The Catholic Women’s League (CWL) was founded in England in 1906, by Miss Margaret Fletcher, whose aim was to make Catholic women conscious of the contribution, based on the teaching of the Church, that they could make to the social, intellectual and spiritual life of the community.
The Patron Saint of the CWL is Saint Margaret Clitherow.
In New Zealand, the CWL was first established in Auckland in 1931, by Bishop Liston who had as his ideal “The uniting of all Catholic women in New Zealand – a branch in every parish”. A motto in keeping with the spirit of the League was chosen – “Faith and Service”.
The Bishop was aware of the need for voluntary social work during the Depression. It is a well-known fact that CWL launched many women into involvement in public activities and developed their leadership skills.
The National History shows a photograph of a group of Maori Ladies who formed the first Maori Catholic Ladies League of Matamata, also in 1931.
Groups known as Circles were formed within the Auckland branch to cater for special needs and for the interests of individual members. This had an immediate effect of increasing membership, which after one year was 411. The first annual report contains a long list of Circles or Committees which covered the various activities. In 1932 the first country branches were formed in Rotorua, Tauranga and Whakatane.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, the Auckland League offered its services as a body to the Mayor of the city for general work in connection with the war effort.
Following the formation of the branches in the Auckland Diocese, a one-day conference was held each year. A theme was chosen for discussion and League matters were addressed. Knock-Na-Gree was the conference venue for many years.
Later, branches were divided into regions. Each region contained five or six branches which elected a regional representative to speak for the region and keep in touch with branches. Regional Representatives became the basis of a Diocesan Council, attending monthly meetings which lead to great cooperation. This system still applies today. From 1934 to 1964, 61 branches had been formed.
The diversity of the League’s activities is renowned. They are listed in annual reports. The Homemakers’ Circle, for instance, at one stage had 560 members!
In 1976 it was reported that there were 2270 members in the 70 branches in the Auckland Diocese. In 1980 the Diocese was divided into two – Auckland and Hamilton. This left more manageable numbers and the count was then 1137 members in 37 branches.
The National History contains the names of the branches as at 1990, together with the names of Bishops, Chaplains, Presidents, Secretaries and Treasurers to that time.
It was to be five years before the Catholic Women’s League came to life in a second Diocese. The Bishop of Christchurch, Bishop Brodie, saw the need for a women’s organisation. Initially, a Catholic Women’s Club was inaugurated but then it was decided to become part of the Catholic Women’s League. This took place in 1936, the object being to unify the Catholic women in social, intellectual and charitable pursuits, under the direction of the Bishop. Bishop Brodie said: “This movement is worldwide and its universality should inspire enthusiasm amongst its members and ensure its success”.
The first branches in the Christchurch Diocese were: Akaroa, Ashburton, Timaru, Chatham Islands and Waimate.
Circles were established and the work done (with the electric sewing machine donated to the Christchurch Branch Sewing Circle by the Bishop) leaves one quite breathless!
A building known as “Maryknoll” became the social centre for League activities and in 1944 had to be extended to accommodate large numbers of members attending functions. Over the years Maryknoll became home to many organisations.
The war years saw the same impressive endeavours on the part of the Christchurch League members as that shown by their Auckland sisters. To quote the Christchurch historian, “Every member has a role to fill. There is so much for an active person, smaller jobs for those less active, and for any member incapacitated in any way, the important work of prayer”.
Community involvement grew and in 1961 there were representatives to, or on, 16 civic organisations. As well, there was strong ecumenical contact; a social concerns group worked hard on many concerns, and delegates regularly attended National Council of Women meetings.
In 1976 there were 31 branches with a membership of 1368. In 1990 there were 26 branches of CWL in the Christchurch Diocese. Names of Officers and others are recorded in the National History.
Wellington’s League began with a Foundation Meeting in 1944, initiated by Archbishop O’Shea who stressed the importance of the aims and objects of the League. At a subsequent meeting Father Herlihy, the first Chaplain, made it clear that the League was meant to be an action group working for the welfare and spiritual development of women and to be a Catholic voice in the community. Membership in 1945 was 200 and 30 years later in 1975 had increased to 3121. Members were encouraged in “Mission at Home’ work and they co-operated with the Maori Women’s Welfare League as well as supporting the Pacific Islands mission work.
The League of the Wellington Archdiocese undertook several very large endeavours during the years, which are listed in the National History.
By 1980 the Archdiocesan Council was still coping with 59 branches but Wellington Diocese was divided into two at this time – Wellington and Palmerston North. The number of branches was reduced to the more manageable number of 33.
Wellington League members have taken a prominent part in Archdiocesan affairs and many have also been prominent in their communities. A list of branches to 1990, as well as that of prominent members, Life Members and Officers of all positions can be found in the National History.
Bishop Whyte of Dunedin was anxious that the women of his flock should have the same advantage of support and friendship that those in northern centres were enjoying. Rev. Fr. Gavin chaired the first meeting in 1949 which 300 ladies attended. It was later in the year that Bishop Kavanagh was appointed and from then on maintained an interest in the League until his death.
As in other Dioceses, a dynamic first president was tireless in her efforts to form branches in town and country throughout Otago and Southland. League was administered from Dunedin Central for many years and Diocesan Conferences (except for one) were always held there until 1965. By 1966 there were 30 branches with an overall membership of about 1300. Invercargill had a large busy branch with a membership of 213 in 1954. The first branches in this Diocese were Lawrence, Ranfurly and then Mosgiel.
The Circles were just as popular as in other Dioceses but in 1967 when it was decided to decentralise and hopefully form branches in parishes, most of the Circles fell into decline because branch numbers were smaller. In some ways, decentralisation worked well because membership did grow but in the smaller city of Dunedin where distance was not a problem, members missed the contact with friends and acquaintances from other parishes.
The League attended to all the usual “works”, some members giving great service in what would be called “welfare work” which covers a broad spectrum. It is to be hoped that all have found their place in Heaven.
Bishops, Chaplains, Life Members and Officers are recorded as is a comment in the Dunedin history on membership.
After Hamilton and surrounds were formed into a Diocese, League members of the area quickly established their own Diocesan body in 1980, with the encouragement of Bishop Gaines. They had a strong conviction that Hamilton must immediately establish itself as a separate Diocesan Council if it was to capitalize on the enthusiasm that the creation of a new diocese had engendered. By the end of 1980, Hamilton Diocese had 28 branches. In 1990 the membership was 663.
Successful Diocesan Conferences, as well as one national one, have been held around the diocese when each has been blessed by the attendance of several branch chaplains. An inscribed book of the Daily Office was presented to the President at an early conference who undertook to read the Office daily for and on behalf of the members. It has since been handed to subsequent Presidents to carry on the tradition.
The list of branches and officers can be seen in the National History.
And so to Palmerston North. Under the leadership of Bishop Cullinane, this new diocese set up its own Diocesan League Council in 1981. The oldest branch is the Napier one which has retained a strong membership since 1942. Wanganui has also had a long history, having been formed in 1945. They had made a beautiful floral carpet for Queen Elizabeth’s visit in 1954, and the Marton branch had told of amusing experiences sending mission goods.
“To quietly be members of the lay apostolate in our own environment” was good advice from one chaplain.
Names of branches and officeholders are included in the National History.
The National Body
A League theme for one year was “Women Alive”. No title could have been more fitting to describe the coming together of the first four Diocesan Councils to form a national body in 1948. It was obvious that this vibrant women’s organization, within the structure of the Catholic Church, was a much needed lay apostolate. Miss Kathleen O’Connor of Christchurch was the first Dominion President of CWL. She had done much towards the establishment of CWL in Christchurch, and then guided the League with much wisdom for eight years.
National Conferences (or Dominion ones as they were then called) were held each year until later when they became biennial. The conferences form a broad base for the exchange of ideas, policy-making, reports, mission matters, remits, talks from topical speakers, and the results of branch studies of a national annual theme. In 1980 one was “The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World”. One member collated all the material which was sent to Rome by the Bishops for their Synod that year.
After discussion at two national conferences in the 1960s the four dioceses, were instructed to decentralise and, where possible, to form branches in parishes. It worked well in large cities but not as well in smaller ones.
The League has been blessed through the years with its hard-working National Presidents and has been the richer for their wise guidance.
Mission support has been a major part of CWL work. The history of this facet of League endeavour is fully documented in the National History.
After some time, a system of mission allocation was set up to avoid the unfair advantage of some receiving plenty and others nothing. This has worked well under the specially appointed Mission Secretaries and was described as unique in the annals of missionary support.
The History lists the type of requests received from mission stations; how League members sprang into action after each hurricane or cyclone had hit the Pacific; how Maori Missions were helped; how Mission at Home became a familiar term, and much more.
The Spiritual dimension
From its inception, the League has been fortunate in its National, Diocesan and Branch Chaplains. They have been an integral part of the League.
Conforming with the motto of “Faith and Service”, members have been well provided for spiritually, firstly through their Chaplains and, secondly through the opportunities offered by the League.
In matters Ecumenical, one of the League’s objectives has been “To encourage participation by members in active roles in ecumenical and community life”. An example is the World Day of Prayer, held annually in March.
Likewise, from annual reports of all branches it has been obvious that members give much voluntary community help in their own areas. Representation on other bodies has been ongoing.
Social Concerns and Submissions
Several submissions and many matters of social concern have been researched, explored, discussed, written about and presented to the appropriate body of authority over the years. The matters addressed make interesting reading in the History.
The World Union of Catholic Women’s Organisations (WUCWO) provides opportunities for Catholic women to express their principles in the international sphere, and to promote solidarity and leadership. In 1990 there were 135 member organisations in WUCWO, CWL being one of them.
Responses to the questionnaires which WUCWO sends out have been a laudable endeavour; A WUCWO Day of Prayer is observed by all branches; four of the CWL International Officers have served on the WUCWO Board; some members have attended both the World Assembly held every four years or the WUCWO Asia/Pacific ones. This includes Asia, Australia, Fiji, Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines and New Zealand.
Source: Catholic Women’s League of New Zealand National History 1931-1990 by Noeline De Courcy.