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Catholics were there at the start


World War II wasn’t even over when, in 1944, Western nations began pushing for a new global body -- a United Nations Organization. Their representatives met that year at Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., to sketch the details. A Catholic laywoman, Catherine Schaeffer, was on hand.

In San Francisco in 1945, when the U.N. Charter was drafted, Schaeffer was there again -- representing the Catholic Association for International Peace. She was part of the “Catholic team,” the first Catholic NGOs, or nongovernmental organizations, with a role built-in to the United Nations Organization body from the start.

Other Catholic team members were the National Catholic Welfare Council -- predecessor body to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops-U.S. Catholic Conference; the National Council of Catholic Women; and NC News (predecessor to today’s Catholic News Service). Team leader was Howard J. Carroll, general secretary of the National Catholic Welfare Council.

The U.S. bishops decided to have a U.N. office, and Schaeffer was the natural choice to head it.

In establishing that office, wrote Jean Gartlan (in her 1998 book, At the United Nations: the Story of the NCWC-USCC Office for U.N. Affairs), “the bishops may have been bolder than they realized or intended.”

Schaefer, who had a master’s in economics and international relations, had worked since 1927 at the NCWC social action department, headed by the now legendary Fr. John A. Ryan, whose deputy was Fr. Raymond McGowan.

Joined in 1948 by Alma Zizzamia, a professor of Italian literature, the two women quickly mastered what Gartlan (later a bishops’ U.N. office staff member herself) called the essence of NGO work, “the day-in, day-out nitty-gritty presence as representatives of the world’s people in the world’s business.”

McGowan encouraged the bishops’ U.N. office to become a Catholic hub -- the office of International Catholic Organizations (ICO) at the United Nations was based there. When in 1972 the U.S. bishops cited budgetary restraints and closed their U.N. office, the ICO shifted quarters. These days they’re at the “U.N. parish,” Holy Family Church on E. 47th Street. The parish, with its great external wall plaques featuring the popes most closely associated with the United Nations -- John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II -- also has a garden of tranquility, a “peace garden,” on its west side.

Dominican Sr. Dorothy Farley directs the ICO information center on the third floor and organizes discussions and briefings. Many of the U.S. NGO nuns are regulars. Current ICO membership ranges from Pax Christi International, to the International Catholic Union of the Press, to Pax Romano. Associate members include the Columban Fathers, the National Catholic Educational Association and many orders of women religious.

National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 1999