- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Colby Gannon, a 13-year-old who lives on a Sioux reservation in North Dakota, has been trying to catch up with the pope for two years.

That’s when Colby’s Catholic youth group started raising money for a trip to Australia to see Pope Benedict XVI later this year. When the 11-member Indian group couldn’t raise enough money, they changed their plans to see the pontiff in Rome.

But that overseas trip also proved too expensive.

So when he got off the school bus one day last month and his mom told him and his sister that the Archdiocese of Washington donated tickets to the April 17 papal Mass in the District, Colby’s shock was understandable.

“It was shocking because we didn’t expect the tickets because they are in such high demand,” Colby said. “I was joyous. I was certainly happy to get them.”

Colby and his mother arrived in the District on Monday holding 16 tickets to the Mass on Thursday.

The Archdiocese of Washington learned of the Spirit Lake youth group’s efforts and offered tickets to celebrate Mass with 45,000 others led by Benedict tomorrow morning.

Archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Gibbs said ticket requests came from across the country and around the world, but the plea on behalf of the Spirit Lake group “really caught our attention.”

“They’ve been working hard, trying to raise money, and the kids are so on fire for the faith,” Ms. Gibbs said. “To see the Holy Father would be a great opportunity for them.”

The request to see the pope during his D.C. visit started with the group’s priest, the Rev. Paul Ruge of St. Michael’s Indian Catholic Mission in St. Michael, N.D. Father Ruge contacted the Diocese of Fargo about the youths’ hopes to see the pope in Australia or Rome, and requested intercession for Benedict’s U.S. visit. Suzanne Nelson, administrative assistant for the Fargo Diocese, took over from there.

Ms. Nelson told the Archdiocese of Washington about the students’ efforts and requested tickets. On Feb. 27, she was told that 16 tickets would be reserved for the group.

Father Ruge, the 11 students and four of their mothers — including Colby’s mother, Kelly Gannon, a 48-year-old truck driver who leads the youth group — were the lucky recipients.

Ms. Nelson, who has worked with the Fargo Diocese for almost two years, said her 20 years of experience as a travel agent helped as she volunteered to arrange flights and secure hotel reservations.

The group paid for flights to the region with the money collected in its two years of fundraising efforts, which included garage sales and catering for a wedding.

“We’ve done bake sales and pancake breakfasts in the basement of our church,” Colby said. “We sat in the local Wal-Mart’s parking lot to sell hamburgers, too.”

Bob Gibson, principal of Colby’s middle school at Devils Lake, said, “We’re just tickled to death that a group of youths was able to raise the amount of money to get all the way to D.C. and back.”

When youth group member Charday Foote, 21, left Devils Lake for the District, she boarded a plane for the first time.

“Hopefully, I’ll be able to meet the pope and shake his hand or kiss his ring,” she said.

Miss Foote, whose brother is training to be a priest, said her strong Catholic roots give her reason to feel “really blessed to be able to see the pope.”

The trip to the District is a first for everyone in the group. They plan to tour the White House and visit the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception this week.

Jessica Kurtz, 17, made the trip with her mother and 13-year-old sister, Kristina, and is eager to relate her experiences in the nation’s capital to family and friends when she returns to North Dakota.

“No one else in my grade will be able to see the pope,” Kristina said. “He’s a once-in-a-lifetime person to meet.”

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