Jean Gartlan, a retired journalist and a Catholic Relief Services program director who worked in 1960s refugee relief in southern Africa, died of cancer Sunday at Stella Maris Hospice. She was 88 and lived in Mount Vernon.
"She was really a Renaissance woman," said Ken Hackett, former Catholic Relief Services president. "She was literary and traveled the world. She did some remarkable behind-the-scenes things, and ... you never knew she was there."
Born in New York City and raised in Washington Heights, she earned an English degree at the College of Mount St. Vincent and a second bachelor's degree, in journalism, from Columbia University.
She began writing for newspapers in 1946 as a summer fill-in at the Cumberland News in Western Maryland and later for the Worcester, Mass., Telegram's women's page. In a 1990 oral history, she lamented that women were not allowed to work on the paper's city desk.
"It still wasn't all that easy for women to break into journalism," she said in the interview.
She said her ambition was to work overseas. She applied to the old Catholic War Relief Services and wound up traveling throughout Europe and doing freelance articles. She next joined the National Catholic Welfare Conference's Office for United Nations Affairs and lobbied on humanitarian issues. In her 1998 book, "At the United Nations," she detailed the role of Roman Catholic bishops, who, she said, "may have been bolder than they realized or intended."
Ms. Gartlan spent much of the late 1950s and 1960s in Africa. As a volunteer in Ghana, she helped set up a newspaper, worked with women's organizations and assisted refugee students. She was also an administrator at a school in Tanzania.
"Her sense of fairness could be ignited," said Penny Pietre, a friend from her days in Africa, who now lives in Arizona. "She would stand up for anyone being wronged in her eyes."
While in Africa, she met the British economist and developing countries activist Barbara Ward. They became friends. In 2010 Ms. Gartlan wrote, "Barbara Ward, Her Life and Letters," published by Continuum Press.
In 1971 she joined Catholic Relief Services as a special projects director and assistant to Eileen Egan, a nationally known pacifist and social activist. Ms. Gartlan was active in the National Council of Catholic Women and its Works of Peace campaign. Among many other duties, she assisted in the distribution of infant clothing and powdered formula for infants, which were collected in the U.S. and shipped overseas.
She worked in communications and often addressed groups and raised funds.
In 1989, she moved to Baltimore with Catholic Relief Services. She took an apartment in Cathedral Court, the old Albion Hotel. She never drove and walked to work and other destinations.
"Her manner was pleasant, and she never tried to force herself into a conversation," said Mr. Hackett, the relief services former president, who lives in Towson. "She was intelligent and street-smart. She was the kind of person you wanted to go do dinner with."
An avid reader, she was a patron of the Kelmscott, a 25th Street antiquarian bookstore. In a 2000 Baltimore Sun article, she said. "Oh, it's a wonderful shop." The article said she kept an eye out for books by Virginia Woolf and other writers in the Bloomsbury group.
"She was a very regular customer," said the Kelmscott's former owner, Teresa "Terry" Johanson. "She was an elegant woman who collected books by major female writers. She was articulate, lovely, brilliant and a very empathetic person."
She said that while Ms. Gartlan bought "fine editions of what she viewed as great literature," she read all the books she purchased. "She was not like a collector who never reads a book."
She also joined St. Ignatius parish in Mount Vernon and remained active in volunteering.
"Jean was an accomplished woman who reflected a deep faith in God and a profound love for the poor," said the Rev. William J. Watters, the St. Ignatius pastor. "Always faithful, she was here every Sunday. She found the parishioners, the homilies, the music and the parish's mission and ministries richly meaningful to her strong life of faith. In spite of her final year with health problems, Jean kept coming, even on her walker. She was determined to be present with the community she loved."
A Mass will be offered at noon Saturday at St. Ignatius, 740 N. Calvert St.