The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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June 15, 2001 Issue
Local News

CRS pioneer set stage for resettlement of refugees from wars

Work with Polish refugees after World War II led to later resettlement efforts

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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 compassion.

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 Relief Act.

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 countries.

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 Nations.

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 graciously declined.

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 decades.

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 refugees.

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.



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