by John Gavin Nolan
On 10 April 1917, four days after the United States entered World War I, Father George Calavassy, a bearded, 36–year–old Greek Catholic priest from Constantinople, dropped an envelope in the mail. Its contents, three pages painstakingly handwritten in English on plain paper at the Jesuit college of St. Francis Xavier in New York City, were addressed to James Cardinal Gibbons in Baltimore, the dean of the American hierarchy. After reviewing the origin and purposes of the tiny Greek Catholic Exarchate (diocese) that the Holy See had established in Constantinople in 1911, Father Calavassy reminded the cardinal of his promise, made in Baltimore two months earlier, to present to the American bishops at their next meeting the needs of the exarchate — viz., $500,000 for a seminary, two schools and a large church, presumably a cathedral.1
For 25 years, Cardinal Gibbons had lent his name to American Protestants to raise funds for the Armenians in Turkey, but it seems that he did not give Father Calavassys letter so much as the favor of a reply. The letter is important, however; it explains clearly in Father Calavassys own words the Holy See's attitude and strategy vis–a–vis the Orthodox2 before Vatican Council II made ecumenism a household word. Further, it was due to the contacts Father Calavassy made with Catholics in America during the war, and to the correspondence he maintained with them afterward, that the Catholic Near East Welfare Association was founded in Philadelphia in 1924.
What were these American Catholics like? They belonged overwhelmingly to the Latin Church, and they were immigrants, or the sons and grandsons of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Canada, Austria–Hungary, Italy and Poland, in that descending order. Their faith was simple, bordering sometimes on the superstitious, but as Catholics they knew, from family heritage if not from personal experience, what it meant to be a refugee from poverty, politics and even religious persecution.3
Some 3,518,000 Catholic immigrants arrived in America between 1900 and 1920 alone. They stayed mostly in the cities where they felt comfortable with relatives and friends who shared their religion, language and ethnic ways. They earned their living, most of them, as housemaids, cooks, trainmen, laborers and the like.