Skip to main content

James J. Norris Papers

Identifier: NOR

Scope and Content

Correspondence, memoranda, reports, and minutes relating to his work with War Relief Services -- National Catholic Welfare Conference (later Catholic Relief Services -- United States Catholic Conference), his chairmanship of the International Catholic Migration Commission, and his participation in the Second Vatican Council. Other organizations reflected in his papers include Caritas Internationalis, International Working Group for Socio-Economic Development (CIDSE), Cor Unum Council, the American Council of Volunteer Agencies, the International Council of Volunteer Agencies, Society for Development and Peace (SODEPAX), The Catholic Inter-American Cooperation Program, International Documentation of the Contemporary Church (IDO-C), The National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches, and the World Council of Churches.


  • Creation: 1940s-1976


Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

Contractual restrictions may apply.


James Joseph Norris made a lifetime career of championing the cause of the migrant. From his childhood days helping his mother feed hungry strangers at the back door of their home in Roselle Park, New Jersey, to his Herculean efforts on behalf of refugees in the post World War II era, Norris' life was one of constant concern for people on the move.

James Joseph Norris was born on August 10, 1907 in Roselle Park, New Jersey, the eldest child of James Henry Norris and Rose Elizabeth Schenk. (Henry was Norris' middle name at birth but, following an old Catholic tradition, he assumed the name Joseph after receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation in 1917 and used this name thereafter). In 1924, at the age of sixteen, he graduated from Battin High School in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The caption in the school yearbook below Norris' photo read: "we gazed and gazed and still our wonder grew that one small head held all it knew."

Later in 1924, Norris joined the Missionary Cenacle Apostolate (or Trinitarians) and began his studies at St. Joseph's High School Seminary in Holy Trinity, Alabama. He enrolled at The Catholic University of America (CUA) in 1926 as a seminarian, while maintaining an active role as a financial advisor for the Trinitarians' founder, Father Thomas A. Judge. Norris's studies were interrupted in 1929 when Judge appointed him Prefect of St. Joseph's High School. In 1930, Norris became the Secretary for the Trinitarian Consultors, and Treasurer of the mission community. He served as principle agent for the order's promotional work, and fulfilled the duties of an executive assistant to Judge. During the initial years of the Great Depression, he acted as the head of finances for the Trinitarians as the order struggled to survive during the hard economic times. Although still working diligently for the financial matters of the order, Norris went back to Catholic University in 1932 and received his Bachelor's Degree in 1933. Acknowledging that he did not have a vocation for the priesthood, Norris left the Trinitarians in 1934, although he would continue to work within the Catholic Church for the rest of his life.

After two years of working for an electric company, Norris found a new position in 1936 working as the administrative assistant to Father Patrick O'Boyle, the Director of the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin, an orphanage and child welfare institution maintained at Mount Loretto on Staten Island. The position placed Norris in control of the mission's finances. While working at the mission, Norris began attending graduate school in 1938 at Fordham University's School of Social Service. In 1941, because of his growing reputation for organizational and financial skills, Norris received a position as assistant executive director of the National Catholic Community Service (NCCS) in Washington, D.C., where his primary function was to coordinate Catholic efforts among the various wings of the Catholic Church in America and to represent the Church when co-operating with the U.S. Government. The same year saw James Norris marry Amanda Clara Tisch, daughter of Meta Maria Weickert and George Christian Tisch. The couple was married by the same Father O'Boyle who had hired Norris at Mount Loretto, and who would later become Archbishop of Washington. James and Amanda were married in the Lady Chapel of Saint Patrick's Cathedral, New York City, on September 20, 1941. They would have four sons (James, Gregory, Peter, and Stephen). Only two years later, Norris became acting director of NCCS and resolved to make assistance for returning veterans from the war a primary concern of the agency.

Due to the manpower needs of World War II, Norris accepted a commission, in 1944, as a Lieutenant junior grade, in the Naval Reserve. After completing Naval Training School at Princeton, New Jersey, Norris served as commander of an Armed Guard Unit aboard the S.S. William Windom, in the European, Atlantic and Pacific theatres of war. After an honorable discharge, he immediately returned to work within the Catholic Church.

In 1946, Norris was hired as European director of Catholic Relief Services (then War Relief Services), the overseas aid agency of the United States Catholic Church. Touring devastated areas of Europe on behalf of CRS in the immediate postwar period, Norris was struck by the plight of millions of refugees and displaced persons. Norris was instrumental in mobilizing millions of dollars in aid from American Catholics to alleviate the suffering of the homeless that he encountered in Europe.

Because of his expertise, Norris was called upon by the Holy See to help organize universal Catholic efforts on behalf of migrants and refugees, including the growing exodus of refugees fleeing from the Soviet Bloc in Eastern Europe. Working together with Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, (later Pope Paul VI), Norris was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the International Catholic Migration Commission, (ICMC), formally brought into existence by Pope Pius XII in 1951. Through diocesan and national commissions in both sending and receiving countries, the ICMC facilitated the movement of "people with countries to countries without people". Norris served as president of the International Catholic Migration Commission for twenty-three years, from the organization's inception in 1951 until 1974.

In 1954, Norris was elected president of the umbrella organization, the Standing Conference of Voluntary Agencies Working for Refugees (CVAWR). When international interest in refugees began to wane, Norris played a leading role in helping the United Nations organize the 1959 International Year of the Refugee to help refocus international attention on the plight of refugees as a continuing problem in the world. By then War Relief Services had changed its name to Catholic Relief Services, (in 1955), and Norris had assumed a new role within the agency as executive assistant to the executive director (Bishop Edward E. Swanstrom). Norris was now responsible for CRS' world-wide program of relief, welfare, self-help and socio-economic development. By the time of Norris' death in 1976, the annual program value was $256,000,000.

In 1963, Norris was invited by Pope Paul VI to be one of the lay auditors at the Second Vatican Council in Rome. While the Second Session was underway, he seized the opportunity to actively lobby for the Council fathers to spend a segment of their time in session on the issue of poverty. Specifically, Norris wanted poverty to be a concern of the whole church, not just for the Apostolate of the Laity. He promoted the creation of an office to deal specifically with this problem, and he urged for a "World Poverty Day." Working with Barbara Ward and other proponents for Catholic action against world poverty, Norris was granted permission by Pope Paul to address the Council while in session. On November 5, 1964, he became the first member of the laity to participate in a Council debate when he introduced Chapter Four, Paragraph 24, "De Paupertate Mundiali", in the schema on the Church in the Modern World.

In his historic speech, entitled "World Poverty and the Christian Conscience", Norris issued "a clarion call for action which would involve the creation of a structure that would devise the kind of institutions, contacts, forms of cooperation and policy, which the Church can adopt, to secure full Catholic participation in the worldwide attack on poverty." Norris was convinced that the Church, as an international community of believers, could be far more effective in directing attention and resources in the fight against poverty. Norris' concerns were incorporated in Paragraph 90 of "Gaudium et Spes", the Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

In the immediate post-Conciliar period, Norris remained at Rome in a continued effort to create a permanent office of the Holy See focused on world poverty. Norris became a member of the Post-Conciliar Commission on the Apostolate of the Laity and participated in the lobbying and consultative efforts leading to the implementation of Paragraph 90. Those efforts led to the creation by Pope Paul VI of the Pontifical Commission (later Council) "Justice and Peace" in 1967. Paul VI explained to the members of the new organism that its purpose was "to keep an alert eye, an open heart, and a ready hand for the work of charity that the Church is called upon to perform in the world". Four years later, the same Pope created the Pontifical Council "Cor Unum" to help coordinate various national Catholic relief agencies. Norris was appointed by the Pope as a charter member of both entities.

In addition to becoming the first member of the laity to participate in a Vatican Council debate, Norris also became the first layman to be named an official Papal escort when he accompanied Pope Paul VI on the Pontiff's flight to Geneva on June 10, 1969 to visit the International Labor Organization and the World Council of Churches. Paul VI also designated Norris as the Holy See's representative at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and appointed him to participate as an "Expert" in the 1971 Synod of Bishops on the subject: Justice in the World.

When the Holy See announced its decision to adhere to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in order to "give its moral support to the principles that form the basis of the treaty itself", Pope Paul chose Norris to serve as a member of the Apostolic Delegation on the occasion of the Holy See's accession to the Treaty on February 25, 1971, in Washington, D.C.

Norris was also a member of the Board of Trustees of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in Washington, D.C., (1968-1976), and a member of the Shrine's Marian Devotion Committee. This committee was, according to John Cardinal Carberry, Archbishop of St. Louis, "the motivating force" behind the United States' Bishops Pastoral Letter: "Behold Your Mother: Woman of Faith". In his homily on the first anniversary of Norris' death, National Shrine Director Monsignor John J. Murphy recalled that "Norris' vision was responsible for the Pastoral Letter".

All of Norris' activity on behalf of the Holy See was conducted while he continued his own efforts through Catholic Relief Services and the International Catholic Migration Commission to aid the new refugees emerging from such places as Biafra, Burundi, and Vietnam. In November 1976, Norris was notified by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that he was to be the recipient of UNHCR's highest humanitarian award, the Fridtjof Nansen Medal, in recognition of his "outstanding services rendered to the cause of refugees and displaced persons". Before the medal could be conferred, Norris, worn out by his efforts, suffered a fatal aneurysm while commuting to his CRS office in New York. He died on November 17, 1976.

Two days later, Norris' old friend, Pope Paul VI, offered Mass for the repose of his soul, and in a hand-written letter to Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, wrote: ". . . We have known for many years this good and faithful Catholic, and We have offered the Holy Mass for the repose of his soul, and for the Christian comfort of his relatives and friends. It will endear us to preserve the beloved and pious memory of this excellent departed gentleman".

Following Norris' death, thousands of tributes and letters of condolence to Norris' widow, Amanda, poured in from every corner of the globe. From Rome, Cardinal Villot, Vatican Secretary of State, wrote: "We strongly believe he was prepared to appear before the Lord, to whom he devoted all his life". From Washington, State Department official and former USEP director, Lawrence Dawson, wrote: "To me, Jim was a paragon of excellence in the things which go to make up a real man living a significant life". And from India, Bishop Ignatius D'Souza wrote that Norris was "God's own perfect gentleman, and a great benefactor of the poor and lonely scattered around the world".

From Memphis, Tennessee, the editorial appearing in the Diocesan newspaper read: "If all the people in all the world whose lives were made more bearable because of Jim Norris were placed shoulder to shoulder, the line would stretch for hundreds and hundreds of miles . . . You made your mark, Jim. There's hardly an acre of land in the free world that doesn't bear some evidence that you passed through this life."

For the Catholic Relief Services / Burundi staff, Norris' death was a particularly poignant loss. In 1972, Norris had made an emergency trip to Burundi where civil war was raging, and massacres between the ruling Tutsi and Hutu tribes had created a tidal flow of refugees. At Bujumbura, Norris directly confronted Burundi's president, Michele Micombero, warning that Catholic Relief Services would halt vital food shipments to the country unless the massacres stopped. Shortly thereafter, a cease-fire went into effect. From the CRS/Burundi staff, came a letter of condolence to Norris' widow -- five signatures and a thumbprint.

But it was perhaps Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta who most aptly summed up the life and activity of this great Catholic gentleman and man of charity. In her letter of condolence to Norris' widow, Mother Teresa wrote: "The friend of the poor, Jim Norris, your husband and father, has gone home to God. On arriving in Heaven, Jesus must have told him: 'Come home, Come to Me -- for I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was naked and you clothed me, I was homeless and you took me in -- You did it to Me'. For so many years he went on doing just that. Therefore you have no reason to be sad -- rather rejoice that he is home with God."

Honors and Decorations

Papal Chamberlain of the Sword and Cape -- September 14, 1964 (Gentleman of His Holiness)

Knight of the Order of Saint Gregory the Great -- February 11, 1947

Knight Commander of the Order of Saint Gregory the Great -- September 13, 1955

Vice-Governor General of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem

Commander -- December 16. 1969

Commander with Star / Grand Commander -- November 10, 1972

Knight of the Grand Cross --October 20, 1976

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees / Fridtjof Nansen Medal -- 1975

Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany / Grand Cross of the Order -- September 12, 1953

Order of Isabella the Catholic (Spain) / Knight's Cross -- March 20, 1957

Order of Poland Restored (Polonia Restituta: Free Polish Government in Exile) / Knight Commander -- July 20, 1949

Polish Air Force Medal / London, April 15, 1947

Royal Order of the Phoenix (Greece) / 2nd Class -- Grand Commander -- 1955

Hellenic Red Cross -- Greece -- January 3, 1958

Order of the Oranje-Nassau of the Netherlands / Officer -- January 14, 1964

Joseph Cardinal Mindszenty Medal -- Budapest 1948

The Marist Society of America / Marist Award -- 1967

Ladies of Charity / Recognition Award -- 1976

Catholic University of America / Cardinal Gibbons Medal -- 1967

Catholic University of America / Outstanding Achievement Award of the Alumni Association -- 1961

The Catholic University of Puerto Rico / Manso Cross Award

Catholic War Veterans / National Commander's Award

Catholic War Veterans of New Jersey / For Country Award -- 1965

Ancient Order of Hibernians in America / Man of the Year Award -- 1966

Cuban Refugee Emergency Center, Miami, Florida / Outstanding Service Citation

Honorary Degrees

St. John's University, Doctor of Humane Letters -- June 14, 1964

Seton Hall University, Doctor of Laws -- June 5, 1965

Catholic University of America, Doctor of Humane Letters -- June 6, 1965

Georgetown University, Doctor of Laws -- June 5, 1967

World War II

World War II Distinguished Service Medal -- Asiatic, Pacific Campaign

World War II Distinguished Service Medal -- European, African, Middle Eastern Campaign

World War II Distinguished Service Medal -- American Campaign


24 linear feet.

James J. Norris Papers
University of Notre Dame Archives
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the University of Notre Dame Archives Repository

607 Hesburgh Library
Notre Dame Indiana 46556 United States
(574) 631-6448