Behind the Story Podcast Series
The Women Who Inspire Us
Nikki Gamer: Hi everyone, this is Nikki Gamer for Catholic Relief Services. And 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 introduced you to the famous Maryknoll “Noodle Priest,” Monsignor John Romaniello, whose noodle machine fed hundreds of thousands of Chinese refugee children in Hong Kong in the aftermath of World War II.
This month, in honor of Mother’s Day and the women who inspire us, we’ll be talking to Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo, the former—and first woman—president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, and herself a Chinese immigrant who was educated by Maryknoll Sisters in Hong Kong.
Welcome, Carolyn, thank you so much for joining us.
Nikki Gamer: When you were CEO of Catholic Relief Services, you often spoke about your experiences growing up in Hong Kong. Can you tell us what it was like for your family at that time? What did you take with you from that upbringing?
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: So, both my parents were sort of immigrants-slash-refugees. They were both in China, and the first time they left China was during the bombing by the Japanese during World War II. So, I grew up basically in an environment where the majority of people were dislocated, from China mostly. And I would say from that experience, I think I do know what it feels like starting over again.
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: I remember not only the challenges, but I remember the successes because I saw how people rebuilt their lives. In my mind, it’s not only just the trauma and the tragedy of leaving everything behind, but also the experience of how people can be successful in those situations. And I think that’s a very important formation for me because in the work that we do, we cannot just deal with problems—we have to imagine what success looks like. Family became very important, because in these immigrant families, you are what each other has, basically. So the solidarity of family, people taking care of each other.
Nikki Gamer: So as I understand it, you attended a girls’ school run by the Maryknoll sisters, and you’ve spoken with great affection about them. So can you tell us, what kind of women were they and how did they influence your life?
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: The Maryknoll Sisters were founded a little bit over 100 years ago—1912, 1915—around that time. And they were Catholic women who wanted to go into mission. Because then, at that time, U.S. Catholic women did not have overseas mission.
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: So the sisters tended to be very well educated—they went to college, they were teachers, some of them were nurses—but they were very adventurous from the very beginning. They went to difficult places. They located in China, mostly, and a little bit of activities in Hong Kong.
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: So, what I learned from the sisters were that they were can-do people. They started with very little. No money. So they didn’t accept obstacles as the final answer. Whether it is political objection, whether it is financial obstacles, whether it is bureaucratic sort of runaround, they just stuck with it. And I think I got a lot from them.
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: I remember they made us debate British school—boys—where English was their first language and they were part of the colonial sort of infrastructure, and we were these Chinese girls. And they said, well, you have to go and debate them. And I said, well, no, we’re not because English is not our first language. And they said, well, it doesn’t matter, and, you know, it was the very beginning of how I look back on my education: You know, you can have all sorts of reasons for why you shouldn’t do something. But I think that they took those reasons away, and today I so appreciate that they didn’t let us sit in our comfort zone.
Nikki Gamer: Do you think that it was especially important to learn that from other women as, as a young woman?
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: I spent my whole career talking to men whose first language is English. So, you know, I’m glad I found my tongue somewhere because otherwise I couldn’t have done what I did.
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: The second thing I will say that gave them this can-do spirit. It’s just that they really believe in the power of the Holy Spirit. I think particularly in my later years at CRS, I kept on reminding people, you know, we don’t just depend on ourselves. The Holy Spirit is working with us. We do our work, and the Holy Spirit multiplies our work. I think CRS also did some incredible things in terms of our innovations, and so on. I think the Holy Spirit was working with us.
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: The third thing I learned from the sisters is that they were actually very joyful in their faith. They didn’t just focus on all of the injustice of the world. God is very real to them. Because I saw that they did what they did because of their love for God. And the love for God really translated into their love for people. They loved us.
Nikki Gamer: Do you think that the Maryknoll Sisters led you to CRS?
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: Absolutely. I mean, they were not just people lamenting the problems of the world. They were out there solving the problems. I made a promise that I would continue the work of the Maryknoll sisters. Our lives have been so formed, and built up, and we had all sorts of opportunities—and we saw the world differently because of the sisters.
Nikki Gamer: You paint such a beautiful picture of the sisters. And, actually, this month, for Mothers’ Day, we are focusing our podcast on the women who inspire us. And we want to talk about a friendship and collaboration between two women in particular, who devoted their lives to the poor and who are linked to CRS history. And I’m talking about Eileen Egan and Mother Teresa. Can you tell us that story? Who were these women … to each other and to CRS?
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: You know, Mother Teresa has been written up extensively. And I would say this chapter of the story began when she went to India.
Nikki Gamer: Yes, that was in 1928, and I believe when she was only 18 years old.
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: Let me pause and go back to Eileen Egan. Eileen Egan was formed by a mother who was very much into social justice. Very much into peace—and not to be silent, but how to address those issues. She was a journalist, a correspondent, but here begins a story. She was not satisfied, Eileen Egan, just being a journalist, to just write about things. She wanted to experience things. She wanted to go overseas. And so she did. She joined CRS around 1943 and was our first lay employee, the first woman and also the first lay person to go overseas.
Nikki Gamer: Yea, and I read that she went immediately to Europe during the war and was so moved by the plight of refugees there that she asked to go to CRS’ first program in Mexico, where we were helping resettle Polish refugees. So, in our first podcast, our listeners heard from one of them, Julek Plowy, who was a young child at the time.
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: And then as she went to India, around the mid-50s, and she met Mother Teresa and saw the work. Eileen Egan kept on going back. She was just absolutely inspired and overtaken with Mother Teresa’s work. And so she actually brought Mother Teresa to the U.S. to a national meeting of the national Catholic women [National Council of Catholic Women]. This is now 1960.
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: I also want to mention that Eileen Egan had a very strong relationship with Dorothy Day. So while Dorothy Day did not go overseas, and did not work with CRS, Dorothy Day, just like Eileen Egan and Mother Teresa, was a prophet of her time. Social justice was also what propelled her to speak up and really take the Gospel message—for all three of them—and say, Does it look like we are living out the Gospel message in the way that we deal with the people who have no power, people who are marginalized? And Dorothy Day’smessage is very much also the message we embrace at CRS.
Nikki Gamer: And now you have these three women starting to make their mark on the Church and on CRS.
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: Yeah, I think all these three women, they are distinctive in one way. For most of us, we care, we care about people who are poor, we care about injustice. We do something about it, but then, we hold back. We have other things to do, we have to make a living. We are concerned about the risk, we think that we’re not equipped for the job. I think for women to rise to this level of commitment and service, they put everything aside, and to put this mission to serve the poor in God’s name the very, very first priority in their life.
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: I think that we don’t know what we can do until we throw all of ourselves into something. And I think these three women—they are gifted in their own way—but it’s because they stopped at nothing. They didn’t let anything compromise their sense of wrong when they look at the people who suffer. They just didn’t stop, they just kept going.
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: Whether it is to use their voice, whether it is to change a ministry, whether it is to bump their heads against the power structures of those days. I think what’s distinctive about these three women was that they put this mission and they put God first. Everything was secondary. And I think for most of us, it’s the other way around.
Nikki Gamer: Let’s talk for a minute about this friendship between a future saint … Mother Teresa … and CRS’ first lay employee and first woman employee … Eileen Egan. Why was this relationship so important?
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: Well, I mean, the relationship itself is a gift, right? The fact that they found each other, that Eileen Egan found Mother Teresa and Mother Teresa found Eileen Egan. You know, our friends, the people we meet in our life, God sent them to us. And so this is a gift from God, for two women who probably needed each other’s strength, each other’s inspiration, and probably, you know, obstacles become smaller and joys became bigger in those ways.
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: A friendship with a saint is above and beyond most experience. But we don’t know who are the saints among us today. But to remember that when God said he’s going to be with us, he sent people to us. And it’s true for Eileen Egan, Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day and so on. But it’s also true for each of us today—that in our work, in our commitments, in particular, and when we choose to live in a way to love and to be committed when it is hard and we don’t walk away, that, you know, we don’t do it on our own. And this is reflected in that wonderful friendship.
Nikki Gamer: What does it mean to you that CRS brought Mother Teresa’s work out into the open and really helped expand its reach around the world?
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: Oh, of course, I’m very proud of that. It’s not so much even to focus on the saint, but on the commitment of Mother Teresa and how she honored that commitment. I think those are lessons that CRS could never forget. But it’s also an inheritance that comes with a set of responsibilities. We therefore know what it means to reach out to the lowest people because you’ve seen it done. But that’s a responsibility to pass on that message, to continue that work in that particular spirit.
Nikki Gamer: Imagine a young woman, a young Catholic woman listening to this podcast and maybe hearing about these three women for the very first time. What do you think they should get out of these women’s stories? What would you want them to know?
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: I would say I would want them, first of all, to have a sense of God. Because these are not just great humanitarians who just stepped up. These are people who love God. I hope today’s women invest themselves in knowing God and knowing God’s presence in our life, in knowing God’s vision for the world and for us.
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: I think the second thing is to remember from these women that the love for God, or what we call faith, has to be lived out. It has to lead to action. And I think the third is that a certain point, they stopped being afraid. They stopped censoring themselves. They stopped worrying about whether they would offend this person or that person, whether they would be higher or lower in some hierarchy, and so on, that they let go of their fear. And that’s how they found their power.
Nikki Gamer: Now, there’s been a lot of discussion … some would say controversy … over the years about the role of women in the Church. What would you say to that, given your experiences as the leader of one of the biggest, if not the biggest Catholic nonprofits in the world?
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: There is not a yes-no answer to this question because it’s played out in the daily life of the Church. A lot of Catholic universities are run by women. A lot of Catholic social service agencies are run by women. I think those gifts of women are being recognized. Having said that, at that level, I still think that in different operations that women are not sought out.
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: I think there’s still sort of wariness about women. Particularly when women ask questions. Particularly when they have different points of view, that lack of capacity to engage in those conversations is something that I hope the Church would change. Because, in the end, they also have to believe in the deep faith of women. That when we ask questions, we’re not being difficult, but we certainly feel like we merit a conversation. And also women cannot pass on the faith if they can’t get, you know, their own sort of issues and questions discussed.
Nikki Gamer: Let’s go back to the point of, you know, women, girls in other countries just having no value. Can you link that to why it’s so important that we have programming relative to girls’ education and some of the work we do for women and girls all over the world?
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: I mean at worst they have no value, and sometimes actually people derive the value by selling girls, right? But, you know, there’s just not a lot of attention on the talented women. So why do we care? Well, first of all, it’s the social justice issue, but the second thing is that, you know, our analysis showed that if you can educate women, if you give them the proper tools, you could solve most of the world’s problems—whether that is health, whether that is human trafficking, whether that is war, the education of women, and the enablement and empowerment of women actually could get at the root cause of a lot of these community issues.
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: And so, you know, for the sake of social justice and also to know the impact of women on bringing about a better world, the investment in women to make sure that their health is good, that they have access to education. If they’re farmers, they have access to tools, sometimes they have access to land rights, all of those things are ways that would not only raise the dignity of women, but we stabilizethe well-being of society.
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: So that’s why the empowerment of women is very important. And I will say that I think our programs really reflect that. And by the way, our programs also do not place welfare of women to the exclusion of the welfare of the family. There’s a lot of secular programming that really almost take the woman out of the family, and CRS does not do that. CRS integrates the woman and the family while building up the type of capabilities and resources and so on that she would need to flourish.
Nikki Gamer: Is there any one story from your travels with CRS or experiences you’ve had over the years with CRS that you’d want to share?
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: One group is in Guatemala, a women’s group. We did a lot of programming with them, they learned how to plant crops—cash crops-—to increase their income. They were able to obtain clean water. The family became a lot healthier. Their husbands don’t beat them anymore. And when I visited with them, I asked them, what is the name of your group? And they said,“Our name is Intelligence.” And I said, why did you choose that name? And they said,“Because we are intelligent, and we found that out.” And I thought, wow, that sort of captures the spirit of our work.
Nikki Gamer: For the final question, what do you hope for, for CRS? What do you hope for, for women in the Church, and what do you hope for, for yourself?
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: CRS is such a talented and such a large organization. So I hope that it always will be willing to take on the most difficult, entrenched problems, that it thinks of solution which is scale because we cannot afford just to serve some small pockets of people. And that whatever we do, that has to be sustainable because we don’t have resources to come back over and over again to deal with the same problem. Everyone has to leave their comfort zone in order to really sort of step into difficult problems with solutions that serve many people, which can be sustained and really make life better.
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: In terms of women in the Church, I just hope that, you know, Church hierarchy, in particular, trusts women more. Trust their faith, that they also have deep faith. When they ask difficult questions, to not treat women as guests, or as help, but as part of the family.
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: For myself: To enjoy each day. To be able to serve. Now I serve in a very different way. And a way to serve is really to be useful, to be relevant, to lift up people wherever they are. I hope I could surrender more and more to God, and to truly trust God’s presence in my own life.
Nikki Gamer: Well, Dr. Carolyn Woo, thank you so much for joining us.
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo: You guys all take care. And what a pleasure to be with you.
Nikki Gamer: Join us next month as we focus on the here and now—and look into the future. We’ll be talking with two remarkable CRS women who devote their lives to making sure that all children grow up in healthy families. 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!
Come Holy Ghost published with permission of Oregon Press.