I am so grateful and humbled to be able to greet you for the first time as president of Catholic Relief Services. Your wonderful solidarity with our poor brothers and sisters around the world inspires me as this new year and this new phase of my life begins.
When Ken Hackett first knocked on my door 8 years ago and asked me to consider becoming one of the first lay members of the CRS board of directors, I admit I was not that familiar with this great organization. Certainly, I knew of CRS from Operation Rice Bowl and other collections at church, but not much more. It was after I joined the board that I realized I was like the character in that John Denver song who was “coming home to a place he’d never been before.”
CRS completes a circle that began for me decades ago in Hong Kong. Then a British colony, Hong Kong was home to many people like my parents, refugees who fled China, first from the Japanese and then the Communist regime. Although I did not know it at the time, CRS was working in Hong Kong then, helping refugee families less fortunate than mine.
Looming in all of our futures was the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997. It was a tumultuous atmosphere, but I found certainty in two places—at Mass every Sunday and at my school every weekday. The school was run by Maryknoll Sisters who had come from the United States to teach in China, but were expelled and went to work in Hong Kong. These Americans, so far from their own homes, gave me a future. Their daily expression of faith let me know that God was real, that he was active in my life.
They prepared me to come to the United States. With the support of family, I had enough money for one year at Purdue University. I was sure that the one B on my transcript would keep me from winning one of the two scholarships available for foreign students. I went to Mass the day that the winners would be announced—as I did every day—and railed at God about this unfairness.
It was after Mass that I learned that his plan for me included that full scholarship. I stayed at Purdue to earn my doctorate. The pastor rang the chapel bells on the day that I successfully defended my dissertation, and I later joined the faculty there. In 1997, I became dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame. That was the door Ken Hackett knocked on.
I had no idea then that I would eventually end up as president of CRS. Now, of course, as is so often the case, it makes perfect sense. Those Maryknoll Sisters had dedicated themselves to educating and empowering the girls of Hong Kong. And that’s why I could come to the United States, find further education, take advantage of the opportunities opening up for women. What I have learned only recently is that CRS was supporting the Maryknoll Sisters in Hong Kong.
As an immigrant, I am acutely aware of how privileged we are to live in this great country. Even though we are now going through some tough economic times, our prosperity is the envy of the world. I benefited from that. And now it is time for me to do what the Maryknoll Sisters did: reach out from America to the rest of the world and share our bounty.
I have so much to learn in this new position, but I find my confidence in the steady and inspired course steered by my predecessor Ken Hackett, and by knowing that all of you will keep me in your prayers. I will be calling on you, leaning on you, depending on you in the coming months and years.
Thank you so much for being there for me, for being there for the poor and vulnerable people of the world, and for letting CRS be of service as we work together to carry out the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
An abundance of blessings to you and your family in the new year,
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo
President & CEO
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