother Loraine Marie Maguire, superior of the Little Sisters’ Baltimore province, said at the Knights of Columbus Supreme Convention in Toronto Aug. 2.   “Although we never would have chosen to become the public face of conscientious objection to the HHS Mandate, we felt compelled to take a stand for the sake of the elderly residents we serve.”

The Little Sisters of the Poor run 27 homes for the elderly poor in the U.S. They have challenged the Obama administration’s efforts to compel them to cover drugs and procedures that violate Catholic doctrine and ethics in their health care coverage for employees. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has said they must collaborate in providing health coverage of sterilization and contraception, including some drugs that may cause abortion.

Knights of Columbus Supreme Chaplain Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, reading the award citation at the international convention’s States Dinner, said the Knights of Columbus wanted to recognize the Little Sisters’ “wholehearted response to the Gospel” and their stand “with singular courage for the Catholic faith and for the religious liberty of all.” “These sisters could no more comply with coercive government mandates than they could abandon the poor, the elderly and the dying,” the archbishop said.

The Gaudium et Spes Award aims to recognize those who have made outstanding contributions to the Catholic Church and society. The award includes a gold medal and a $100,000 honorarium. The Little Sisters have taken their fight against the federal restrictions to the U.S. Supreme Court. In May 2016 the court unanimously ordered a lower court to re-hear the case, which was seen as a favorable decision.

Mother Loraine said the experience has renewed her sense of the Communion of Saints and the solidarity of the Church: “when one member rejoices all rejoice.” “As we descended the white marble steps of the Supreme Court on March 23 after our case was argued, I felt as if I was walking on air. When I saw so many religious sisters, young people and others chanting and applauding, I thought to myself “this is one of the most hopeful, joy?filled, days of my life!” I will never forget it! Mother Loraine voiced thanks for the prayers and support of those who support religious liberty and the dignity of human life.

“Our only desire has been to ensure that we will be able to continue to care for the elderly poor with dignity and love, just as we have for over 175 years. Together with our residents we have had the honor of witnessing to the Culture of Life in the Church and in the world.”

Pope Francis visited the Little Sisters during his 2015 U.S. visit to show his support for them. The Gaudium et Spes Award was established by the Knights of Columbus in 1992, taking its name from a key document of the Second Vatican Council. Its name is Latin for “Joy and Hope.” The Little Sisters of the Poor are the first religious order to receive the award, rather than an individual. The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, has over 1.9 million members worldwide. It helped fund attorneys from the Becket Fund who defended the Little Sisters in court.