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CNEWA at 75: Decades of Turbulence

Despite the Depression and world war, CNEWA continued its mission to help the needy and dispossessed.

text by Peg Maron
photographs: CNEWA Archives


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When Father Edmund A. Walsh, S.J., resigned as President of CNEWA in late spring 1930, the agency confronted a world foundering in the grip of the Great Depression. The United States was years away from the New Deal reforms of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Herbert Hoover was in his second year as President; in his regard for individual freedom he chose to depend on private charity to ameliorate the widespread suffering of a newly impoverished American populace, but private charity proved to be in short supply. The well of support that CNEWA had enjoyed under Msgr. Richard Barry-Doyle and Father Walsh had disappeared.

It was against this historical background that Patrick Cardinal Hayes, Archbishop of New York and President of CNEWA, appointed Msgr. James B. O’Reilly, a priest of the Archdiocese, as Secretary of CNEWA on 15 June 1931. He was to serve in this capacity throughout the Depression until he was reassigned to a New York City parish some 10 years later. Confronted with indescribable poverty and vastly diminished support, he would nevertheless enable CNEWA to continue its assistance to churches and people in need.

Pius XI was nine years into his pontificate when Msgr. O’Reilly was appointed and Luigi Cardinal Sincero was Secretary of the Sacred Congregation for the Eastern Church, under which CNEWA operated. Nuncios in the various regions served by CNEWA sent their requests for assistance to the Congregation, which in turn forwarded these requests to CNEWA in New York. Donations were solicited by and received at the agency’s New York offices; they were then sent to the Congregation for distribution to the nuncios. The Secretary of the Congregation sent thank-you letters, prepared by the Good Shepherd Sisters, directly to individual donors in the U.S.

The day-to-day work was done by minutanti, priests at the Congregation who were assigned to specific churches or regions. In 1935 an American priest, Msgr. Joseph Mark McShea, became the first of a series of CNEWA representatives in the Congregation; McShea served there until 1939. He later became Bishop of Allentown, Pennsylvania. When Bishop McShea died in 1991, Achille Cardinal Silvestrini, Prefect of the Congregation, sent Bishop Thomas J. Welsh of Allentown a telegram expressing his condolences and recognizing McShea’s years of service to the churches of the East.

In the early years of Msgr. O’Reilly’s tenure, one of his first tasks was to prepare the CNEWA Faculties and Privileges – special privileges for priest-members – in collaboration with the Holy See.

These privileges, first granted in May 1933, included, among others, the privilege of substituting five decades of the Rosary for the Divine Office on any day when one traveled 60 miles, the privilege of offering Mass at any time of the day or night while traveling and the privilege of using the Greek or Latin antimensium in place of an altar stone. The privileges remained in effect until the revision of the Code of Canon Law in 1983, when most of them became common for all priests.

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