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In 1986 I was hired by the Pontifical Mission’s Beirut office to work in the project department. Shortly thereafter the director’s post became vacant. I had no intention of staying, but Msgr. John Nolan, then president, requested that I remain to hold things together until a new director was appointed. I then took the liberty of writing to Msgr. Nolan, whom I had never met:

…As you search for a permanent replacement for the executive director position of the Pontifical Mission, a task which is of the utmost importance for the future well functioning of this office, please permit me to make a few pertinent remarks…it would seem to me that the person to be selected would best serve the organization if he possessed the following:

Astute awareness of the political, religious and military realities of the country which demand:

absolute neutrality…posture of equality and fairness…strict understanding of the proper realm and boundaries of PM operations…low key approach and behavior…ability to maintain good public relations with key persons and organizations [and] …skills in French and/or Arabic.

I knew he was looking for a priest, and I neither desired nor intended to take the position.

Shortly thereafter Msgr. Nolan arrived in Lebanon with John Cardinal O’Connor, president of the Pontifical Mission’s sister agency, Catholic Near East Welfare Association. The cardinal approached me and asked, “Could you handle this?” and I responded, “Yes.” Msgr. Nolan then formally asked me to accept the position of director.

Later at a gathering of Lebanon’s religious, male and female, the cardinal introduced me as his representative in Lebanon, saying, “remember, my last name is O’Connor, and hers, O’Grady!”

The greatest resource of any organization is its people. I recruited a young, energetic and intelligent staff; a group of people who were interested in doing their part to bring peace to their country. And though they could profit from formation and guidance, their dynamism and energy strengthened our efforts to work with the poor. And unlike the majority of the populace, they were freer of the prejudices that have haunted their homeland.

For four years, the biggest decision each day was whether or not to call each person to the office. Every morning we communicated with one another via walkie talkie – the phone lines were almost always down. Usually we discussed the fighting in each individual’s neighborhood and whether it was relatively safe to leave the security of a stairwell or a bunker. I was responsible for the safety and lives of each staff member. Yet in those four years of fighting, we only missed two working days. In a nation that saw schools, businesses and basic social services disrupted 50 percent of the time, our staff’s desire to work was amazing and their accomplishments, astounding.

Now, thank God, the civil war is over. This is the recovery period. The staff is busy assessing the needs of a population dreadfully affected by the war. The reconstruction of a nation seems insurmountable, but our staff is eager.

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Tags: Lebanon CNEWA Relief Civil War