For Francis X. Carlin, who has been part of Catholic Relief Services for 27 years, a string of devastating emergencies in distant parts of the world and the agency's dramatic response to them dominated his memories yesterday.
He has spent 22 of those years overseas -- in Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Ethiopia. "I guess to me personally, Calcutta in 1971 was the high point," Mr. Carlin said. "We had 12 million refugees of the Indo-Pakistani War. My responsibility was the eastern quadrant of India. We set up camps with a quarter of a million people in each. We provided everything."
For Christine H. Turner, who has been with the relief agency 12 years, six of them in Peru, planning and development -- "looking for ways that the immediate needs of the poor can be meshed with environmental concerns, for example" -- were the most satisfying. "Short-term survival, of course, has to come first," she said.
Theirs were just two of hundreds of memories shared yesterday as the board, staff and friends of the worldwide relief agency celebrated its 50th anniversary.
The celebration began at the Basilica of the Assumption, where 10 bishops and other clergy joined Baltimore Archbishop William H. Keeler in offering a Mass of thanksgiving. It concluded several blocks away with the dedication of a commemorative plaque at the international headquarters of Catholic Relief Services, 209 W. Fayette St.
"Baltimore is, in effect, the world capital of Catholic charity," Archbishop Keeler said.
In his homily at the Mass, he emphasized the far-flung successes of the agency with 174 employees in Baltimore and more than 2,000 overseas. It moved its headquarters from New York to Baltimore in 1989.
"Whether it is promoting human rights in Guatemala, feeding the starving in Somalia, caring for the victims of war in the Balkans, or assisting the return of refugees in Southeast Asia, the work of Catholic Relief Services bears witness to the unity of the human family," Archbishop Keeler said. "In a world riven by ethnic hatreds, class divisions and arrogant nationalism, the church in the U.S. through the ministry of CRS works to effect the reconciliation to which we are called in Christ."
The anniversary celebration coincided with the liturgical feast day of the Conversion of St. Paul, and Archbishop Keeler built his sermon on Paul's writings.
"Paul's labors to bring the revelation of God's love to the Gentile world would give pause even to the hardiest, most experienced CRS field officer today: long journeys, shipwreck, harassment, imprisonment, legal wrangling -- and execution," the archbishop said.
"Paul would feel at home with the individual struggles of the workers for Catholic Relief Services."
Archbishop Keeler recalled that, 50 years ago this month, CRS began with emergency assistance to Polish refugees of World War II in Mexico and on what was then the Iran-Soviet Union border.
He said it was appropriate that such an enterprise be remembered in the cathedral begun by Archbishop John Carroll, who two centuries ago "charted the course of the church in our country" -- with its emphasis on addressing the needs of the poor.
Mr. Carlin said CRS is the envy of its "peers" among other worldwide relief agencies because of the indigenous Roman Catholic organizations and personnel on which it depends in more than 75 nations.
Whether the dominant culture and religion of the country is Islamic, Hindu or Buddhist, "the most important thing is that our people are trusted" for their effectiveness, their lack of partisanship -- in what is usually "a highly charged political arena" -- and their "low overhead," Mr. Carlin said.
He offered as evidence of the cost-effectiveness of CRS its selection by the Mormon Church in 1985 as the conduit of a $3.2 million gift for Ethiopian relief. "That was a landmark contribution," Mr. Carlin said.
He said 75 percent of the $260 million annual budget of CRS comes from the U.S. government.
Not all CRS casualties have been in foreign lands. When a plane crashed into the Empire State Building in New York during the 1940s, "11 members of our staff were killed," Mr. Carlin said. "That's because they were hard at work in their office on a Saturday."