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Catholics, Refugees, and Resettlement

Imagine a moving mass of people many times wider than a modern interstate expressway, traveling by car or truck, horse-drawn cart, or simply walking. Unlike traffic on an interstate, these people are all travelling, slowly but with determination, in the same direction—away from something horrible, some hardship or disaster that would have overtaken them if they had not fled.  This description resembles many of the ones that contemporary observers used to capture the immensity of refugee movements before, during, and after World War II. Frequently, observers resorted to metaphors of rivers, tides, or entire oceans to convey their impressions—simple numerical figures would not suffice.

Nonetheless, to give some idea of the scale of population movement during World War II, according to one estimate 33,060,400 people became refugees within their own country during the war, the largest number of which were in the Soviet Union. Another 6,653,700 were displaced or moved outside their country, and 760,950 fled and escaped from German or Soviet-held territory.[1] After the war, the fledgling United Nations attempted one of its first major efforts at international cooperation with a massive, organized program of refugee aid. The United States, which unlike the nations of Europe was relatively untouched by the devastation of war, played a pivotal role in this aid. In fact, since the ruined European economy and infrastructure could not absorb these huge displaced populations, humanitarian organizations looked to the United States as the site of new homes and communities for the refugees. The US bishops and other members of the National Catholic Welfare Conference played an active role in this process of resettlement, entering into a working relationship with the US government and embarking on a vast public relations campaign to persuade lay Catholics to open their communities to refugees and displaced persons. This document collection showcases the evolution of the American Catholic Church’s refugee aid programs, from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. You will also see, in these documents, how the process of refugee aid enabled the US bishops to talk about the Church’s new emphasis on social justice and a spirit of charity and brotherhood towards all people, everywhere.

See "Background" to begin

[1] Malcolm J. Proudfoot, European Refugees 1939-52: A Study in Forced Population Movement (London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1957), 34.

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