THE CATHOLIC WOMEN’S LEAGUE OF EDMONTON, was founded by Katherine Hughes (1876-1925) in 1912. It was the first organization in Canada to model the Catholic Women's League in England, a benevolent group started by Margaret Fletcher in 1906. Incredibly, the Edmonton League was the first branch of an organization that would nationalize as The Catholic Women’s League of Canada eight years later in 1920.
Katherine was a renowned journalist, teacher, public servant, author, and Catholic social activist on behalf of immigrant women and native families. After travelling in England in 1911, she advised Bishop Émile Legal of St. Albert about the British organization and asked about forming a similar group to support the influx of immigrant women seeking work and housing during Edmonton’s economic boom. Bishop Legal called on Katherine and Abbé Casgrain, a man known for working with immigrants in eastern Canada, to fulfil the initiative.
Katherine and Abbé agreed that Edmonton should provide Catholic immigrants with a hotel that would include accommodation, a community house, and employment bureau. She later related: “We found on inquiry that financial conditions would not permit the sale of stock in such a venture at that time. That was the decision of the men. Fortunately, neither of us despaired, we simply turned to the women.”
Katherine extended an invitation through Edmonton’s seven Catholic parishes and 20 women attended an inaugural meeting at St. Joachim's Church hall on November 13, 1912. They formed The Catholic Women’s League of Edmonton, with Mrs. Samuel Gorman, president and Miss Katherine Hughes, corresponding secretary.
The pioneering members met every train arriving in the city to welcome new immigrants and established one of the first social service agencies in Alberta. Within two years, they set up a safe, affordable hostel named ’Rosary Hall’ and a free job placement service staffed by volunteers.
Their feat was truly remarkable, as women in that era did not have the right to hold public office or vote in provincial or federal elections. Furthermore, there were no TV, radio, or internet services to broadcast their crusade and gather momentum.
Yet news of their success rippled across Canada where independent branches of the League were replicated in port cities and major centres: Montreal 1917, Toronto 1918, Halifax 1919; and then Ottawa, Sherbrooke, and Saint John (NB).
At the Edmonton League’s centennial in 2012, Archbishop Richard Smith commented: “The Church is immensely blessed and enriched by the service of the CWL and its wide variety of ministries…Hughes truly knew what the designation ‘Catholic’ meant. The early CWL, as with the CWL today, looked beyond its own needs to serve others.” History project committee chair Rose-Marie McCarthy stated: “These women were the heart and soul of our community.”
The Catholic Women’s League of Edmonton planted seeds of faith, hope and opportunity for a multitude of new immigrants. The founding members courageously brought Katherine’s vision to life and paved the way for a national organization that would flourish into the next century and beyond. We are truly inspired by their fortitude and incredible spirit of faith, service, and social justice!
The movement gradually spread to the port cities and other major centres across Canada – to Montreal in 1917, Toronto in 1918, Halifax the following year, and then to Ottawa, Sherbrooke, and Saint John, New Brunswick. In 1920, these groups were invited to meet in Montreal to try to establish a national group of Catholic women.
The name “Catholic Women’s League” originated in England in 1912 in response to a perceived need for Catholic lay action and was adopted by the Canadian group. On June 17, 1920, The Catholic Women’s League of Canada was formally established with Miss Bellelle Guerin of Montreal elected first national president. In 1921, the League affiliated with the International Union of Catholic Women, now known as the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations (WUCWO), an affiliation still enjoyed today.
The first annual national convention of The Catholic Women’s League of Canada was held in Toronto in 1921. The delegates at that convention worked hard at producing a constitution, a set of bylaws and the beginnings of a publication, The Canadian League. The League was incorporated federally in 1923.
Calgary Diocesan Council began as a senior subdivision of The Catholic Women's League of Canada in 1921. The pioneering women served the entire city; and received Bishop John McNally's permission to organize similar groups (now councils) across the Diocese. During an era when men made the major decisions in Church and society, women were eager to join an organization where they could be heard; where they could freely express their concerns and ideas, and make decisions.
From its organizational beginnings, as now, the League perceived the need for Catholic lay women’s action in all aspects of Canadian life. The League crest and seal – the cross surmounting the maple leaves with the words “The Catholic Women’s League of Canada – For God and Canada” in the surrounding circle was designed by Mrs. Emmett Mullally.
In 1927, a national scholarship fund was established to assist Catholic women students and, for many years, this was given for graduate studies in social work. Since 1969, however, this fund has been donated to the Coady International Institute of St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, N.S., to assist foreign students from developing countries.
The year 1938 saw the organization of Business & Professional Women’s CWL Councils in major cities across Canada. The organization of the first provincial councils of the League occurred in 1947-48 allowing for provincial action and the lobbying of provincial governments. Fund-raising was to be done at the parish council and the other levels. Diocesan, provincial and national councils would be financed through per capita fees from the parish level.
The CWL was mandated by the Canadian Catholic Conference of the Hierarchy, now the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), in 1948, and was under the patronage of His Eminence James C. Cardinal McGuigan, DD, until his death in 1975. Since 1976, the League has been privileged to be under the special patronage of the CCCB and, in 1992, the League was officially recognized by the CCCB as a lay association of women.
In 1965, the Military Vicariate Council was formed to coordinate the councils established on military bases and was given the status of a provincial council. The name was changed in 1988 to Military Ordinariate Council.
In 1969, the League’s 1% commitment to the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development & Peace (CCODP) was established. Leadership courses were formulated in the 1970s and, for the first time, resolutions passed at national level on the floor of the convention were presented in person by national officers to the prime minister and members of his cabinet. In 1980, Newfoundland joined the League as a provincial council.
The main thrust of The Catholic Women’s League of Canada is, and has always been, the spiritual development of its members, both individually and collectively. The activities of the League, since its original purpose of aiding immigrants, have broadened and, in recent years, the emphasis has been on issues concerning the sanctity of life, social justice, human dignity, the preservation of Christian family life and the concept of a preferential option for the poor.