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: “A Wonderful Tonic” – A Wartime Hollywood Romance

Wedding photo, 1936.

“My Sweetheart, today is your birthday. There is so much to say that I am not going to attempt to use words and paper and pencil. I think you know how I feel about our separation – and the war which caused it – and my prayers and hopes for our future.”

Thus begins a letter sent from the Department of National Defense in Ottawa, Canada to an address in Los Angeles, California. The author was Hollywood director and screenwriter John Farrow, who was wishing his wife, actress Maureen O’Sullivan, a happy birthday. Despite the challenges of distance and wartime censorship, the pair continuously worked to maintain regular contact on all topics, both good and ill.  

We have highlighted the life and career of Farrow in a previous post, but his relationship with O’Sullivan was but one of many topics covered. The Australian-born director and Irish-born actress married in 1936. They welcomed their first child, Michael, three years later in 1939. Almost immediately after his birth, the couple and their newborn experienced several years of separation and long-distance communication.

Sunday News, Oct. 1, 1939.

In August of that year, O’Sullivan traveled to the United Kingdom to film her latest feature. Unfortunately, the clouds of war were gathering on the Continent, and she soon found herself trapped in Britain. Her husband frantically sought safe passage for her return home. Both Farrow and MGM Studios worked to secure a flight or ship back for the actress, but passage was difficult as the uncertainties of the new conflict produced repeated cancellations. Ahead of one of the many canceled return trips, Farrow wrote to his wife:

“This letter is arriving by the plane that is bringing you back. To use the local vernacular – am I glad. I never realized before how much of a part you play in my life. In fact you are my life and I am thoroughly miserable without you.”

In the same letter, however, Farrow tells his wife that he wishes to heed the call to service. He would find an opportunity to follow this call, after O’Sullivan managed to return in late September. With the US not yet involved in the conflict and himself being a British subject, Farrow traveled to Vancouver in November 1939 to enlist in the Royal Canadian Navy. O’Sullivan remained behind in Los Angeles, taking care of their infant son and continuing her acting career.

In the coming years, Farrow would move around during his assignments with both the Canadian and British navies. He was stationed at various times in Ottawa, Nova Scotia, and Trinidad. Despite where he headed, his wife wrote to him frequently:

“My Dearest, what a wonderful treat I received last night. Two letters from my sweetheart….I can tell you I enjoyed every word. And after I finished reading them do you know what I did? I took all your letters, now a lovely big heap, and read through them too.”

The family reunited during a visit.

While O’Sullivan and Michael did manage to visit him – during one visit, John warned Maureen that she may be swamped by fans – the couple maintained most of their contact long-distance during his service. In addition to notes of affection, Farrow discussed his take on wartime events, O’Sullivan’s contract negotiations with the studio, and even explained the importance of mothers to young Michael. However, for Farrow, the most “wonderful tonic” for his melancholy at being apart happened to be his wife’s voice during their weekly phone calls:

“My sweetheart, wasn’t it fun to talk together. But for so long! I forget to reverse the charges so probably a month’s pay will go to the phone company. We are extravagant and must really discipline ourselves to a limit of say – 10 minutes. Yes? But anyway I have no regrets. It was so nice.”

Farrow would continue his service with the Canadian and British navies until he was invalided due to a contraction of typhus fever in January 1942. Throughout the remaining war years, he would be intermittently called back to service, while working on such wartime features as 1942’s Wake Island. A film for which Farrow received an Oscar nomination for direction.

A note Farrow sent to O’Sullivan.

While the separation of the war years weighed heavily on the couple, O’Sullivan and Farrow would remain married until his passing in 1963. They had seven children together over the following years, and remained active in both Hollywood and Catholic circles.

O’Sullivan, who donated the John Farrow Papers to the CUA Archives in 1978, kept the letters her husband sent her during the war years. Nestled between materials on his film career and involvement in religious societies, the wartime correspondence with his wife highlights a personal side of the famed director’s life that mattered deeply to him.