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CNEWA at 75: A New Vision Is Formed

Knowledge, skill and savvy come to CNEWA via its charismatic leadership.

by Peg Maron

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When Msgr. Joseph T. Ryan took up the reins as National Secretary of CNEWA and President of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine in January 1961, he found a crisis. Palestinian refugees, scattered throughout the Middle East, were placing increasingly heavy burdens on host governments, especially as it became clear that the refugees were there to stay.

Msgr. Ryan was well aware of the pressures refugees were exerting on their hosts and the resentment of the local populations, resentment that was intensified by assistance given the refugees by the United Nations and Western relief organizations. He realized that need was not confined to the refugees; it existed throughout the Middle East.

Fortified by reports from Msgr. Stephen J. Kelleher, his successor in Beirut, Msgr. Ryan recommended broadening the work of the Pontifical Mission – much of it financed by CNEWA – to include non-refugees. By 1961 the affairs of CNEWA and the Pontifical Mission in the Middle East had become inextricably intertwined.

Msgr. Ryan had a broad understanding of assistance. Yes, primary and secondary schools should be built and maintained, but college scholarships should also be given to gifted students. Hospitals and clinics should be supported, but health care tailored to special-needs patients should be provided. Workshops for the unemployed should be established, and self-support programs should be initiated.

In September 1961, Msgr. Ryan began the first of several Holy Land projects: the construction of the School for the Blind in Gaza. He wrote to each of the directors of schools for the blind in the United States and to members of the American Federation of Catholic Workers for the Blind, asking for advice and assistance. Their response, together with gifts from donors who read Msgr. Ryan’s column in the Catholic press, enabled CNEWA to build the school, which not only educated blind children and youths but also taught job-related skills.

In December 1961, under Msgr. Ryan’s direction, the Pontifical Mission made a $5,000 grant to Swiss Caritas to help build Caritas Baby Hospital in Bethlehem, then and now the only pediatric hospital in the West Bank. The following year, the agency initiated a pilot agricultural and development program for Jordan’s native Bedouin, the JASH Self-Help Program. Its name was an acronym of the participating villages: Judaiyida, Ader, Smakieh and Humid.

Besides its partnership with the Pontifical Mission in the Holy Land, CNEWA’s programs in other parts of the world were going strong. Donors continued to sponsor novices and seminarians; burses for their support were forwarded by CNEWA via the Congregation for the Eastern Church to the novitiates and seminaries in which these aspiring candidates received their religious formation.

The Congregation continued to forward “mission pages” listing the needs cited by papal legates assigned to the regions served by CNEWA. CNEWA raised funds to cover these needs and sent the monies to the Congregation for distribution. These funds built and furnished churches and chapels, supported orphanages, provided Mass stipends to priests and met the other needs enumerated by the nuncios.

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Tags: Refugees CNEWA Middle East Msgr. Stern Msgr. John G. Nolan