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CNEWA at 75: The Beginning

CNEWA – a true expression of the popes’ love and concern for the peoples and churches of the Near East.

Europe at the end of World War I was a continent in turmoil. The Allied nations, led by Great Britain, France and the United States, had defeated the Central Powers – Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany and Turkey.

After almost 600 years of uninterrupted rule, the Ottoman Empire had crumbled, its former territories up for grabs. More than a million Greeks sought refuge in Istanbul. Armenians, Assyrians and Chaldeans, faced with violence and death, fled their homelands. Rent by revolution, Russia was absorbed in civil war and famine. Refugees abounded, fleeing first to Istanbul, later to Berlin, Paris and Vienna.

Two successive popes sought to alleviate this suffering. Both were committed to bringing material and spiritual relief to the people of Europe and the Near East. During his brief pontificate (1914-1922), Pope Benedict XV personally directed the organization of Vatican relief agencies. Pope Pius XI (1922-1939) continued his predecessor’s work, which led ultimately to the establishment of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) in 1926.

Both popes demonstrated an active interest in the Eastern churches, an interest that would impact eventually on the work of CNEWA. On 1 May 1917, Pope Benedict announced the establishment of the Sacred Congregation for the Eastern Church, to be headed by the pope as prefect. A few months later he established the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome.

Pope Pius had gained extensive firsthand knowledge of the Eastern churches in the years 1919 to 1921, when he served as papal nuncio to Poland. At that time, his mission extended to part of the former Tsarist Empire: Poland and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. In the sixth year of his pontificate, on 8 September 1928, he published his encyclical concerning the Eastern Catholic churches, Rerum orientalium. The following year he began the codification of Eastern Church law.

Americans responded wholeheartedly to the Holy See’s appeals for aid, especially for the relief of famine victims in Russia between 1921 and 1923. Various American agencies were organized to assist the needy in Russia and in the Near Eastern lands once governed by the Ottoman Turks

In Istanbul, Bishop George Calavassy, Greek Catholic Exarch of Constantinople, sought to solve the refugee crisis there. He planned to establish an orphanage, a seminary, two schools and a church. Circum-stances later forced him to move these projects to Athens.

The Bishop’s appeals for aid went largely unanswered until Father Paul Wattson, S.A., founder of the Society of the Atonement at Graymoor, New York, exhorted readers of his monthly publication, The Lamp, to support the Bishop’s efforts. The Greek Catholic Exarch and Father Wattson shared an ecumenical outlook: Bishop Calavassy was driven by the desire to unite the Orthodox and Catholic churches; Father Wattson, a former Anglican priest, sought the reunion of the Anglican and Protestant churches with Rome.

In 1922, Bishop Calavassy met a charismatic priest, Msgr. Richard Barry-Doyle, chaplain to Istanbul’s English-speaking Catholic community and a tireless advocate for Russian refugees. Soon after this meeting, Msgr. Barry-Doyle set out for America, intending to raise funds for Bishop Calavassy’ projects. Shortly after his arrival in New York, Msgr. Barry-Doyle met that other advocate for the Greek Catholic bishop, Father Wattson. Together, the two priests formed the “One Million Dollar Fund.” The monsignor embarked on a lecture tour to raise money for the fund. His efforts were successful; in 1923 he raised $41,000. Spurred on by this success, Barry-Doyle, on 30 September 1924, legally incorporated in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania “The Catholic Near East Welfare Association.”

Meanwhile, in Europe, Russian refugees, most of them Orthodox, flooded Berlin, Paris and Vienna. These refugees were viewed as schismatic in the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church and a new organization, Catholica Unio, was formed to encourage their return to the Catholic Church. The Sacred Congregation for the Eastern Church selected Count Augustine von Galen, O.S.B., a Benedictine priest and a member of the German nobility, to raise funds for an American branch of the Catholica Unio, which, on 5 January 1925, was legally incorporated in the State of New York as the Catholic Union.

Von Galen took the work of the Catholic Union very much to heart. In September 1924 he arrived in New York for a two-month stay, during which he raised $360 – a modest return for his efforts. The next year, however, he returned to New York, where Patrick Cardinal Hayes, Archbishop of New York, had established an office of the Catholic Union. From this base, von Galen raised funds for Byzantine Catholic seminarians who, once ordained, would work for the reunion of the Orthodox and Catholic churches.

That indefatigable ecumenist, Father Wattson, persuaded Msgr. Barry-Doyle to suggest a merger of The Catholic Near East Welfare Association and the Catholic Union, but Father von Galen was not interested. Father Wattson would not, however, give up. In March 1925 he set out on pilgrimage to Rome; while there, he tried to build up support for such a merger. Meanwhile, Msgr. Barry-Doyle was busily raising funds for his new venture. By the end of May 1925, he had raised $131,962, of which almost half – $51,000 – had gone to Bishop Calavassy.

Barry-Doyle’s success did not go unheeded by the American hierarchy, who, perhaps put off by the priest’s undeniably flamboyant personality, had greeted his efforts somewhat coolly. In response, Msgr. Barry-Doyle suggested placing the Association in charge of an American ecclesiastic who would enjoy the full support of the U.S. Episcopate. Negotiations were carried out with Father Edmund A. Walsh, S.J., former Director of the Papal Relief Mission to Russia, who was regarded by the Holy See and the U.S. Government as an expert on Russian affairs. In January 1926, Father Walsh accepted the presidency of The Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

A new era was about to begin; three months later, on 13 March, Pope Pius XI merged The Catholic Near East Welfare Association and the Catholic Union into a new pontifical association with Father Walsh as its President. Catholic Near East Welfare Association was retained as the name of this new pontifical organization. The Board of Trustees agreed to continue to use the original civil charter.

The new CNEWA incorporated the purposes of both groups, including emergency relief in Asia Minor, the Balkans, Greece and Russia; religious welfare; education and the needs of the Eastern Catholic churches.

On 15 September 1926, the American Catholic bishops formally endorsed the new organization at their meeting in Washington, D.C., and named CNEWA as the sole instrumentality authorized to solicit funds for Catholic interests in Russia and the Near East:

The Hierarchy of the United States in conference assembled express their full approval and adoption of the program of the Holy See providing for the unification of all societies now working in the United States of America for Russia and the Near East. The resultant organization, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, Inc., shall be the sole instrumentality authorized to solicit funds for Catholic interests in those regions and shall be so recommended to the entire Catholic population of the United States simultaneously in all dioceses on a given Sunday, the date to be arranged in consultation with the respective Ordinaries.

In 1926, Father Walsh launched a fund-raising drive for emergency relief that had grossed more than a million dollars by January 1927, an astonishing sum at that time. The funds were used to support the Sacred Congregation for the Eastern Church; Bishop Calavassy’s work in Athens; Palestine’s schools and orphanages; Syria’s schools and hospitals for refugees; the Russian refugee orphanage in Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland); the school for Russian refugees in Belgium; the works of the Catholic Church in Bulgaria, Poland and Romania, Berlin and Paris; the Oriental Institute and the Russian College, both in Rome.

Subsequently, CNEWA awarded grants to a wide variety of charitable works, including the evacuation of Russian refugees from Istanbul and, with the approval of the Pope, the relief of flood victims in Louisiana and earthquake relief assistance in Puerto Rico.

Mindful of CNEWA’s mandate to educate, Father Walsh published The Papal Annual, which contained articles and illustrations publicizing the achievements of the church in international affairs not covered by the Propagation of the Faith. The Annual never really got off the ground, however, and the 1927 edition was the only one ever published.

Meanwhile, a difference of opinion emerged between Father Walsh from his own experience as the head of the Papal Relief Mission to Russia and the U.S. Catholic hierarchy. Walsh saw the Association as a kind of international “Catholic Red Cross,” with a mandate for humanitarian aid, unlike the American bishops, who saw CNEWA as a pastoral agency. Indeed, Father Walsh stated that the Pope wished CNEWA to function as a central Catholic welfare agency, which would “materially assist the Holy See to meet the daily increasing demands made on the Holy Father for assistance in humanitarian works, in the field of education and in social welfare work all over the world, as well as in distinctly religious and missionary activities.”

Pope Pius XI wrote to Father Walsh on 30 July 1927 to express his gratitude to American Catholics and to express his satisfaction that Catholic Near East Welfare Association was now constituted on a permanent basis as a pontifical organization.

Little more than a year later, on 23 October 1928, the Pope sent an autographed letter to the U.S. bishops praising the work of both the Society for the Propagation of the Faith and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, expressing his appreciation for the funds raised by both and distinguishing their respective roles.

The stock market crash and the onset of the Depression brought a new turn in the road. Thousands of American workers lost their savings and were thrown out of work; corporate executives, now unemployed, were peddling apples and handcrafts on the street corners of the nation. The New Deal was several years away. The U.S. bishops decided that two missionary agencies were a burden for the American faithful and expressed this view to the Holy See.

On 28 June 1930, therefore, Pope Pius XI issued new regulations for Catholic Near East Welfare Association. CNEWA was not only to be under the direction of the Archbishop of New York; he was to be its president. Cardinal Hayes, then Archbishop of New York, was to select an executive officer from among the diocesan clergy who would have the title of Secretary. Duplicate collections were eliminated; instead, a portion of the annual Mission Sunday collection was to be allotted to CNEWA, which was to be “a permanent association for the spiritual ends and necessities of the churches, missions, institutions and persons depending on the Sacred Congregation for the Eastern Church and the Pontifical Commission for Russia.”

In May 1931, suspecting that his directions were not being followed with all due haste, the Pope sent Msgr. Ameleto G. Cicognani, Assessor of the Congregation, to ensure that the papal initiatives had been implemented.

At a meeting on 6 June, Msgr. Cicognani thanked the board members for their work on behalf of the church, presented the Pope’s directives and called for the legal transfer of the presidency of Catholic Near East Welfare Association from Father Walsh to Cardinal Hayes. The Archbishop of New York was elected President and Treasurer and the Association was placed entirely under hierarchical control. Father Walsh, Father Wattson and Joseph Moore (the General Secretary) all resigned. Although destined to grow and change, CNEWA as we know it today had been born.

Pope Pius subsequently expressed his satisfaction with these new arrangements to the Archbishop of New York and to the Cardinal Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Eastern Church. Later, he emphasized that CNEWA was to remain under the presidency of the Archbishop of New York, that the Congregation was to furnish information to the Secretary of the Association about the church in the Orient and that CNEWA was to concern itself with the education of the faithful about the condition of the communities of the East. He also issued additional instructions about the handling and distribution of the Mission Sunday collection.

The early relief efforts of Pope Benedict XV and Pope Pius XI following the Great War, combined with their interest in the Eastern churches, had led, ultimately, to the formation of a papal agency that would grow to serve the people and churches of the Middle East, Northeast Africa, India and Eastern Europe and Eastern churches everywhere.

After 75 years, CNEWA is stronger than ever.

Writer and editor Peg Maron is Production Editor of CNEWA WORLD.

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