CRS in the 1940s

Our origins are found in the darkest hours of World War II, when War Relief Services was born out of the love and generosity of Catholics in the United States.

A Long Walk to a Warm Embrace

"Mexican women rushed forward to press bunches of flowers into the hands of women and reached out to embrace the children."

In 1943, after years of hardship in a Soviet gulag, a group of Polish refugees began the long, arduous trek—on foot—toward freedom.

What awaited them was a warm embrace, first at the border of Iran, where the refugees were greeted by a newly formed relief agency founded with the love and goodwill of Catholics in the United States. And there was a second abrazo when War Relief Services, now called Catholic Relief Services, brought them to Colonia Santa Rosa, near the city of León in north-central Mexico, to begin a new life.

After their rescue by CRS, the Polish refugees were denied asylum in the United States, so their expectations were low when they arrived in Mexico—which made the warm welcome they received all the more surprising.

The local residents who crowded the train platform came forward to help lift the refugees' bundles of belongings. The mayor gave a welcoming speech and, when he had finished, "Mexican women rushed forward to press bunches of flowers onto the hands of women and reached out to embrace the children," wrote CRS historian Eileen Egan. "The Polish women sobbed in surprised joy and the Mexican women were moved to tears at the sight of the homeless wanderers." The villagers led the newcomers to a waiting feast.

This story of new beginnings is also the story of the birth of CRS. "Aid to the homeless Poles in Colonia Santa Rosa in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico," wrote Egan, "was the first project of the new agency, Catholic Relief Services."

Julek Plowy was born in the gulag and was just 3 years old when this journey began. He was among the 1,432 survivors given temporary refuge in Mexico. The first group arrived in July 1943, and his family came that November. The strength of his parents' faith, he said, sustained him and his family through the hardships of war and imprisonment.

He credits "the hard work and dedication of Catholic Relief Services" with helping his family transition to life in North America.

Catholic Relief Services provided aid to us in many forms, such as clothing, food, education, toys, medical aid, medical supplies and also finances, Mr. Plowy recalled. Beautiful dresses and other clothing collected in the U.S. were distributed to us.

In many cases, the clothing was too large for our emaciated bodies, he said. But it was received with great appreciation.

Faith Through an Inferno

"We recited an act of contrition together," Thérèse Fortier recalled. "We asked God to forgive us for all our sins…. I was not going to die after all."

Just two years after being established, tragedy destroyed the offices of the agency that would become Catholic Relief Services. But tragedy only made us stronger.

It was July 28, 1945, a Saturday, and more than a dozen War Relief Services* staff were busy preparing an emergency shipment to be sent overseas. Suddenly, our offices burst into flames.

A U.S. Army Air Corps B-25 bomber, which had gotten lost in dense fog, slammed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building, where War Relief Services had its world headquarters.

Some survived by finding refuge in a corner room, where they dodged the orange fireball roaring through the offices. Eleven staff members were killed, including one man who died from his burns 3 days after leading survivors in prayer.

Thérèse Fortier, a young staffer, recalled that horrible day. "When the building shook and the fire surrounded us, I was sure I was going to die," Fortier said. "Flames began shooting under the door, and the smoke was choking us. We recited an act of contrition together. We asked God to forgive us for all our sins. At last, the firemen appeared. I was not going to die after all."

*CRS was established in 1943 as War Relief Services. It was renamed Catholic Relief Services in 1955.

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