Catholic Relief Services acts globally, quietly City headquarters is hardly noticed

February 21, 1997|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Catholic Relief Services is a welcome name for millions of poor people in Third World countries -- as visible with its humanitarian aid as the Red Cross and the United Nations.

So much for the world.

In Baltimore, its headquarters across from the Greyhound bus station is hardly noticed, its global mission almost unknown despite the agency being the first, oldest and most influential of three relief groups to move here since 1989.

Lutheran World Relief and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, both in New York City, recently have planned to move here within three years, joining Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the International Youth Foundation.

CRS is considered one of the most effective international groups for its food, clothing, shelter and development assistance to more than 14 million of the world's poorest people. This, without proselytizing or quitting dangerous corners easily.

Yet in this country, CRS is often mistaken for Catholic Charities, the domestic arm of the United States Catholic Conference, which also oversees CRS.

"We're not a household word here or in this country we'd like to be," said Arthur Stegmayer, director of Catholic Relief operating services, speaking to visiting staffers from El Salvador, India and Senegal. "My own church here doesn't know what Catholic Relief is."

Unlikely neighborhood

Indeed, even the neighborhood around its home, a converted turn-of-the century straw-hat factory at 209 W. Fayette St., seems unlikely for an agency that was blessed by the pope and spent $215 million last year.

The international agency sits between an adult book store and a parking garage, near fingernail fashion shops and not far from doorways where homeless men doze at night.

"We consciously chose this area," said Kenneth F. Hackett, executive director, referring to the agency's move here from New York. "It would have been inappropriate to house ourselves upscale."

Yet Hackett had to fret before the 1995 papal visit: "What about the dirty book store when the pope comes?" But Pope John Paul II met them at the Basilica of the Assumption and praised their belief in "the inalienable dignity" of every person.

The CRS staff of 200 in Baltimore is dwarfed by the number abroad -- 1,800 full-time and temporary workers, many of them non-Catholics. They operate in 80 countries, 46 of those with offices.

As they come to work each day, here or on foreign soil, they try to fulfill the words on a plaque in the headquarters lobby, the words of Matthew 25: 35-36:

"For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me "

They work with local Catholic and other agencies in disaster relief, refugee assistance and self-help projects. Hackett said their tasks can seem "terribly frustrating" to observers. "But if you're a participant, you can save people's lives."

Although the agency labors in three major regions -- Africa, Latin America and Eurasia -- half its resources are in 35 sub-Saharan countries. Bishop John H. Ricard, president and chairman, said CRS will continue its heavy emphasis on Africa because the continent's disintegrating areas have such great need.

He said small-business loans will expand, empowering more women to escape poverty. He was concerned about foreign aid cuts, saying U.S. citizens are more willing than politicians to give foreign aid.

"It's important to know that CRS encourages development, as well as gives aid, so people empower themselves," said the bishop, recently named to direct the Diocese of Pensacola, Fla.

The agency's high reputation was in evidence last year when the U.S. government agreed to let CRS fly three planeloads of food, clothing and shelter materials to Cuba after Hurricane Lili struck. was the only U.S.-based relief agency allowed there.

Jeanne Markunas has dealt with CRS during her 25 years with the U.S. Agency for International Development. "They stay the course," said the deputy director of USAID's Food for Peace program. "They go into places that are difficult and challenging."

After five U.N. workers were killed in Rwanda, a high-ranking official quickly flew there. "We work in tough places, but we want to be sure of the staff's safety," said Louise C. Wilmot, A CRS deputy executive director who is a one-time rear admiral in the Navy.


CRS officials note several developments that have affected the agency's work:

The nonprofit organization has lost one-third of its sources of support, a drop from $311 million in 1994 to $205 million in 1996, mainly because of reductions in U.S. agricultural commodities. This eliminated aid for at least 2 million people, Hackett said.

But he said that relying on a faith-based constituency will be healthier in the long run and that "private support is increasing." Less than a quarter of CRS income is derived from Catholic sources.

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