Happy half century, CRS


Happy birthday to Catholic Relief Services, the Baltimore-based agency that dispensed some $260 million in food, relief and development to the neediest countries in 1991, the last year for which figures are available, and that just turned 50.

It has grown and become more essential every year. The arrival of its headquarters here in 1989 -- opposite the bus station on West Fayette Street -- puts Baltimore in the forefront of the war against famine and brutality throughout the world.

This is a far cry from the small agency started by American bishops in 1943 to send aid to Poles and other Catholic Europeans displaced by Hitler's madness in World War II. Now it sends aid to roughly half the countries of the world (depending on what is a country) and, as its mission statement says, "assists persons on the basis of need, not creed, race or nationality."

Catholic Relief Services is a fully professionalized outfit that, with less than 200 people at headquarters, puts government agencies to shame for its leanness if not meanness. CRS brings a great repository of international economic, political, developmental and humanitarian knowledge here, making Baltimore a richer place of greater importance than it was before 1989.

Through the determination of the American bishops and the dedication of its staff, CRS has grown into the largest national Catholic charity in international relief aid in the world. It is also the biggest nongovernmental organization in the United States dispensing such aid, much of its food from U.S. farms and taxpayers.

CRS provides aid in natural disasters and the more prevalent man-made disasters, such as Somalia. It is in the world's hottest spots, such as Cambodia at the moment. It provides food and medicine to those displaced by the national, ethnic, political or religious hatreds that make the aid necessary, as in Yugoslavia and Sudan.

But CRS is also away from the headlines, helping governments become more effective in lifting the lives of the poor, helping communities irrigate their farms and feed their regions.

It is right that this agency be in Baltimore, the original seat of the Catholic Church in this country. It also saves the cost of the higher rents in Washington and New York.

As it contemplates its surroundings from the ripe age of 50, Catholic Relief Services can take satisfaction that Baltimore is a better place because of it, as is the world.

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