The Archivist’s Nook: Monsignor John O’Grady, Pioneer in International Catholic Charity

John O’Grady made several trips to post-World War Two Europe towards assisting wartime refugees there. These trips kicked off a flurry of activity by him on behalf of international Catholic charity. Here, he departs on a TWA flight from New York to Germany for an International Catholic Charities meeting in Freiburg in 1956. Catholic Charities USA Records, Box 190, Folder 4.

The Archivist’s Nook recently blogged on Monsignor John O’Grady’s early Catholic charity efforts and how he helped make Catholic Charities USA (called the National Conference of Catholic Charity until 1986) a national organization focused on assisting the poor and needy.  With the Second World War, O’Grady, by then an experienced and active leader in professional Catholic Charitable work in the United States, turned his attention to assisting those whose lives had been ruined by war.

The immediate postwar years saw millions war refugees gathered in camps throughout Europe. Not only had many individuals found themselves homeless and penniless after hostilities ended, but many had been moved to displaced persons camps, often suffering in crowded, diseased conditions. In the immediate postwar period, the United States worked with other western nations to aid these refugees through organizations such as the International Refugee Organization established in 1946, ultimately assisting 10 million of 15 million stranded in Europe due to the war.¹

O’Grady wrote this report on Displaced Persons—also known as wartime refugees—in 1947. From the Monsignor John O’Grady Collection, Box 30, “The Holy Father and Displaced Persons”

Monsignor O’Grady, now at the helm of the National Conference of Catholic Charities (later renamed Catholic Charities USA) for 25 years, made it a personal mission to travel to Europe, tour the refugee camps, and attempt to assist the refugees by coordinating his Catholic charity networks with those of other organizations. He found many obstacles to resettling the refugees. Italian resettlement authorities, for example, were criticized for returning those deemed Nazi collaborators to their original countries of origin, particularly in Eastern Europe, where Soviet authority was solidifying. As he toured dozens of refugee camps in Germany, Italy, and Austria, he noted that “displaced persons now were more than a generic term to me. I had actually seen them in the flesh. I had talked to them. I had found employment for them. I had seen them come off the ships with all their earthly belonging[s] on their backs. I had seen not only individuals but families.” A three-hour tour of refugees from Eastern Europe housed in underground shelters in western Germany shocked him: “One day after a 3-hour tour of one of the underground shelters in Stuttgart, I dropped to the ground and had to be taken out by the people who occupied the shelters. These people had no work; they barely had enough food to keep them alive.”²

In 1947, O’Grady visited with officials at the Vatican on the refugee problem. He thought about the work that needed to be done with the refugees in Christian terms. After meeting the Pope Pius XII on the matter, he noted that “I left the audience with a real faith in the educational mission of our Church throughout the world, in a great international program.”³

O’Grady conferred with refugees, charity workers and a range of authorities in relief work. Here, he confers with two colleagues in Rome in an undated photo. Catholic Charities USA Records, Box 240, Folder 60.

When he returned to the United States after his overseas tours of the refugee camps, O’Grady became convinced that many of the remaining displaced should be resettled in the United States. One problem with this aspiration was in the stigma some Americans attached to the refugees. After repatriation of millions, he said, opponents claimed “what we had available were the dregs that had been left.” Moreover, where a Presidential Executive Order of 1945 had paved the way for admission of refugees from Europe to enter the U.S., voluntary groups occupied with the admission process did not have the organizational framework nor the information on the refugees necessary to resettling them in ideal locations. O’Grady believed that religious groups—he particularly admired the Jewish organizational structures with respect to resettlement activities—were better equipped to manage the program because they had pre-existing networks overseas. He worked with a range of religious organizations as well as local governments toward resettling thousands of refugees in the United States, particularly in the Midwest, where a need for farm workers was sorely needed. “We were bringing people in to meet occupational needs in the United States,” he notes of the effort. “This is what we had sold the American people. We had sold them on the idea that we could find jobs and homes for the displaced persons without disturbing American workers. This was a new approach to immigration. It was a sound approach.”⁴

For more on the work of John O’Grady, see the finding aid: http://archives.lib.cua.edu/findingaid/ogrady.cfm

For more on Catholic Charities USA, see the finding aid: http://archives.lib.cua.edu/findingaid/catholicCharities.cfm

An earlier blog on O’Grady and Catholic Charity: http://www.lib.cua.edu/wordpress/newsevents/9315/


¹ See, for example, Mark Wyman, DPs: Europe’s Displaced Persons, 1945-1951 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989).

² John O’Grady, All That I Have Seen and in Some of Which I Have Had a Part, (unpublished memoir) John O’Grady Papers, Box 21, 268, 265, 279, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

³ O’Grady, All That I Have Seen, 285.

O’Grady, All That I Have Seen, 279, 288.

The Archivist’s Nook: Monsignor John O’Grady and the Making of Modern Catholic Charity

Though this undated photo is probably posed, John O’Grady was raised by farmers in Ireland, and served farmers and others as a priest in the Diocese of Omaha, Nebraska. Monsignor O’Grady is pictured on the right.

For all of his gregariousness, Monsignor John O’Grady is one of the lesser-known leaders in twentieth century American Catholic history. And yet, he is one of the founders and organizers of what is today known as Catholic Charities, USA, one of the largest charitable organizations in America, and of CARITAS, which carries the mission to serve and advocate for the poor globally.

Like many a priest in the early twentieth-century United States, O’Grady was born in Ireland. “In the beginning there was Ireland,” he once noted, “I smile as I write these words, remembering many of my fellow priests whose behavior from time to time is an assumption that these words are the first words of Genesis.” Indeed, many Irish families of the nineteenth century expected that one of their sons would become a priest, and the O’Gradys were no exception. Upon his birth on March 31st, 1886, Margaret O’Grady later told her son that “then and there” it was decided that young John would be a priest.¹ After attending All Hallows College in Dublin from 1902-1909, O’Grady spent three years serving as Assistant Pastor at the Cathedral in Omaha Nebraska.

O’Grady came from a family of impoverished farmers in County Clare, a circumstance that made him sensitive to the plight of those in similar circumstances in the United States. Even in his earliest years as a priest, his interest in working not only with his parishioners, but with the poorest of Omaha drove him. As he put it, “I had always been very much interested in people and curious about life, and so I found myself sitting around talking to the families which belonged to our parish about many things; their problems, their interests, their hopes, their plans…” Soon, O’Grady found himself frequenting impoverished neighborhoods, courts, juvenile detention homes in search of situations in which he could offer advice and advocacy.²

Three key founders of Catholic charity in the United States. From left, Monsignor Joseph Kerby, Catholic University Rector Thomas Shahan, and Monsignor John O’Grady.

O’Grady had been told about the work of Monsignor John A. Ryan, the Catholic University professor who had authored an influential book, A Living Wage, and was intensely interested in both the economic and social side of charity. When his Bishop, Richard Scannell, wanted to send O’Grady for further schooling in Germany, O’Grady requested that he send him to The Catholic University of America instead. O’Grady did indeed form an important intellectual relationship with John Ryan at the University, but his first mentor was another professor, sociologist Monsignor William Kerby. Kerby was considered the founder of what was called “scientific charity” in Catholic circles, which is what the emerging profession of social work called training for the field of social work. At the time, the idea of training individuals in sociology, economics and various aspects of charitable care was something that not everyone accepted.

After directing his training in sociology, economics and the social sciences at Catholic University and the University of Chicago, Monsignor Kerby set O’Grady to the work of coordinating members of the local Catholic charitable groups, particularly the St. Vincent de Paul Societies, in cities throughout the United States. Monsignor John J. Butler, of Catholic Charities of St. Louis Missouri was a particularly good mentor for O’Grady, who claimed that Butler “is a man who knows how to get things done and he does it quietly.” Bishop Thomas Shahan, Rector of Catholic University, was also a crucial supporter, as were lay Vincent de Paul charity workers Thomas Mulry and Edmond Butler, and Rev. D.J. McMahon of New York.³

Collectively, this group was instrumental in forming the core of the National Conference of Catholic Charities, renamed Catholic Charities, USA in 1986. Over the next decade the NCCC grew into an association of lay volunteers, and to a lesser extent, professional social workers and clergy. Catholic laywomen dominated the early membership, while the leadership was comprised of members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

A National Conference of Catholic Charities program, September, 1918. From the records of Catholic Charities USA, CUA Archives.

While the organization’s first president, Shahan, and its first secretary, Kerby, were instrumental in laying out the broader goals of the NCCC, O’Grady, was more aggressive and strategic in his leadership of NCCC. Kerby was courteous and reticent about his role in the establishment of the national organization, and maintained strong organizational relationships with the early leadership and lay volunteers of NCCC. O’Grady, who served as secretary in 1920 and remained at the helm of the NCCC for the next 41 years, sought to extend its influence through further cultivation of professional charity workers and the strengthening of the diocesan branches. A central figure in the professionalization of Catholic social workers, he promoted the establishment of the Catholic University School of Social Work to train them, serving as its first dean from 1934 until 1938. O’Grady, moreover, actively sought to exercise influence in government where public policy affecting Catholic charity was concerned, meeting with countless government figures on issues related to child welfare, housing, and rural poverty. By the time he left the helm of the NCCC in 1961, the organization was a national force in charity work and offered an authoritative voice in public welfare policy. It remains that today.

A finding aid for the papers of Monsignor John O’Grady can be found here.

A finding aid for the papers Monsignor William Kerby can be found here.

A finding aid for the papers of Bishop Thomas Shahan can be found here.

A finding aid for the records of Catholic Charities USA can be found here.


¹Quote from “Come Now, Monsignor,” unpublished memoir of O’Grady by Saul Alinsky, Monsignor John O’Grady Papers, chapter 1, p. 1, box 22, folder 6, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

²“Come Now, Monsignor,” pps. 19, 24.

³“Come Now, Monsignor,” chapter 4, p. 2; see also Dorothy Brown and Elizabeth McKeown, The Poor Belong to Us; Catholic Charities and American Welfare (Harvard University Press, 1997).