For 80 years, Detroit's Council of Catholic Women has 'set the world on fire' for Christ

The Archdiocese of Detroit's Council of Catholic Women, which was formed in 1939 under the leadership of then-Archbishop Edward Mooney, has offered faith, leadership and service opportunities to countless Catholic women from across southeast Michigan. Pictured, left to right, are Kathleen Penno, past province director of Detroit; Lorraine McFee, current co-president; Susan Chambers, current co-president; Janet Ferrari, past president; Grace Ruffin, past president; Virginia Bialy, service commission chair; Bernadine Mistor, spirituality commission chair; Jan Popovich, current secretary; Rita Hill, current treasurer; and Beverly Nicholson, membership commission chair. (Courtesy photos) 

Local Catholic women have poured energy into service, faith and leadership since the days of Archbishop Mooney

LIVONIA — Eighty years ago, Lorraine McFee acknowledges, “the world was a different place.” 

There were no cellphones, no computers, and not every household owned a car. Yet, women were able to meet the challenges of the Great Depression and World War II with tenacity, stepping up for their families, communities and country with grit and tenacity.

“With 50 ladies, we can set the world on fire,” said McFee, co-president of the Archdiocese of Detroit's Council of Catholic Women. 

On Oct. 6, the council will celebrate its 80th anniversary of leadership, faith and service in the Detroit area with a special event at St. Aidan Parish in Livonia. Like most anniversaries, it’s an opportunity for Council of Catholic Women members to look back as well as ahead to the future.

“It’s amazing to see how much women do in the Church,” said Zora Dziurman, a member of Detroit's Council of Catholic Women. “There are little bits and pieces, but when you put it all together and unite all these women, it can be more powerful.”

The day’s events will start with an 11:30 a.m. Mass with a family-style luncheon at St. Aidan’s Msgr. Alex J. Brunett Activity Center. The key entertainment will be “Sisters Act Out,” a musical comedy act. The theme of the day is “Beautifully Rooted in Christ for 80 years.”

The Council of Catholic Women was formed when then-Archbishop Edward Mooney (before he became a cardinal) invited the women of the Diocese of Detroit to affiliate with the National Council of Catholic Women (NCCW), which was formed in 1920 by the U.S. bishops to unite all Catholic women nationwide. Today, the NCCW comprises thousands of Catholic women and affiliated Catholic women's organizations in parishes and dioceses throughout the United States.

The first meeting of Detroit’s Council of Catholic Women took place in the Book Cadillac Hotel on March 18, 1939, with a mission “to bring women together to share their faith, to grow spiritually and to unite in performing works of charity both in our community and abroad.” 

The Archdiocese of Detroit’s council belongs to the NCCW’s Detroit Province, which includes Michigan’s seven dioceses. These affiliates meet frequently to share ideas and build fellowship.

In addition to service and leadership components, the council is led spiritually by Fr. Stephen Koehler, pastor of St. Rene Goupil Parish in Sterling Heights. Members also participate in an annual retreat and offer prayers and Masses for a variety of intentions.

Functioning as a network, the Council of Catholic Women enables women across the archdiocese to share charitable projects, adapting successful ones to particular needs, whether local or international. A multitude of projects are shared via email, at bi-monthly meetings and via the group's bi-monthly Communique newsletter. Some projects include:

Operation Layette, a 20-year effort to collect and distribute baby clothes, supplies and furniture to those in need. Hundreds of layettes have been distributed over the years, including 97 in June and July 2019 alone.

• Water for Life, a fundraiser to help developing countries obtain safe drinking water. Council members collected $145 in donations at their August meeting.

• A drive to collect hundreds of thousands of plastic bottle caps and similar items that will be used to create bleachers and benches for the Taylor South Little League and Junior League World Series. Not only are the bleachers and benches durable, but the project helps the environment by keeping the caps from becoming litter.

Council of Catholic Women co-president Lorraine McFee collects bottle caps from the Felician Sisters for the council's bottle cap drive.
Council of Catholic Women members participate in a “Back in History Fashion Show” fundraiser in the spring.

The bottle cap drive, McFee noted, started after an NCCW affiliate member if Florida collected bottle caps to sell to a recycling center in order to raise funds for wheelchairs for the needy. When the bottom dropped out of the recycling market, Detroit council members researched alternatives and found a resource in Indiana that used bottle caps to make tables. Members spread the word and soon persuaded various groups to join in. In one case, a parish’s catechism classes filled a van with 400 pounds of the caps. 

“All through networking,” McFee said.

While the Council of Catholic Women once operated out of the offices of the Archdiocese of Detroit's Chancery, today, meetings are conducted at members' homes. 

Like many organizations, the council faces an uncertain future because of declining membership. Most members are above the age of 60, with many active participants in their 80s or even 90s, McFee said. 

In an effort to boost membership, the council has recently begun reaching out to a younger demographic. 

Through its Golden Rose program, members sent 250 letters to area pastors and school principals, asking them to nominate high school junior and senior women who show leadership. Those nominated will be invited, along with their mothers, to attend a brunch in March, when they will receive certificates and an Our Lady of Good Council medal (in honor of the Council of Catholic Women’s patron). Students also will have the opportunity to receive leadership training to form a Junior Council of Catholic Women, thus sowing the seeds for future Council of Catholic Women leaders.

“To grow future leaders, you’ve got to nurture them, feed them,” Dziurman said, saying she hopes the Golden Rose program will show young women the possibilities that membership has to offer. “It’s not an old people’s thing.”

McFee has a heart for reaching out to younger women to join. 

“It’s a matter of personal contact,” she said. “A personal invitation, getting to know people, takes things to a whole new level.”

Currently, the Council of Catholic Women meets on the second Saturday of August, October, December and February at varying locations. There is an annual business meeting in spring. In addition, the group has three regions with boards that meet four times per year. Annual dues are $15.

Council of Catholic Women's 80th annniversary

The registration deadline for the 80th anniversary celebration is Sept. 20. For more information, contact Beverly Nicholson at (313) 806-7351 or visit the Council of Catholic Women's website or email Lorraine McFee at [email protected]