by Melanie Rigney
They gathered on March 4, 1920, in Washington, D.C., 122 voting delegates who represented all but one diocese in the country along with 57 women’s societies. Together, they formed the National Council of Catholic Women (NCCW) to provide an umbrella under the United States’ bishops for the more than 5,000 U.S. Catholic women’s organizations.
“I do not know of any better way in which we can develop our leadership,” said Fr. John Cooper, chairman of the committee of order for the meeting.
As it celebrates its centennial, NCCW has remained true to its mission: acting through its members to support, empower, and educate all Catholic women in the three pillar areas of spirituality, leadership, and service. The organization also partners on initiatives with entities including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations, the National Catholic Educational Association, and Catholic Relief Services.
While NCCW does not release paid membership numbers, it’s estimated the organization touches millions of women, either as individual members or through affiliate parish, diocesan, and archdiocesan councils; sodalities; and other groups.
Service and leadership preparation
The $50 annual national membership fee carries a lot of value: a glossy, four-color quarterly magazine, Catholic Woman; a monthly e-letter, The Connect; a monthly member call on a service topic such as domestic violence or hunger; and a monthly call during which the membership pray the Rosary together.
Behind the membership firewall at NCCW.org, there is a wealth of materials for conducting four retreats; setting up local programs to battle human trafficking, pornography, and other societal problems; encouraging vocations in one’s home and beyond; leadership development training, legislative advocacy, and education initiatives; and prayers and prayer services. Those called to serve in other ways will find a cross-stitch pattern for a priest stole and printable “Kind Cards” to give someone who needs a little lift.
But ask a woman about NCCW, and she’s likely to talk first about the people.
‘I was invited to a meeting, and …’
Jean Kelly, who became NCCW president in August, didn’t have quite that view; after all, as a child she’d accompanied her mother to CCW meetings in suburban Milwaukee. But she grew up, got married, had two sons, and got busy. She and her family moved to California, then Illinois. After the Kellys returned to Wisconsin, their pastor wanted to resurrect a women’s group.
“I was invited to a meeting, and the next thing I knew, I was treasurer,” Kelly said, laughing.
Kelly advanced to director of the Milwaukee province, then president of the Milwaukee archdiocesan CCW and later, NCCW secretary. As that term was ending, women she respected asked her to run for president-elect. Her husband, Jerry, also encouraged her. Eventually, she said yes, and she became president-elect in August 2017. Then Jerry had a recurrence of cancer. When he died in September 2018, the NCCW community enveloped her.
“I had so many thank-you notes to write,” Kelly said. “People from Chicago, from Texas, from Connecticut wrote me to say they were praying for me. And I thought, that’s why Jerry wanted me in this. That’s what he saw at the conventions — the support and love.”
The same warmth struck Fr. Richard Dawson, pastor of St. Margaret of Scotland Parish in Bonifay, Florida, who completed a term as chair of the NCCW spiritual advisers. He hadn’t heard of NCCW until he was asked to serve at the diocesan level in 2003.
“I started going to the conventions and fell in love,” he said.
Fr. Dawson encouraged women to have conversations with their pastors about CCW. “Sit down with them and explain what you can do, how you can help. Women are so much better at coming up with creative ways to help our Church.”
Among those who found a creative way to serve is Maria Morera Johnson. Like Kelly, she was busy — with three children and a recent return to the workforce. She kept saying no to the invitations to get involved in the CCW chapter at St. Pius X in Conyers, Georgia, but they kept asking.
“One of the ministries that the ladies of the (parish CCW) supported was the local crisis pregnancy center. … I wasn’t going to be able to go and paint or work volunteer hours,” Johnson said. “I had started experimenting with self-publishing by compiling a collection of my blog posts that were popular. Inspired, I posted a call for submissions of personal essays about mothers at a coffee shop near the center, and compiled them in a self-published volume for sale to benefit the center. The ladies at the PCCW were not just supportive — they became my biggest endorsers.”
In 2015, when her first book, My Badass Book of Saints: Courageous Women Who Showed Me How to Live (Ave Maria Press, 2015), was published, “these wonderful ladies didn’t just preorder the book and encourage others to do so, they set up a reading club ready to go for its publication. … I’m forever grateful for these women, and [I] recognize that this is the feminine genius in action.”
Johnson then moved to Mobile, Alabama, where she is very involved in her parish CCW.
“It’s the camaraderie and sense of belonging to a service-minded group of women that pulls me,” Johnson said. “The NCCW serves as the hands and feet of Christ, not just in the Church but in the culture.”
Vision and the next generation
For NCCW to continue to serve as Christ’s hands and feet, it will need more people like Alycia Laureti of Middletown, Pennsylvania. She’s in her 40s, and she became president of her parish CCW when she was new to both the parish and to CCW, which she knew only through her grandmother. Less than 10 years later, she is president of the Harrisburg diocesan CCW. Along the way, she’s instituted practices such as virtual memberships.
“I believe in the council,” Laureti said. “I believe in what we do. It’s important for us to keep the lines of communication open among all women, among all generations.”
Service across the U.S.
The service projects of parish, diocesan, archdiocesan, and provincial councils of Catholic Women are diverse and Spirit-filled. Here are some examples:
Washington, D.C.: Most of the Josephite Fathers and Brothers community’s seminarians in Washington come from African nations. Archdiocesan Secretary Cheryl Holley, director of the Josephite Pastoral Center, brought the need to the ADCCW. In 18 months, members raised more than $2,000 and offered prayers for the seminarians. To present the funds, ADCCW held a dinner with the rector, academic dean, and seminarians.
Springfield, Georgia: Mothers-to-be get tender loving care from the CCW at St. Boniface. CCW President Loretta Dahlweiner says when the baby arrives, the Roses for Babies program provides the family with a full meal, including dessert (and a bottle of wine, if the parents so desire), along with a hand-crocheted blanket and small gifts for any young siblings.
Boca Raton, Florida: The CCW was deeply involved in the Ascension parish’s work with Cross Catholic Outreach to pack 52,000 meals for families in poverty-stricken areas. Cindy Nau, Ascension communications director and past CCW president, said nearly $10,000 was raised during Lent 2019 to create the two pallets of vitamin-rich, ready-to-cook meals. CCW members helped raise awareness and participated in packing events.
Grand Island, Nebraska: Back in 2007, the diocesan CCW started collecting bar codes from Best Choice Wholesale Grocers to support clean drinking water. Judy Wagoner said this about her idea: “I was in the grocery store and thought, we can do something with this.” The initial redemption of 5,000 bar codes raised $180. But over time, more redemptions and other donations totaled more than $28,000 going to Mission II Haiti in June 2019 to support the ministry’s work in bringing clean water to that country. Additional CCW support for the Haiti outreach includes gifts of dresses, shorts, children’s blankets, and Bibles.
March 4, 1920: Nearly 200 women from across the United States come to Washington, D.C., for the founding of the National Council of Catholic Women by the U.S. bishops (National Catholic Welfare Council).
1920: NCCW affiliates with the International Union of Catholic Women’s Leagues (now known as the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations, or WOCWO).
1921: NCCW is entrusted with responsibility for the National Catholic School of Social Services (now housed at the Catholic University of America).
1946: NCCW works with Catholic Relief Services to support World War II refugees, be-ginning a longtime partnership to help women improve their health, income, and education.
1954: President Dwight D. Eisenhower speaks to the NCCW convention in an address titled “The Paradox of Christian Peace.”
1960: In her first U.S. visit, St. Teresa of Kolkata addresses the NCCW convention.
1964: Catherine McCarthy, NCCW immediate past president, is an auditor at the final two sessions of Vatican II.
1970: NCCW agrees to merge with the National Council of Catholic Men to form the National Council of Catholic Laity; NCCW withdraws in 1973.
2000: NCCW donates Mary’s Garden to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
2017: NCCW joins with Catholic Daughters of the Americas and the Knights of Peter Claver Ladies Auxiliary in working with the U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking to battle this “behind closed doors” crime.
Aug. 26-29, 2020: The NCCW centenary convention was scheduled to take place in Arlington, Virginia, but in light of the coronavirus pandemic, a decision was made to cancel the convention. Enjoy a video about this centenary milestone.
Laureti encouraged CCWs to invite younger women, busy as they might feel, to consider saying yes, as she did.
“Sometimes I don’t think we know the talents God gives us until we’re called to use them,” she said.
For Nympha White, the invitation to use her talents started with a brochure she found in a pew in Peoria, Illinois, in 2002.
“It sounded to me quite interesting what CCW was doing for the Church and the community, so I filled it in and sent it right away,” White said. “They were really good in responding.”
And so was White; she currently is the Chicago province director and has served in a number of other leadership roles within her CCW and other organizations. Her passions include Water for Life and Cross Catholic Outreach’s Boxes of Joy. In 2018, she was the recipient of the NCCW Our Lady of Good Counsel Award, which recognizes a woman’s service to her parish and community, NCCW, and the Church.
“My prayer for NCCW is that our organization will perpetually fulfill its mission, [gain] more membership, and [keep] rolling smoothly for another 100 years and beyond,” White said.
Her prayer sounds much like Kelly’s vision.
“I want women to look at CCW members and say, ‘I want what she’s got,’” Kelly said. “‘I want to be that happy and joyful.’ We have so much to offer. We just need to do a better job of letting people know we have it.”