Catholic Charities USA

Identification: Social services organization run by the Roman Catholic Church

Also known as: National Conference of Catholic Charities

Date: Founded in 1910

Significance: Catholic Charities USA is the second-largest provider of social services in the United States, behind only the federal government. Its refugee services wing has been active in helping with refugee resettlement and immigration concerns in the United States since the post-World War II era.

Catholic Charities USA is a network of more than fifteen hundred agencies and organizations nationwide that provide assistance to individuals and families in need of food and housing, social support services (such as employment training and child and senior care), immigration and refugee services, and disaster relief. Local Catholic Charities agencies have provided services to immigrant groups for more than 280 years.

Early History

Although officially founded in 1910, Catholic Charities USA traces its existence back to 1727 to an orphanage founded by the Ursuline Sisters in New Orleans. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a system of locally organized services usually developed and staffed by Catholic laity and nuns provided housing, subsistence, employment, and legal assistance to French, Irish, and German immigrants. These services were staffed by volunteers and often not subject to oversight by either bishops or clergy at the parish level. The growth of these services reached a peak during the years before the U.S. Civil War, when nativist sentiment (as exemplified by the so-called Know- Nothing Party) grew and Catholic immigrants were suspected of undermining American social and cultural values through their allegiance to the papacy.

Following the CivilWar, patterns of immigration shifted in the United States, and large numbers of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe began to arrive. Settling in urban areas in the northeast and midwestern states, these new arrivals, most of whom were Catholic, sought support fromCatholic service agencies affiliated with their local parishes. The strain on these agencies’ resources led parishes to raise funds through affiliation with groups such as the Leopoldine Society and the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, missionary groups that were skilled at raising money but that lacked the necessary oversight to ensure that those funds reached the new urban immigrant poor. Though some wealthier parishes were able to form benevolent societies to fund orphanages and social service efforts, many urban parishes and dioceses had more needy parishioners (and nonparishioners) than they could effectively serve.

Consolidation

In an effort to meet the needs of the burgeoning Catholic immigrant populations, many parish organizations, especially those in large cities, joined ecumenical or even secular “umbrella” charitable groups. During the 1880’s and 1890’s, groups such as the Associated Charities of Boston and the New York Charity Organization Society were viewed suspiciously by clergy as being “too Protestant,” and many Catholics expressed concern that a formal affiliation with the charity arms of other denominations would both hamper the effectiveness of the Catholic parish charities and dilute the theological teachings that Catholic organizations wished to impart. Additionally, reform projects such as Helms House in Brooklyn, New York, were not embraced by church officials, as such projects stressed social reform rather than relief.

In 1910, the heretofore loosely organized Catholic agencies were consolidated as the National Conference of Catholic Charities (NCCC), founded on the campus of Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Through this consolidation, revenue could be shared and the “uniquely Catholic” character of the services provided could be maintained. However, consolidation did serve to remove control by the laity and the sisterhood from many charitable enterprises. Such control would not be restored in any significant way until 1939, when Mary Gibbons became president of the NCCC. In 1986, the NCCC became Catholic Charities USA.

Postwar Years to the Present

During the 1950’s, in the years following World War II and the KoreanWar, Catholic Charities USA worked with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and various dioceses to provide both immigrant and refugee services to Latin Americans, specifically Mexicans, and Haitians seeking residency or asylum in the United States. Along with providing traditional charitable services such as food and housing, Catholic Charities chapters began to provide services to undocumented immigrants as their numbers increased. Indeed, in places such as Arizona and New York, various agencies associated with Catholic Charities USA worked with the Sanctuary movement, a loosely organized ecumenical effort that seeks to help undocumented immigrants remain in the United States.

Also, the organization provided services that included legal assistance for migrant workers in the Southwest and Florida in cases that involved workers’ rights, safety, and compensation. Catholic Charities volunteers also assisted in resettlement efforts for refugees from the Sudan, the Balkans, Ethiopia, Cuba, and Vietnam. In many states, Catholic Charities volunteers are authorized to present cases before U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS) proceedings and immigration courts.

In the early twenty-first century, Catholic Charities USA expanded its advocacy efforts in a variety of areas. The organization lobbied members of Congress and state government officials for lowcost health care for children and those with low incomes, regardless of citizenship. It also advocated for providing adequate funding for programs such as Head Start and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. It lobbied for a temporary worker program, improved access to government services for immigrants, an easier path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and a more liberal admission policy for refugees.

William Carney

Further Reading

  • Bane, Mary Jo, Brent Coffin, and Ronald Thiemann. WhoWill Provide? The Changing Role of Religion in American Social Welfare. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2000. Examines the shift in focus away from government assistance toward agencies such as Catholic Charities. 
  • Brown, Dorothy M., and Elizabeth McKeown. The Poor Belong to Us: Catholic Charities and American Welfare. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. Examination of the role of women in those Catholic agencies that provide services to immigrants. 
  • Oates, Mary. The Catholic Philanthropic Tradition in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. Scholarly exploration of Catholic charitable giving with particular attention paid to the groups that became part of Catholic Charities. 

See also: Employment; Farm and migrant workers; French immigrants; German immigrants; Haitian immigrants; History of immigration, 1620- 1783; History of immigration, 1783-1891; Illegal immigration; Religion as a push-pull factor; Sanctuary movement.

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