- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2002

Organizers of Catholic Charities' annual fund-raising gala aimed high this year, and, by all accounts, hit their mark Saturday night at the Washington Hilton and Towers. They managed to draw $500,000 in donations and attract an unprecedented headliner to help highlight their many causes.
Guests paid $300 apiece, up from $250 last year, for the Mardi Gras-themed dinner and a performance by legendary crooner Tony Bennett. More than 1,100 supporters and fans were there, including lawyer Robert S. Bennett (no relation, presumably), television news personalities Chris and Kathleen Matthews, philanthropist Otto Ruesch, Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, Rep. Constance A. Morella and her likely Democratic opponent in November, Maryland Delegate Mark Shriver.
Margaret Melady, president of the American University of Rome (and wife of Thomas Melady, former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican), came all the way from the "Eternal City" to hear Mr. Bennett sing. No regrets, she said later. "It was a perfect evening. Top-notch."
With numerous priests in clerical garb joining the laity who wore tuxedos and mostly black gowns the benefit's Mardi Gras theme bypassed costumed splendor, extending only as far as the dinner menu (Cajun pasta jambalaya, grilled shrimp stuffed with crabmeat, filet with Cajun rub, and a sinful in any other context chocolate souffle dubbed the Bourbon Street Surprise). The formal atmosphere was a long, long way from a New Orleans-style bacchanalia, especially at the small pre-dinner VIP cocktail reception where Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, greeted deep-pocketed supporters.
The cardinal, whose firefighter nephew died when the World Trade Center collapsed, said Catholic Charities has raised $125,000 for Washington-area victims of the September 11 attacks, including those who lost jobs in the struggling hospitality and service industries. The charities' main mission, he added, is to give the poor a "sense of personal dignity."
The largest social-services agency in the region (motto: "Faith. Works. Wonders"), the organization serves an estimated 80,000 people a year through substance-abuse treatment programs, day care centers, a food bank and legal services with a budget of almost $22 million, a staff of 300 and 3,000 volunteers.
The recipients' religious affiliation doesn't matter. "We never think to ask," Cardinal McCarrick said. "We ask, 'Are you hungry? Do you need something?'"
Mr. Duncan explained that Catholic Charities' services for the immigrant Latino population in his county are crucial because "it's easier for the church to reach out to the community than for politicians. They trust the church."
Mrs. Townsend praised the charity's work with "vulnerable children and elderly at risk."
A very worthy cause indeed, but there was no doubt that Mr. Bennett's presence boosted interest this year. "He's heightened the excitement of the gala like never before, Catholic Charities President Edward Orzechowski said."
It was no easy task getting Mr. Bennett to perform, according to Michael Gretschel, who chaired the event with his wife, Maureen. Only "about 2,000 phone calls," he explained. "You had to know someone who knows someone who knows someone … seven degrees of separation."
After dinner, the 75-year-old singer graced the stage for an hourlong concert, offering the appreciative crowd old standards such as "Maybe This Time," "The Best Is Yet to Come" and, of course, his signature song, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."
The biggest applause came when he sang Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind," which, he announced, he will perform with Mr. Joel at the Grammy Awards on Feb. 27. Their rendition has been nominated for best pop collaboration.
"He gave it his all," guest Tricia Morrin said. "He really made everyone feel he was there just for us."


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