The Annual Gala began in 2017 as a way to commemorate the too-short lives of two dedicated community volunteers.

Established in honor of Mark Zito and Kristin Brender by their fellow St. Blase Catholic Church parishioners in Sterling Heights, the first memorial dinner sold out immediately at 400.

In 2018 and 2019, the Annual Gala grew exponentially, drawing more than 1,000 guests and corporate sponsors to Downtown Detroit for a festive evening of dinner, music, and live and silent auctions.

When the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 hit, Pope Francis Center garnered national attention when it pivoted from an in-person gala to an online campaign that became one of the most successful events in the country hosted on the OneCause platform.

The 2021 Virtual Annual Gala raised a record $1M for the Pope Francis Center—a milestone in the journey towards a Detroit free of chronic homelessness.

Zito-Brender Legacy Award

Mark Zito and Kristin Brender were friends and fellow parishioners at St. Blase Catholic Church in Sterling Heights. While Mark and Kristin both passed away tragically young, they left a legacy of deep faith and tremendous compassion for those most in need. In their honor, Mark and Kristin’s friends, family and community from St. Blase have become regular volunteers at the Pope Francis Center.

The Zito-Brender Legacy Award was established to recognize special friends of the Pope Francis Center who share Mark and Kristin’s dedication to serving and empowering others. The award honors individuals who embody the values central to the Pope Francis Center – that every human is a child of God and with every act of love and compassion for the most vulnerable, our honorees join us in raising up the entire human family, making the whole world a better place.

Honorees receive a miniature Homeless Jesus sculpture by famed artist Timothy Schmalz. It depicts Jesus as a homeless person sleeping on a bench and reminds us all to see Jesus in everyone we meet. The original sculpture is installed outside of Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church.

Zito-Brender Legacy Award Recipients:

  • 2021: Jim Farley
  • 2020: Jim Vella*
  • 2019: Gene LoVasco
  • 2018: Cardinal Joseph Tobin C.Ss.R.
  • 2017: Kristin Brender, Mark Zito, Bill Dirksen and Jimmy Settles


*Presented in 2021 due to the cancellation of the 2020 Gala.

Center Highlights