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Recollections of a Dauntless Dame

The editor’s interview with the former administrator of our Jerusalem office.

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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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?’

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