CWL members Margaret King and Beatrice Salmon display bags that will be given to league members attending the national convention in Edmonton in August.


CWL members Margaret King and Beatrice Salmon display bags that will be given to league members attending the national convention in Edmonton in August.

May 7, 2012

Katherine Hughes, while living in Edmonton 100 years ago, took an interest in the Catholic Women's League after travelling through England. Upon her return to Canada, she told Bishop Emile Legal about this benevolent women's organization.

She organized the first meeting of Catholic women Nov. 13, 1912 at St. Joachim's Church. Since then the CWL has grown to more than 100,000 members nationwide.

The CWL started at seven Edmonton parishes. Now the archdiocesan CWL includes 68 parishes with councils organized into nine zones. Their list of accomplishments is long.

A Mass to celebrate the centennial of the archdiocesan CWL, led by Archbishop Richard Smith, was held at St. Joseph's Basilica April 26. That day was chosen because it's the feast of the organization's patron saint, Our Lady of Good Counsel.

"I decided it was time for all of the ladies of the diocese to get together," said Edmonton CWL president Gladys Brown. "To be honest, I am overwhelmed with the number of ladies, their husbands and friends who showed up. I am tickled pink."

In his homily, the archbishop said the Church is immensely blessed and enriched by the service of the CWL and its wide variety of ministries. Like the Church, which is catholic, universal and all-embracing, so too is the all-encompassing outreach of the CWL.

Hughes truly knew what the designation, "Catholic" meant, he said. The early CWL, as with the CWL today, looked beyond its own needs to serve others.


Those first CWL members were ambitious women who established a hostel, volunteered to meet newcomers arriving on trains, visited hospitals and ran a free employment office.

"They began helping young immigrant women coming to Canada, teaching them the language and starting a business school. They started Rosary Hall, which was for girls who came into the country to work in the city or go to school," said Beatrice Salmon, a longtime CWL member.

Wherever they saw a need or were asked for help, those early members leaped in with both feet. Over the years, the majority of CWL work has continued in the social services area and in education. Efforts to support immigrant women continue today.

The league has presented resolutions to the government. In 1927, it asked for the closure of Communist schools in Canada and the deportation of Communist teachers. It also sought to foster the Girl Guides.

"We still help refugees, and we're involved in all kinds of charitable works. We've raised money for Development and Peace. Each council within the archdiocese does different things, charitable things. They pick a project, and that's what they get involved with," said Salmon.

While there has not been a steady influx of younger members, Salmon is optimistic the CWL will still be going strong 100 years from now.

"The members at the parish level are the backbone of the league. They conceive, organize and lead projects that are living demonstrations of faith, their belief and their desire to make the world a better place by offering support to individuals who need it," said Brown.

The variety of spiritual endeavours of the members is broad. In 1962, an increase in lay apostolic work was reported. The CWL prayed for vocations and for lapsed Catholics.

Throughout the years, many resolutions in response to societal needs were brought to the floor of diocesan convention. They supported such causes as northern development, urban sprawl, restrictions on waste of prime farmland and low-cost housing.

They fought against risqué TV programming and pornographic material on magazine shelves. Human rights and supporting vocations were also important to them. CWL members became the mainstay of the volunteers at food banks.

"We have to get new members, younger members, to take the reins because we have a lot of elderly members with us here today. I still honour them for all the work they've done," said Brown.

Lucia Clonfero agreed that a new generation of members is needed. Her daughter is a member, but like so many young people she is busy with her job and other commitments.

Clonfero herself was asked to join the CWL at a young age. "Somebody from the CWL asked me if I could come and help out in the kitchen. I joined and I'm still here 45 years later," said Clonfero.

Having the centennial Mass at the basilica was important for her. She was married in the basilica the day after arriving in Canada from Italy.


Another longtime CWL member is Jean Bara. Her mother, an active member, purchased her first membership when she was 16. She maintained her membership over the years, which kept her involved with other women in both the basilica and out in the community.

"We started out helping the immigrant women," said Bara. "The CWL has changed quite a bit since then. Now it's more helping at the women's shelters and Habitat for Humanity by making meals and we take them over. We can't pound nails, but we can do that."

Father Jim Corrigan, from St. Theresa's Parish, is the CWL's provincial spiritual advisor. He said that by virtue of our Baptism, we are called to be holy. He could not imagine a more apt vehicle for holiness than the CWL.


The organization has a profound ability to effect change in our society, Church and families, Corrigan said. With 100,000 voices strong, Parliament pays attention.

"One thing that has become very clear to me in my relatively short priesthood is that if you want to make something happen in the Church, make sure you have the Catholic Women's League and the Knights of Columbus on board, and things will go very well."

More than 1,000 CWL members from across Canada are expected for the national convention, held in Edmonton this August.