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When Msgr. McMahon returned to the Holy Land in the spring of 1949 he returned not only as National Secretary of CNEWA but also as the newly appointed President of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine. Thus was forged an intimate link between the two papal agencies.

“It has been decided,” wrote Eugene Cardinal Tisserant, Secretary of the Sacred Congregation for the Oriental Churches, in a directive dated 18 June 1948, “to bring together under the Pontifical Mission, operating in the Holy Land, all those organizations and associations which are engaged in activities concerning the East, and which are scattered throughout many countries of Europe and other continents.”

In this endeavor Msgr. McMahon formed seven local committees for what are now the West Bank, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Gaza. These committees included papal delegates, bishops, clergy, laity and leaders of charitable organizations. Field operations for the new Pontifical Mission were headquartered in Beirut, a central location providing access to the region from the West and access to those nations affected by the refugee crisis.

Together with local volunteers and a few colleagues in New York, Msgr. McMahon coordinated the activities of a number of organizations ministering to the needs of one million Palestinian refugees. More than half were under 15 years of age.

Partners in these relief efforts included the emergency relief fund of the U.S. bishops, the U.S. National Catholic Welfare Conference, the U.S. National Council of Catholic Women, the Catholic Medical Mission Board, the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and CNEWA. Religious communities for men, particularly the friars of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, as well as religious communities for women working in the region, empowered the Pontifical Mission to carry out its service to the refugees. The Pontifical Mission also developed a strong relationship with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), founded in December 1949.

Manuel Abu Issa, who in those early years was responsible for the field operations of the Pontifical Mission office in Jerusalem, remembered going out to the field every day and “visiting refugees in the camps set up by the United Nations. We would distribute wheat, rice, barley and sometimes sugar. We were always in the field,” he said, “and always pressed to do more.”

From a small room in the Old City, Abu Issa, Msgr. McMahon and Father Eugene Hoade, O.F.M., an Irish Franciscan who from 1949 was responsible for the administration of the Jerusalem office, distributed to refugees tons of clothing donated mostly by American Catholics.

Ten years after the start of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Msgr. Peter P. Tuohy (who in 1955 had succeeded Msgr. McMahon as President of the Pontifical Mission) stated that, in a nine-year period, the Pontifical Mission had distributed more than $34 million in food, clothing, medicine and services. More than 8,000 tons of food, 6,000 tons of clothing and 55 tons of medical supplies were distributed from 273 centers to an estimated 425,000 refugees, nearly half of the refugee population. The Pontifical Mission also sheltered some 20,000 people and educated more than 34,000 children in 343 schools.

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Tags: Middle East Palestine War Pope Pius XII