Women at the heart of our work

When I became the first woman CEO of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in 2011, it was clear how important women were to this great organization. You only had to look around our headquarters in Baltimore, or travel to our offices around the world, to see women in leadership positions of significant responsibility.

And when you saw CRS programming in action on the ground, it was evident that women were both doing and benefitting from our work. On the doing side, it was often women religious, wonderful sisters and nuns, selfless people who dedicated themselves to the poor. On the other side, I saw that it was so often the women in a community who participated in our programs, who saw to it that the well was dug, the seeds planted, or that the shelter was built — and then that it was maintained.

In our community-based saving and lending groups — called SILC for Savings and Internal Lending Committee — over 80 percent of the members are female. They take advantage of the money they can borrow from their group and start businesses — procuring supplies for a bakery, buying chickens and selling their eggs, making inventory for a small shop. It’s very inspiring to see people whom most write off as hopelessly poor take a small amount of capital and turn it into a small business.

And so much of the CRS work was aimed at empowering girls. Sometimes that was obvious, as when we built schools in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan so girls could receive education for the first time. But sometimes it was not as obvious, such as when we put in wells that provide a reliable source of water so girls do not have to spend their days walking back and forth to a faraway water source. Instead, they can go to school.

So, while I knew how important women were to CRS present, it was only after joining the agency that I began to learn how foundational they were to our past. It turns out that one of our first lay employees was a woman — a very important woman in the history of CRS. That would be Eileen Egan. Many know her from her writings. Originally a freelance journalist, Egan wrote a dozen books — but she did much more than write. She was active, out in the field, from almost the minute she was hired in the year CRS was founded, 1943, as our first lay employee.

She went to Europe, where she witnessed the plight of the victims of war, and then to Mexico, where she helped resettle Polish refugees, the first undertaking of CRS. At one point she was in Hong Kong, also helping refugees, people like my friends and relatives. Then in the 1950s, she went on to India and there she met Mother Teresa and saw her work in what was then Calcutta. Egan was instrumental in bringing Mother Teresa to the United States for a conference of Catholic women in 1960, the first time those outside of India heard of her work.

People like Eileen Egan make me think of the Maryknoll Sisters who taught me in school when I was growing up in Hong Kong. Like Mother Teresa, who was born in Albania, they had traveled thousands of miles from home to bring Christ into our lives. It was those Sisters who made God real to me in the way Eileen Egan and St. Teresa did for so many all around the world.

For most of us who care about the poor and injustice, while we want to do something about it, we hold back because we have other things to do. We have to make a living. We are concerned about risk. We think that we’re not equipped for the job. But these women put everything aside and put their mission to serve the poor in God’s name the very, very first priority in their lives. They show us that we don’t know what we can do until we throw all of ourselves into the cause.  God sends such people into our lives as gift. He sent those Maryknoll Sisters to Hong Kong. And he introduced Eileen Egan and Mother Teresa so they could access each other’s strength.

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A friendship with a saint seems above and beyond what most of us will ever experience. But remember, we don’t know who the saints are among us today. Eileen Egan didn’t know when she met this Albanian nun in India. God sends such people to us and we will find them when we choose to live a life of love and commitment, when we don’t walk away from what is hard.

That is what the women of CRS have been doing for 75 years. It is part of our past, it is part of our present, it is part of our future.

Carolyn Woo served as president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services from 2011-16. The former dean of the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, she is now the Distinguished President’s Fellow for Global Development at Purdue University.