Behind the Story Podcast Series
The Noodle Priest of Hong Kong
Nikki Gamer: Hi everyone, this is Nikki Gamer for Catholic Relief Services. Welcome back to Behind the Story, a podcast series that invites you to celebrate the people behind 75 years of our history—the people we serve, our partners, our staff … and especially the supporters who make our work possible.
Last month we took you on the Excellent Adventures of Monsignor Wilson Kaiser—on a VW bus, no less—setting up our first programs across sub-Saharan Africa in the 1950s. We talked to Ambassador Ken Hackett, former CEO of CRS, about Monsignor Kaiser’s lasting legacy.
This month, we’ll explore the 1950s from the other side of the world. We’ll learn about the important partnerships that helped millions of people in Asia recover from World War II. And about the famous “Noodle Priest of Hong Kong,” Monsignor John Romaniello, whose efforts to save 300,000 children from starvation put him on classic 1960s TV.
To tell us more, we’ll be talking to Frank Carlin, who had a 40-year career with CRS, both in Asia and Africa, starting in the 1960s.
Nikki Gamer: Frank, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
Frank Carlin: Thank you.
Nikki Gamer: You’ve written about our early work in Asia in the 1950s, and you credit four priests—whom you call the “Four Horsemen of Maryknoll”—for setting up CRS programs in Asia. Can you tell us about the conditions in Asia just after World War II?
Frank Carlin: In pre-war Asia, Japan had occupied major countries at the turn of the century: Korea and Taiwan, the Russian far east—as well as sections of China. In so doing, they created a lot of upheaval, fear and trauma. With the outbreak of the war in the ’40s, they started to go to war with countries throughout Asia. They took a lot of lives … they dislocated a lot of people.
Nikki Gamer: So, with all this upheaval, tell us what it was like for refugees.
Frank Carlin: First of all, refugees are always running. They’re in panic. They’re never sure where they’re going, and they’re chasing hope that’s rarely fulfilled.
They carry their most valued possessions, and often are forced to abandon them along the roads. Everybody hears, “Oh, if you go over here to this village they’re handing out food,” or “You go over to that town, and you can get plenty of water.” And then you get there, and there’s nothing. And then you start again—exhausted and impoverished.
Nikki Gamer: Tell us a little bit about the work of the Maryknoll priests and sisters in the immediate aftermath of the upheaval.
Frank Carlin: In the circumstances of CRS, we had a great blessing. And that’s where the story of the Four Horsemen comes in. In many countries, there were missionaries there—and they began to respond to the needs of the population, as best they could. Resources were a problem, and the infrastructure virtually nonexistent.
The role CRS undertook was to provide the assistance to the missionaries, who in turn would provide it to the people. And this marks the very big difference in Catholic Relief Services. We try to work through others to empower local indigenous organizations, oftentimes in the Church, to carry out that work so that we can do what we do best—and that is source the support and provide it with the technical assistance, to really make it work effectively.
Nikki Gamer: All right. So, did you coin the phrase, the “Four Horsemen”? Was that you?
Frank Carlin: Well, the “Four Horsemen” actually is a reference to the ’20s. Notre Dame had a backfield that they called the Four Horsemen, and the Four Horsemen ruled the playing field and they became famous.
And then out in Asia, I found my own Four Horsemen: Monsignor John Romaniello; Monsignor George M. Carroll; “the Duke,” Father Paul Duchaine; and Father Frank O’Neill. Each one of them came from a different location where they directed CRS operations. They helped to form my vocation in Catholic Relief Services.
Nikki Gamer: What can you tell us about Monsignor Romaniello? As I understand, he was called the “Noodle Priest of Hong Kong.”
Frank Carlin: Monsignor Romaniello was one of the old Asia hands who came out of China—all of these refugees that I had described earlier. He found that among their greatest needs was the need for food, which he was providing in the form of flour, milk and cooking oil—things like that—in a monthly ration from the American government. But what he quickly found out was that people didn’t really have a recipe for milk and flour, and oil. They weren’t big bread eaters.
So Monsignor thought, “Well, hey, I can make the noodles.” But he didn’t know much about noodles. He was looking at two things: Number one, he wanted to have a noodle that had a very good nutritional impact, and he also started to design a noodle machine that could produce maybe 50 tons of noodles in a month, which is a lot. He could position the machine in the communities where the noodles would be consumed, and he could cut out the need for transportation. It was a very efficient operation. He transformed the nature of the assistance that was going into Hong Kong. And he was feeding, at the height of that program, 400,000 Chinese in Hong Kong. And he was providing a million pounds of noodles each month.
And as he put it together, he needed other funds. And he was a character—he was a colorful, colorful guy. He was born in Italy, and he had a twinkle in his eye. And he would go out and schmooze people and tell them, “You got to help me with the noodles.”
He always had this great capacity to engage others—whether it was donors, or the people in the community—to cooperate, to do something bigger than themselves. And, in order to draw attention to himself, he started to sing this noodle song that he had. Everybody would gather around, and they would find him just charming.
Nikki Gamer: Well, I think you know what I’m going to ask you next—and that is to sing the noodle song for our listeners.
Frank Carlin: Okay … well, I apologize for my poor singing ability but this one’s for you, Romi!
“Noodles in the morning, noodles in the evening, noodles at supper time. Eat them good old noodles, eat ’em all the time …”And I’m going to pause there because I don’t want to overdo it—I don’t want to overpower you with my singing prowess.
Nikki Gamer: I liked it. I was dancing along.
Frank Carlin: And when you add to that, when he came to the United States, he found his way onto TV shows that were running at that time.
TV Announcer: One of these three men is known as the “Noodle Priest.” What is your name, please? “My name is John Romaniello.” “My name is John Romaniello.” “My name is John Romaniello.” Only one of these men is the real John Romaniello, the Noodle Priest. The other two are impostors and will try to fool this panel: Merv Griffin, Betty White, Ralph Bellamy and Kitty Carlisle on To Tell the Truth, with your host, Bud Collyer!
Frank Carlin: In the late ’60s, when I’m getting on the Star Ferry to go across from Hong Kong to Kowloon, there’s a deckhand there, and he says to me, “So where do you work?” and I tell him I’m with Catholic Relief Services – 天主教护理会 (tian zhu jiao hu li hui). And he says, “Ah, Father Noodles, he saved my whole family’s life.” And he never met him. Never saw him. And wouldn’t recognize him if he did. But that’s the impact that somebody like Monsignor Romaniello had on people. He was first and foremost a priest.
Nikki Gamer: What do you consider the biggest legacy of CRS in Asia in those days?
Frank Carlin: Catholic Relief was very instrumental in organizing, establishing, empowering local organizations.
We didn’t just provide the assistance, and then boogie on out. We provided the assistance in a manner in which we were empowering and developing organizations to do the job. They learned how to do it. So we worked ourselves out of a job in every one of those countries that I spoke of where the Horsemen were: Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong.
Nikki Gamer: Can you talk, briefly, about the variety of programs that we offered in Asia at that time?
Frank Carlin: In the early years, late ’40s and ’50s, it was very much emergency focused. So, we were providing the food. We were providing access to water. We were providing basic shelter, health, sanitation—even a bar of soap was a big thing. We were supporting the clinics that were run by Maryknoll and Columbans and the Medical Mission Sisters.
Nikki Gamer: And, back in the U.S., I understand that Catholics were very responsive, and very compassionate in their support of all the people suffering overseas.
Frank Carlin: We had what was called the Thanksgiving Clothing Collection. For 40 years, every parish in the United States had a collection. And then you’d have the Legion of Mary and the Knights of Columbus, and the Holy Name Society. They’d truck it to Brooklyn, New York. And when it came in, you’d send it out to these areas that the missionaries were providing assistance from. And in a place like Korea—where you had winter—boy, those overcoats and jackets … they were lifesaving.
Nikki Gamer: Can you talk to us a little about the most vulnerable groups?
Frank Carlin: I mean, you had hundreds of thousands of orphans in these countries. Not a thousand, not 10,000—100,000. Nobody to care for them. The only option was an institutional program.And the people that were running the institutional programs were the Christian organizations.There are hundreds of thousands of people today that are alive, and have their own children and grandchildren, because their lives were saved by those orphanages.
We provided assistance to leper communities—Hansen’s disease is the way we referred to it. We provided to the handicapped, the disabled, unwed mothers. These were the institutions where you had the most vulnerable, the most at risk—and the Church did a lot to provide for them.
Nikki Gamer: Can you tell us about some of the other programming? I understand we provided health assistance for mothers and children, and microcredit.
Frank Carlin: We operated sophisticated nutritional programs for the severely malnourished. We provided school feeding programs. So we used the food that was now coming in greater quantities from the American government. We were the ones who got the American government to agree to use food-for-work, and it’s in the lexicon of USAID today. But it started with Catholic Relief Services.
Nikki Gamer: Wow—that is such a legacy. I did not realize that we played a part in that.
Frank Carlin: The effect was significant because with food-for-work we were able to build farm-to-market roads. We did land reclamation projects. We did irrigation projects, we did well-digging projects—all with food-for-work.
As we started to get into the late ’50s, CRS began—through these missionaries—to promote the establishment of the credit union movement. You train people, you position them, you salary them—and then you get them to go out to communities. And, basically, you’re starting a community bank.
Catholic Relief Services is credited today by the international cooperative movement and the international credit union movement as being the founder of the credit union and cooperative movement in many of the countries in Asia. And that’s quite an accomplishment.
Nikki Gamer: So, in all of this groundbreaking work, how important was partnership?
Frank Carlin: Partnerships. CRS could never have done all that it has done, and continues to do, without strong partnerships. The people have to trust you.
There are many organizations that go out there, but they don’t have what we have. We can plug into an indigenous structure, or we can plug into a faith-based structure. We respect one another because of that which motivates us: faith, a biblical mandate, a love of God.
Nikki Gamer: Let me ask you this: On the occasion of our 75 anniversary, what is your hope for the future?
Frank Carlin: What I want to hope for is an agency that, in the next 25 years, it’s as flexible and as adaptable as it has been for the past 75. I hope that we’ll continue to have a staff that will be not just committed and dedicated, but faith-filled—with a fire in the belly that’s apparent, visible—and really work zealously to transform the world that they find themselves in.
We’ve had a formula for success from our inception, working ourselves out of a job, and that will continue to be the way in which we will find success. So, that would be my hope.
Nikki Gamer: Frank Carlin, thank you so much for joining us.
Frank Carlin: You’re more than welcome.
Nikki Gamer: Next month, in honor of Mother’s Day, we’ll be taking a look back at the women who inspire us. It might not surprise you to know that Mother Teresa is one of them. But until then, thanks for listening. And, if you want to find out more, check us out online at 75.crs.org. And don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast!
Notre Dame Victory March audio clip published with permission of MPL Music Publishing Inc.
Sugartime audio clip published with permission of Tency music.
To Tell the Truth audio clip published with permission of Fremantle Media International LTD.