Behind the Story Podcast Series
The Excellent Adventures of Monsignor Kaiser
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, like you, who make our work possible.
Last month we took you to 1945, New York City, on that foggy, fateful Saturday morning when a B-25 bomber crashed into the Empire State Building … and the offices of Catholic Relief Services. And we were lucky enough to talk to Dana Robinson, whose grandfather, John J. Raskob, built the Empire State Building.
This month, we’ll explore the 1950s and the excellent adventures of Dana’s former boss, Monsignor Wilson Kaiser, who—legend has it—drove across Africa in a VW bus, setting up our earliest programs there.
You’ll hear from Ambassador Ken Hackett—former CEO of Catholic Relief Services, and more recently, former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See. Ambassador Hackett worked closely with Monsignor Kaiser early in his career, both in Africa and at the Empire State Building in New York.
Ambassador Hackett, thank you so much for joining us. I understand you began working for CRS in the 1970s, and I hear that applying to CRS wasn’t as easy as you had hoped.
Ambassador Ken Hackett: Well, when I returned from the Peace Corps in August of 1971, I got interviews with CARE and United Nations, and I got turned down by Catholic Relief Services. So that kind of distressed me a little bit. And I had a friend who was the CRS diocesan director in Connecticut. And he said, “Well, I know somebody and I’ll get you an interview,” and indeed he did.
He set up an interview in New York with a Monsignor Landi, who was the assistant executive director, and Monsignor Landi, when I got to him, said, “You need to talk to Monsignor Will Kaiser. ” And we had a chat and Monsignor Kaiser said, “What can you do ?” And I said, “Well Monsignor, I can do just about anything.”
And Monsignor said, “Would you like to go back to Africa?” And I was on my way to Sierra Leone, West Africa.
Nikki Gamer: I love how you brought us right to the main character, Monsignor Kaiser. So tell us a little bit about what he was like and what that first meeting was like. What did you notice about him?
Ambassador Ken Hackett: Monsignor Kaiser was all about people. So that warmth, that humanness that was really apparent when I first met him. He was the regional director for Africa. And yet he had been recently moved back from Kenya to the headquarters in New York. He didn’t like bureaucracy very much. And he chafed under a headquarters-oriented organization. He was a field person. In fact, I’m looking over at a sign that used to be on his desk that says “trust the troops.” He was all about that. You’re on the frontline. You see the situation. You understand the context. Make the decision. Maybe pray a little bit, but make the decision and we’ll go with it because you are there.
Nikki Gamer: Where do you think he got all that energy?
Ambassador Ken Hackett: It’s interesting in that if you look at his early days, he was a priest from Rochester, New York, who, after he was ordained, was transferred to Billings, Montana. I mean that’s kind of a real cultural change. This is now in the—I think—late 30s. And he was a parish priest. He was a boxing coach. He ran the C.Y.O. And then, from what he tells, they were looking for somebody to go with War Relief Services to Germany after the war. And they looked down the list. They saw “Kaiser.” They said, “Ha, he must speak German. Get him.”
Nikki Gamer: Because of his last name.
Ambassador Ken Hackett: They called his bishop, and he said, “Bishop, we want to have this Wilson Kaiser come to work with War Relief Services in Berlin.” And that was the beginning of his career with CRS.
Nikki Gamer: Wow. I love that it all happened because of a name.
Ambassador Ken Hackett: Yeah. And he never spoke a word of German.
Nikki Gamer: OK, so there’s a legend that Monsignor Kaiser traveled across Africa in a VW bus. Is this true? And if so, tell us the story.
Ambassador Ken Hackett: He was on a mission to see what he could do. He bought a VW bus and, allegedly, drove down to Gibraltar. He took a ferry across and went into Morocco. Upon arriving in Morocco, he learned, well, you don’t just drive a VW bus by yourself across the continent of Africa. There were no roads to speak of. They were all dirt tracks. So he found other ways of moving down the west coast by boat.
So, in a very short period of time he covered the continent, opening up CRS programs in at least 20 countries. He was intrepid. I mean, this was late ’50s, early ’60s. There was lots of malaria, dysentery, all kinds of things. But off he went. He had limited resources. He had a little bit of money, not a lot. He had U.S. government food. And he had medicines from the Catholic Medical Mission Board.
And he also had something else that I didn’t mention before. He had a desire to promote the indigenous Church, and he sponsored many priests who later become bishops to do their studies in the United States. And that’s a lasting legacy of his.
Nikki Gamer: So why do you think he was so successful at building partnerships?
Ambassador Ken Hackett: So, he walked in as a benevolent, benign, generous individual who automatically you had a sense that this man is here for us, and he just developed some very important, wonderful relations that lasted a long time with the initial people he met. What he was responsible for is supporting the growth and founding of Caritas organizations in each African country.
They needed a mechanism to expand their confederation throughout the world, and CRS, in general, took it as part of its mission to foster the growth of Caritas. So, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, Monsignor Kaiser was the critical person in giving the initial money, giving the initial training to the early Caritas directors in so many of the African countries.
Nikki Gamer: Can you tell us what kind of relief and development work Monsignor Kaiser started in Africa?
Ambassador Ken Hackett: Well, in the early days, CRS programming was very much built around school feeding, maternal and child health programs, both of which dealt with U.S. government food. It was the distribution of food. It was a logistics challenge. Secondly, CRS distributed used clothes that were collected in churches throughout the United States, and shipped to Africa and Latin America. And thirdly, medicine from Catholic Medical Mission Board, which was donated from pharmaceutical companies.
So there wasn’t much money, and there were some very generous donors, like the Raskob Foundation, like the W. O’Neil Foundation and a few other family foundations that Monsignor Kaiser personally developed a relationship with. I think many of us learned something that Monsignor Kaiser was telling us. It’s not about the stuff you have or the money you have. It’s about the relations you develop. You developed relationships with people from the lady at the maternal and child health center to the president of the country, and the relationships were all basically the same. They were on just respect. And I think that’s the lasting legacy of what CRS can do.
Nikki Gamer: So, what about the role of women, mostly religious sisters, in our early health programs. Can you tell us specifically about one woman that Monsignor Kaiser had on his team, Sister Fredericka Jacobs? As I understand it, she was known as Sister “Fred.”
Ambassador Ken Hackett: Sister Fredericka was this Notre Dame sister, American, who was living in Nairobi with a Ph.D. in biology from, I think, Trinity College in Washington. Dr. Carlo Capone, who was a Consolata priest, brought her in as his first deputy, and she and Capone were just a dynamic team.
Capone recognized that one of the big problems was maternal and child health. He would evolve a program for CRS to deal with this question, and it would involve improved nutrition and medical attention for mothers in pre- and post-natal care.
But Sister Fredericka went and opened up programs. And in every country where CRS worked and could access U.S. government food—which would be the impetus to the maternal and child health program—Sister Fredericka identified a public health nurse, either native in that country or from somewhere in the French speaking countries, most of them were French. She was selfless. But also brilliant. And she was the one that really took the concepts that Dr. Capone evolved, and in the day, those concepts were pretty cutting edge.
Nikki Gamer: Why was it so important then to bring in women as part of this work?
Ambassador Ken Hackett: So there wasn’t a lot of thought like, “We’ve got to have gender equity here.” It just didn’t even occur to anybody. Fredericka was the best qualified, the right person. The public health nurses just happened to be women, but they were the best.
Nikki Gamer: Some of these characters from our history are just so remarkable. You consider Monsignor Kaiser a hero and a mentor. So, when you think of him now, what stands out as the most remarkable and enduring part of his legacy?
Ambassador Ken Hackett: Oh, I think the opening up of sub-Saharan Africa is the most enduring part. You know, there was nobody telling him how to do it. He said a prayer and he jumped. And that’s wonderful. The second point is how wonderful he was with his people. I mean he was very much a pastor. He was committed to the mission of CRS, of helping people.
Nikki Gamer: Thanks so much for your time with us today, Ambassador. I hope you’ll join us again as we continue to explore our 75th. And I know you have a lot more stories to share.
Ambassador Ken Hackett: You’re very welcome. And good luck to everybody.
Nikki Gamer: Coming up next month, we’ll learn about the famous “Noodle Priest” of Hong Kong, Monsignor John Romaniello, whose efforts to save 300,000 children from starvation put him on the classic 1960s TV shows To Tell the Truth and What’s My Line. But until then, thanks for listening. And if you can’t wait until our next podcast, check us out online at 75.crs.org.