by Leanne Forest
I’ve heard the names many times; I thought I knew the basic history of the CWL. Yet, as I read the book offered to me by Blanca Stead, Except the Lord Build the House, A History of Social Concern, I realized how very little I knew of the reasons for the birth of the CWL, or of the eloquent Montrealer who would pursue federating all the existing CWL organizations and become the first president. Nor did I know how many issues of 100 years ago would be mirrored today.
In 1912, an Edmonton group of Catholic women was formed by Katherine Hughes at the request of Bishop Emile Legal and L’Abbe Casgrain, who both wanted to solve ‘a difficult immigration problem, (that of unaccompanied) young women destined for domestic service’.
Katherine Hughes knew of just such an organization set up in England, in 1906. It was a non-political organization founded by Miss Margaret Fletcher for the formation of religious and intellectual interests. It was named the Catholic Women’s League. A similar German organization had been started in 1904; Spain had several such groups; France, Italy and Switzerland were also in the throes of establishing their own Catholic women’s groups.
The first Edmonton meeting of the Catholic Women’s League (named after the England group) was held in November of 1912. The purpose was to provide protection and support to women and girls, especially immigrants, seeking work in Edmonton. Rosary Hall, a proud and imposing mansion built by Joseph Gariepy, became the first home for the Catholic Women’s League. The home offered safe and affordable accommodation, a place of friendship and a sense of community. Since there were no employment services yet in Edmonton, the League set up a free job placement service.
In 1917, a Montreal women’s study group, the Loyola Club, re-organized itself as The Catholic Women’s Club; its president was Bellelle Guerin. In 918, Toronto organized such a group, and in 1919, Halifax followed suit.
On March 19, 1920, Bellelle Guerin sent a strong letter to other similar Canadian groups of Catholic women. She wrote, asking them to meet and to consider ‘federating all existing CWL organizations with a view to so standardize our aims and objects that we may become a real power for good, causing branches to spring up in every city and town of the Dominion’. A conference was held in June of 1920, with participants from Edmonton, Regina, Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa, Sherbrooke, St. John’s and Halifax.
The topics discussed were a proposed Constitution, incorporation, finance and headquarters, a CWL magazine, best means of organizing branches, immigration, immodesty (in dress, in photos, and in films), as well as divorce. It’s now 2018; our issues have not changed over the century! The movement was an immediate success with more than one hundred branches or ‘subdivisions’ being organized within the year.
So, a cheer to Katherine Hughes of my hometown, Edmonton, and a standing ovation to Bellelle Guerin who had the vision, the wisdom and the fortitude to build the foundation to what we still know and cherish today: THE CATHOLIC WOMEN’S LEAGUE OF CANADA.