CRS pioneer set stage for resettlement of refugees from wars
Work with Polish refugees after World War II led to later resettlement efforts
By Peter Geniesse
Special to The Compass
For the past quarter-century, the Diocese of Green Bay has been a
leader in the resettlement of refugees from throughout the world.
Thousands of Vietnamese, Lao, Hmong, Poles, Bosnians and now
Somalis have found new homes and discovered new friends in
northeastern Wisconsin. Since 1975, the diocesan refugee office
has resettled more than 5,500 people and has lent a helping hand
to another 15,000 refugees.
Retired Bp. Aloysius Wycislo speaks with pride about that
program, which since shortly after the end of the Vietnam War has
been directed by Barbara Biebel. The department was created under
his watch. It was borne of his experience. It was nurtured by his
After World War II, scores of refugee families - then called
Displaced Persons - were resettled in the Green Bay Diocese. They
came from Poland, from Germany, from the Netherlands under
sponsorship of Catholic Relief Services.
Bp. Wycislo had a hand in their resettlement. In fact, as a
director for CRS in the Middle East, Paris and New York, he was
instrumental in the resettlement of more than a half-million
European refugees in America. He even helped write the U.S.
legislation that paved the way for the Displaced Persons Refugee
Bp. Wycislo is putting together a book on his 16 years with CRS.
It's called Memoirs of a Mission of Mercy.
It tells of a young Polish priest from Chicago, two years out of
The Catholic University of America with a master's degree in
social work who in 1943 finds himself in Cairo, Egypt,
administering to the needs of thousands of Poles who had fled
their war-torn country.
He was recruited by Msgr. Patrick O'Boyle of New York who had
been tabbed to head the War Relief Services, a new arm of the
National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Msgr. O'Boyle, who went
on to direct Catholic Relief Services in Washington, D.C., and
later served as archbishop there, believed that Fr. Wycislo's
background with Chicago charities and his Polish upbringing in
Cicero made him the right fit for the job.
He didn't know that while Fr. Wycislo's parents were
second-generation Polish immigrants they spoke German, not
Polish, at home. Fr. Wycislo learned most of his Polish in Cairo,
and throughout the Middle East, by speaking with Polish refugees.
He also became fluent in three other languages.
He was named CRS field director for the Middle East as well as
India and Africa, and he traveled extensively during the war,
visiting camps and addressing needs for the increasing influx of
displaced persons. At the end of the war, he was stationed in
Paris where he directed relief programs throughout Europe,
including countries behind the Iron Curtain.
In 1947, he was called back to the U.S. where he was named CRS
assistant director, with offices in New York's Empire State
Building. But his traveling days were far from over.
In the early 1950s, as Europe was in recovery, CRS looked to
other parts of the world that could benefit from the assistance
of Catholics in the U.S.
The agency moved into Latin America and set up offices in Asia
and Africa. Fr. Wycislo was on the move again. Within a decade he
visited more than 50 countries.
CRS' role also was changing. Instead of responding only to
emergencies, it sought to establish initiatives that could be
sustained to help break the cycle of poverty in Third World
Programs dealing in agriculture, cooperatives, health education
and clean water projects were inaugurated.
In 1954, Pope Pius XII, recognizing his experience and knowledge
of refugee relief work around the globe, selected Fr. Wycislo to
serve a two-year stint as the Vatican observer to the United
Finally, in 1958, after nearly 16 years of flying around the
world and living out of a suitcase, Fr. Wycislo expressed a
desire to return to his roots. He was offered a parish in New
York City by his good friend Card. Francis Spellman, but he
He wanted to go back to Chicago. He was named pastor of
Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish on the city's north side, and two
years later he was consecrated bishop. He served as auxiliary
bishop to Card. Albert Meyer, and then Card. John Cody until he
was named to assume leadership of the Green Bay Diocese in 1968,
three months after the death of Bp. Stanislaus Bona.
Bp. Wycislo continued to be involved in CRS. He served on its
board of directors and its executive committee for almost four
He was a pioneer, one of the few who were called upon by the
National Catholic Welfare Conference to provide War Relief
Services to refugees fleeing the fighting in Europe. He helped
provide new homes in America for hundreds of thousands of
He laid the groundwork for CRS operations throughout the world,
and in doing so provided sustenance, assistance, guidance and
hope for millions.
Today the agency, part of the United States Catholic Conference,
operates on an annual budget of $400 million. It has a presence
in 85 countries and a field staff of nearly 4,000. There are more
than 300 employees at its Baltimore headquarters.
CRS hasn't forsaken its emergency past, however. It does some of
its best work in a crisis. After Hurricane Mitch, the agency
distributed food, medicine and shelter supplies to 29,000
families in Honduras. It received and distributed nearly $75
million worth of aid throughout Central America.
When hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians fled their homes
in Kosovo in 1999, CRS managed one of the largest refugee camps
in Macedonia and provided food, shelter and emergency supplies to
about 300,000 refugees throughout the Balkans.
Bp. Wycislo smiles with satisfaction as he mulls over what CRS
has become and what it has accomplished over the past half-century or so. It's been a big part of his life, too.
He's also pleased as he sees others take up the call to help
resettle refugees. Dozens of parishes in the Green Bay Diocese
reached out to sponsor Southeast Asian refugees during his tenure
as bishop. Even more have gotten involved since then with the
Polish, Russian and Bosnian refugees.
The latest chapter of what Bp. Wycislo started back in Egypt in
1943, is being written by Muslim families from Somalia who have
been resettled in the Green Bay Diocese.