By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published September 29, 2005
Over 1,200 Catholic women and some 50 of their priest-moderators from around the country gathered Sept. 15-18 for the National Council of Catholic Women’s biennial convention celebrating “85 years making a difference” at the Hilton Atlanta Hotel.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory celebrated Mass for the 52nd convention the morning of Sept. 17, where he praised the women for their steadfast work to build up God’s kingdom and the church, whether by tucking a child into bed with prayers or by contributing to Hurricane Katrina relief work. Concelebrants were Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue and Archbishop John Vlazny of Portland, Ore., who is the NCCW’s liaison to the U.S. bishops.
At the convention Ellen Bachman of the Diocese of Palm Beach, Fla., was elected as the president of the national organization and Shirley Radican of Thomson, Ga., was elected as Region III vice president. Radican was a co-chair of the convention, along with Mary Hargaden of Milledgeville, and has served previously as the Atlanta Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women’s president, treasurer and chairperson of many commissions.
The NCCW unites over 5,000 Catholic women’s organizations and their hundreds of thousands of members across the country. It was founded in 1920 and is composed of parish, regional, diocesan and national women’s organizations as well as individual members. Programs focus on supporting, empowering and educating women in spirituality, leadership and service. The NCCW encourages social action and social justice throughout the United States and represents American Catholic women in national and international organizations. Through the work of local organizations, NCCW provides leadership, education and advocacy in a variety of issues such as the dignity of all human life, domestic violence, rural life, environmental justice and stewardship, women and poverty, international debt relief, women’s health, grief and bereavement, prison ministry, exploitation and trafficking of women and children, and eliminating sweatshops and landmines. In partnership with Catholic Relief Services, NCCW members support international programs for clean water, maternal and child health, micro-business development, and refugee assistance in developing countries.
Membership offers, in addition to activities within one’s diocesan council, the opportunity to attend national assemblies, conventions, resources for program planning, and “Catholic Woman” magazine, with articles ranging from leadership skills to advocacy for social issues like health care, fair trade, and AIDS prevention.
At the national convention they shared information about activities and accomplishments, and gained insight on how to improve their group’s public image in the face of declining membership as many women working and raising families have less time to devote to the church. They learned about how to become more involved in the organization’s work to promote development in the Third World and to reform this nation’s broken immigration system, as thousands have died in the Arizona desert or elsewhere while crossing the Mexican border. They considered how to better apply Catholic social teaching to this and other key domestic issues, and how the willful and holy women of Scripture teach them, too, to be great women of faith.
Bachman was deeply honored and humbled to be elected as the new president of the organization at the convention and looks forward to providing leadership and starting initiatives to draw more women in their 20s and 30s, so that they can experience the enrichment she’s had through her council. Those attending identified one need as more programs in religious formation and on church history, knowledge that many lack.
“It’s a fast-paced young society. We need our membership to be more to the point for these women, and we know they are spiritually hungry and we have so much to offer. We need to get the message out of what the programs are, and they are going to plug into the social justice issues,” she said. “We really are the best kept secret and that’s part of the problem.”
The organization is no secret to Archbishop Gregory, who, in his homily at the Mass, praised the NCCW women for their generous response to Hurricane Katrina after so many lives were devastated or lost.
“Catholic women throughout the church in our nation and beyond have been the heart and soul of our efforts. You have, as you have done on so many other occasions, rallied the church to undertake the works of charity and service … Quite simply, the face of Christ has been made more visible in the works of charity that you have spearheaded during the past fortnight and on so many other occasions within the local churches who are graced with your presence.”
He said that in his years as a bishop in Belleville, Ill., in Chicago, and now in Atlanta, the NCCW members have always been “among the first and most generous servants of the mission of Christ. From the most everyday local and parochial activities to those extraordinary works of love, you have a heritage of munificence that would make St. Paul proud as it does the church in our own times,” he continued. “In truth we would be hopelessly diminished without the presence of the NCCW in the countless works of charity and the spiritual treasures that you so generously provide for the church.”
Standing in the large meeting room lit by 20 crystal chandeliers, he emphasized that in the Second Letter to Timothy St. Paul reminds his dear friend to keep his faith in adversity and speaks of the faith and courage of Timothy’s grandmother, Lois, and mother, Eunice, who gave him his faith.
“We bishops would also have to acknowledge the debt of gratitude for the gift of faith we have found in our own lives through the extraordinary witness of our sisters, mothers, grandmothers and you, our colleagues in the NCCW. Your devotion to Christ inspires us to be more faithful, devoted and loving in the service of the church,” he said. “Surely Eunice and Lois would be proud to call you their sisters in faith.”
Women were uplifted by the liturgy as well as by the speakers. Although Rita Brey has been involved in her Madison diocesan council for 50 years, she was attending her first national convention, coming with women from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and having a “wonderful” time.
“I have been awed by the speakers, and the Mass has just been awesome,” she said, after looking at boards covered with photos of participating women.
She was particularly glad to attend the workshop presented by therapist and bereavement ministry coordinator Linda Cherek, who spoke about healing after the death of a child, as she has faced immense loss, having lost a daughter to cancer and a son in an accident. Additionally, her father died when she was a child, her mother passed away two years ago, and she had two brothers who have died.
“I can relate so much to people’s sorrows,” she said. “It’s faith and belief in God that gets you through all your sorrows and when you think of what our Lord went through you think ‘I’ll get through this, too’ because he holds us in the palm of his hand.”
Lisa Adamson came from Utah, where she is the president of her parish women’s council and is focusing on improving its image and getting more of the parish’s younger women to join and not wait till their children are grown. Their charity projects include making layettes for babies and stuffing Christmas stockings with gloves and hats.
“This year we did our first newsletter. A lot more women on the board this year are in their 30s, have full-time jobs and kids, and are still involved,” she said. “I think we’re on the upswing.”
She’s grateful that the priest moderator for her deanery is “very, very supportive. We bring him to all our meetings.” And she was glad to realize she’s not alone in her struggle to build membership, and that the organization is trying to improve its image.
“It’s nice to walk into a room and know that you’re with 1,200 Catholic women. It’s pretty awe-inspiring.”
Back home in Utah where Catholics are a minority, sometimes it’s just nice to be with other Catholic women.
“I needed to be with fellow Catholic women and foster friendships,” she said. “I’m a convert. I don’t want to just go to Mass and go home. It’s nice to know people.”
As the new president Bachman plans to bring back a national leadership institute, as Florida has one that has kept its councils strong. As women around the country have offered to help nationally, she plans to establish local groups to assist the national office “to give them a role connected with the national board. It’s their organization.”
She was also inspired by the fellowship.
“You saw the love the women have for each other. God made us the nurturers … When you come together nationally and see what we do on a national and international level, it’s really overwhelming, like being embraced by love,” said Bachman, who quit her job as operations manager for Habitat for Humanity to devote herself to this work full-time.
“It’s an awesome responsibility. I’m going to work hard with the board to make (our goals) a reality and make us better known.”
Radican and Bachman will serve two-year terms. Radican hopes to build stronger connections within the organization.
“I look forward to the next two years as Region III vice president and I intend to keep the line of communication open between the national office and the local affiliates. My goal is to make contact with every province in our region in the next year,” she said. “I want to listen to what our affiliates are saying and learn what their needs are. The NCCW’s mission ‘to educate and empower Catholic women’ is the greatest tool we have, and we need to let every Catholic woman know who we are and what we are all about.”