From ONE Magazine

Recollections of a Dauntless Dame

The moment she greeted me at London’s Heathrow Airport early last October, I knew the next few days would be intense, exhausting and informative.

Miss Carol Hunnybun was the first person I had to question for the Association’s oral history project, an enterprise that involves interviewing a number of people linked to the Association over the years, reviewing and collecting their recollections, and recording them for a future book.

My research had indicated that Miss Hunnybun was a pivotal figure in understanding the Pontifical Mission – and a live wire. I relished the opportunity to meet this mover and shaker on her own turf. I was not disappointed.

We arrived at a 16th-century Tudor farmhouse on a sopping Tuesday morning. This brick and stucco structure serves as the English headquarters for the Grail, a secular institute composed of Catholic laywomen, of which Carol is a member. After a quick breakfast we got to work.

Carol arrived in Beirut, the Pontifical Mission’s first office, in September 1963. Msgr. Joseph T. Ryan, Secretary of Catholic Near East Welfare Association from 1960-65, had approached the Grail to recruit two women who would “come out for a year and help with the work of the Pontifical Mission and after that have the option to do their own thing,” Carol said with a laugh. “In the event,” she continued, “we were with the Pontifical Mission for nearly 20 years.”

Carol accompanied Miss Helen Breen, also of the Grail. Until Helen’s death in England last July, the two would be linked for 30 years.

“We were commonly known as ‘the girls.’ Nobody ever seemed to think of us separately, although we were very different. Helen was Irish, I am English. We thought differently (although we usually arrived at the same conclusion) and we played distinct roles in the organization.

“And when people dished out decorations,” Carol continued, “we never had one by ourselves. It was always the two of us.” Even the prestigious Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (for the Church and Pontiff) award was given to Carol and Helen at the same time.

When asked what she and Helen knew about their new assignment, she replied, “We knew absolutely nothing about Beirut.

“We were new, we were raw, we didn’t understand the situation at all. We would have happily worked for the Jewish people if we had been asked, or Chinese people or Korean people. As it happened we were asked to help with the Arabs.

“Beirut was an amoral city,” Carol recalled. “It had luxury of every kind and, like all ports, a large red-light district. It had no social conscience, by which I don’t mean that all Beirutis had no social conscience, but the pursuit of pleasure and the oppression of the poor was widespread.

“There was a terrible place called the Quarantina, which was where the city garbage dump was, where the poor lived, where seasonal laborers from Syria lived, It was a perfectly ghastly place. If you asked the normal Beiruti how they could bear to have such a dreadful place in the city, they’d say, ‘they chose to live there, didn’t they?’

“There was a tremendous divergence between rich and poor,” she continued. “The rural area belonged to a relatively small number of very rich Christians, who mostly were absentee landlords. The conditions were frightful. Beirut was divided, and Lebanon for that matter, into the extremely rich and the very poor.”

But Lebanon “did accept refugees, which really led to some extent to their undoing. Beirut was a large center for emigration. People would come from Egypt and Syria seeking asylum on grounds of religious persecution. Others came from the Iron Curtain countries and would jump ship in Beirut if they had come on boats from the Black Sea.”

In the mid-60s, Helen processed a number of refugees for emigration to the United States. Carol recounted one story that struck me as both funny and suggestive of the Cold War era:

“We had a Russian escapee. We never knew whether she was a double agent or what – Olga the beautiful spy. We got her out of Beirut, but what happened after that we don’t know. She was smuggled out with a different hair color and all sorts of things. But she was accepted by the United States. She got as far as Brussels, but beyond that I know nothing.”

In 1966 Carol left Beirut and assumed responsibility for the Jerusalem office. Helen joined her later.

The duo’s experience in Jerusalem was quite different. The Palestinians had a long-standing tradition of social work.

“There were very many projects going on before the Six Day War [1967] that had been run by the locals – since 1949 specifically – in the medical, social and educational fields.

“Many of those things only came to our notice after the Six Day War, when all our bank accounts were frozen. They came to us and said, ‘We have no money to pay the weekly wages. We’ve got to carry this on.’ That is how we really began to know the people and what they were doing intimately.

“There was a large middle class in what was then the West Bank of Jordan, so that it was quite normal for village boys, as in Ireland, to become priests and doctors.

“The Palestinians say that because of their unhappy history over so many years, they got used to losing homes, they got used to losing household equipment, but the one thing that their children would not lose would be education – the things they carry in their heads.”

Carol and Helen relied upon this high level of education and professionalism.

“We were not running peoples’ projects. We were assessing peoples’ projects and seeking financial assistance. It was not our job to tell people what to do, except in some cases where modern expertise had thrown up some new idea or method.”

These professionals “didn’t need to know what was possible, they wanted to be helped to do what was possible,” Carol emphasized.

In the beginning, the Pontifical Mission was established to work for “Arabs in need as a result of war.” Originally this meant Palestinian refugees, “but of course afterwards it included the local population. Need not creed was our yardstick and the Pontifical Mission would have nothing to do with Catholic cows and Catholic meadows producing purely Catholic milk.”

I asked Carol about Gaza, a narrow strip of land along the Mediterranean where hundreds of thousands of refugees had rested after fleeing the violence of the various Arab-Israeli wars.

“I used to go down to Gaza once a week. I hated the place. It’s a horrible place. So much human misery; so much dirt; there are no drains in the camps. In the summer it’s not so bad; everything dries up. But in winter when the sand becomes muddy and greasy, you can imagine what it’s like.”

Before the troubles, she added, Gaza had fertile soil, beautiful orange groves and abundant vegetable gardens. But this changed “when all you have is thousands of refugees and ghastly living conditions.”

The Gazans, she said, “were cut off from so much. They were trained to hate foreigners, especially the Brits and the Americans.”

Although Carol left the Holy Land nearly 12 years ago, her memory is quite vivid. Her numerous and often humorous descriptions and sketches of people, politics and situations could not possibly fit the limited space here. But I will conclude with her description of Ephpheta School for the Hearing Impaired, which was founded by Pope Paul VI after his visit to the Holy Land in 1964.

“It was well known that the pope had a great feeling for the deaf. Now Archbishop Pio Laghi, then the Holy See’s apostolic delegate in Jerusalem, was responsible for all the big breakthroughs in the Holy Land. He established Ephpheta.

“An Italian order of nuns, known as the St. Dorothy Sisters, have worked in the Holy Land for years. They are well known for their work with the deaf and the mentally handicapped. They use modern methods; they are highly trained and efficient.”

The school was “beautifully furnished, it had very modern equipment for testingdeafness and there existed an atmosphere of happiness. All education was given orally. They were tutored daily in speech and expected to lip-read and speak in response.

I am devoted to the people from the United States, but they are easily moved to tears. The children could never understand their American visitors who stood and wept over them. They would turn to me and ask, ‘Why? What are they weeping about?’ It was difficult to explain that what for the children was happiness – they were communicating, they were beautifully clothed, they had beautiful beds, they had everything (and remember some of these children had to be taught how to use the lavatory) – they were amazed that people thought they were something to mourn over. They thought they were something to rejoice over. They were right.

“Ephpheta has now developed to the point where children are brought for testing at the age of a few months if their hearing is in question. Later, while they are still below school age, the sisters have a preschool, where the children begin to learn, begin to lip-read, begin all the skills that they will later have to learn.

“I have visited Ephpheta every time I have returned to the Holy Land. The children are still the same and the effect upon the children is still the same. The children are speaking and I can understand them.”

Michael La Civita is the editor of Catholic Near East.