CWL member Karen Bernes holds a laundry basket of items for a woman leaving the women's shelter.
CAMROSE – Since 1921, the Catholic women of Camrose have been held together by their ties of faith and a bond of common service. Wherever they saw a need or were asked to help, these members leaped in with both feet.
Now in operation for 91 years, the St. Francis Xavier Council in Camrose is the oldest continually serving Catholic Women's League council in the Edmonton Archdiocese.
Although the CWL was incorporated nationally in 1920 in Montreal, it actually began in the Edmonton Archdiocese in 1912. The first CWL council in the archdiocese was at St. Joachim's Parish, but it eventually disbanded.
Camrose and Wetaskiwin formed their respective councils on the same day in 1921, but Wetaskiwin's council also went inactive eventually.
"We are the only one with 90 complete years," said Anne Laskosky, a former provincial CWL president and longtime member.
"We started with 24 charter members in 1921. They were very good workers, and they really took hold of the Catholic Women's League model, and they believed that every Catholic woman should be a member of the league. They asked every Catholic woman to be a member."
The women began with the intention of protecting and supporting immigrant women and girls seeking work and promoting spiritual and temporal good works. Sacrifice was asked of all members, whether in contribution of service or goods, or in sanctifying the members.
Right from its inception, Camrose's church ladies were dynamic. Their first president went to Ottawa for a convention, at a $39 expense to the council. In 1922, two women from Camrose were elected to the archdiocesan executive, and they have had representation on the executive ever since.
In 1927, they were up to 70 members, which encompassed every woman in the church.
"Since then we've never been 100 per cent, but over the years we still have more members than anybody else. It's just through personal contact," said Laskosky.
Today, within the league structure are conveners. The responsibility of the convener, through registration and memberships, is to contact every woman in the church and every CWL member to ensure memberships are renewed.
Their biggest membership total was in 1981, when they reached 364 members. Currently there are about 250 members, an impressive total for a small city with a population under 16,000.
"We have dropped down somewhat, but we still have a pretty good membership and certainly enough members to do all of the things that we still are active in," said Laskosky.
Lately they have been fortunate in attracting the young married women, those in their late 20s and 30s. The work their mothers and grandmothers did has rubbed off.
"It's up and down. For a long time we weren't getting a lot of those young mothers because they were all working. Now all of a sudden many of them are starting to come back. This year I'd say we've had about a half dozen return to our council, most of them daughters of our members," said Laskosky.
Political interventions, such as bringing bills to the provincial and federal governments and proposing legislative changes, has been popular with the younger women. "Water is not for sale" was one of their recent crusades.
A key to success is keeping their meetings fun by having games nights and even a movie night.
"We have fun together, we work together and we pray together," said Laskosky.
Another secret to their longevity is that they don't merely stay among themselves. Rather, they are active in the church and make themselves as visible as possible in the community.
Serving funeral luncheons, Meals on Wheels, World Day of Prayer, hospital auxiliary, assisting at the food bank and serving at a soup kitchen called Martha's Kitchen are just a handful of their volunteer activities.
The CWL has a good working relationship with the community's two Catholic schools. Every year the CWL awards a $750 bursary to a high school student. It buys Bibles for Grade 4 students, a program that costs around $1,500 each year.
For the tremendous work that the council has done within Camrose and the whole archdiocese, two members were awarded the Bene Merenti Medal, a papal medal conferred on those who have exhibited long and exceptional service to the Church, their families and community.
As well, Laskosky is one of two members to receive national life memberships.
The current St. Francis Xavier Council president is JoAnne Stang. She said the most exciting recent announcement is the support the CWL has been giving the new chapel at the local hospital.
Stang estimates that the council donates about $10,000 a year to Catholic-based charities. Their money comes in through the work they do at bake sales, 50/50 draws and about 25 funeral luncheons per year.
Over the years, the majority of CWL work has been in the social services area.
They support the Holy Childhood Association, Bosco Homes, the Oblate mission, emergency youth centre, women's shelter, Camrose Open Door, refugee families, service options for seniors, food bank, Christmas Cheer Fund, St. Benedict's Chapel at Eaton Centre and Newman Theological College. They also help send children to Our Lady of Victory Camp.