August 5, 2004

Catholic Daughters

It all started in Utica, New York, in the spring of 1903. The local council of the Knights of Columbus felt the need for a women’s auxiliary, proposed the founding of one to the Supreme Knight in New Haven, Conn., and upon receiving approval and encouragement, inaugurated the first such organization.

At the time, one of the most popular books across the land was a biography of Christopher Columbus written in the mid 1800s by Washington Irving, the celebrated author of "Rip Van Winkle and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. In Irving’s account of Columbus’ life, Queen Isabella of Spain is almost as much the hero (or heroine) of the piece as "The Great Navigator himself. Indeed, in the course of his tale, Irving has Isabella declaring, "I undertake this enterprise (the voyages of Columbus) for my own crown of Castile and will pledge my jewels to raise the necessary funds. And in his commentary on these noble words, Irving rather grandiosely observes: "This was the proudest moment in the life of Isabella; it stamped her renown forever as the patroness of the discovery of the New World.

Thanks to Irving’s history – and imaginative dialogues – Isabella soon became a kind of feminine ideal throughout the United States and continued in that lofty position for the better part of a century, even though she was known as "The Catholic Queen in an era of rampant anti-Catholicism.

Thus it was that the ladies of the Utica auxiliary of the Knights of Columbus incorporated themselves in the State of New York as "The Daughters of Isabella a tribute to the queen and a fitting complement to the Knights of Columbus.

The organization grew with incredible speed, first in New York, then in New England and along the Atlantic coast, and finally throughout the nation. It was led by wise and enterprising women who established "courts that were parallel to the "councils of the Knights, but quite distinct in their programs and undertakings.

The courts were from the beginning active in such national issues as temperance and women’s suffrage, though always avoiding specifically political involvements. Soon they gained the admiration of Americans of all religious backgrounds partly because of their founding and staffing of residences for needy young women in the inner cities of the land and especially because of their patriotism and activism in World Wars I and II, selling Liberty Bonds, conducting summer camps for the children of military personnel, cooperating with the Red Cross in making clothes, bandages and such, and working with the United Service Organizations (USO) in running "canteens for service men and women.

All the while, during the war years and afterwards as well, the courts were forming their members in solid Catholic theology, participating in faith-inspired social action on the local and national levels, and growing by leaps and bounds. In 1962, their organization boasted 1,700 courts with over 215,000 members.

From 1921 forward, however, they were no longer known as the Daughters of Isabella. The reason for the change was a controversy with a group from Connecticut that insisted it was the first to adopt the name. The upshot was a happy one. The new name, "Catholic Daughters of America, fit both the nature of the organization and the times as well, and continued as such until 1978, when it became "Catholic Daughters of the Americas (plural) because of the number of courts that had been established outside the United States, particularly in Canada and Latin America.

Over the past 50 years, there has scarcely been a Catholic institution or initiative in which the Catholics Daughters of the Americas have not played an important role. "The Catholic Hour made famous by the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen; "The Catholic Truth Society celebrated for the thousands of converts it brought into the Church; Catholic Charities USA; the Catholic Press Association; The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.; the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, also in Washington, D.C.; the Pontifical North American College in Vatican City; the works of Mother Teresa of Calcutta in the inner cities of the United States; and – most effectively – the movement in defense of life from the moment of conception until natural death, have all benefited immensely from the extraordinary generosity and marvelously devoted participation of these remarkable women of the Church.

In the 1990s I had the good fortune of becoming acquainted with the Catholic Daughters of the Americas while I was serving as Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Pontifical North American College and came to know many of them personally when acting as chaplain to a pilgrimage of their leadership to Rome in 1993.

Since then I have observed with admiration the progress of the organization in assisting the Church in the United States implement the hopes and programs of the Second Vatican Council in every corner of the nation in which its courts are to be found. Moreover, as Archbishop of New York since 2000, I have come to feel a special connection with the Catholic Daughters inasmuch as their central offices have been located since 1923 here in the archdiocese, on West 71st Street in Manhattan, where a gifted and dedicated staff coordinate national and international initiatives, see to the publication of a splendid monthly entitled "Share, and guide the membership in taking an ever-increasing and evermore effective role in the life and work of their dioceses and parishes. The Catholic Daughters of the Americas are catechists in their parishes, principals, teachers and aides in Catholic elementary and secondary schools, parish council leaders and members, lectors, Eucharistic ministers, and parish visitors to the hospitalized and homebound in cities, towns and rural communities from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the northern reaches of Canada to the southern limits of Latin America. And as such, they are a resource and blessing which bishops and pastors are coming to appreciate more and more with each passing year.

Since becoming a cardinal, I have been expected to spend a week in early July in Rome to participate in meetings of certain of the Vatican offices to which the Holy Father has appointed me, among them, the Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura and the Council for the Economic and Organizational Concerns of the Holy See. In November my office is informed which will be the week for my Roman duties; and the seven days after my return from Rome are set aside as my annual "week off, when the doctors, and the dentist too, put me through all of those unpleasant investigations and interventions that need to be attended to as one gets up in years. This year, at the end of my "week off, I flew to Tacoma, Wash., to join the Catholic Daughters of the Americas in their 50th biennial convention, as their national chaplain.

There could not have been a more delightful way to put behind me the visits to the medical and dental practitioners. For what I experienced in Tacoma was a source of hope and encouragement beyond anything I had expected. The opening Mass with 900 women attending in multicolored robes was a beautiful prayer which the priest-chaplains from "councils of courts in various states, representatives from the Knights of Columbus from the state of Washington, a magnificent choir and bright, sunny weather made perfect in every way.

The Mass was on Sunday morning. On Sunday afternoon, we gathered in a massive meeting room in our hotel to hear a talk on homelessness by a newly inducted Catholic Daughter who had been homeless but found her way back to a normal, fruitful life. There were many tear-filled eyes in the audience.

The following morning, the convention opened with a greeting from the mayor of Tacoma, who explained the impressive rebirth of his city, and an address by a woman from Manhattan who had worked closely with Mother Teresa of Calcutta in India and was a witness in the Holy See’s investigation of the heroic sanctity of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. The applause at the conclusion of her presentation was thunderous.

Flying home the next morning, I was seated next to a Jewish gentleman from California on his way to a business meeting in Connecticut. He asked what I had been doing in Tacoma. I responded with what might have been an over-long description of the Catholic Daughters, at the end of which I showed him a remarkable history of the organization that the national leadership had just published under the title "The Catholic Daughters of the Americas: A Century in Review. He told me that his wife was a Catholic and that they were in the process of adopting a child. "You ought to be hired as the Catholic Daughters’ PR person, he kidded me. I responded that I was not available for a full-time position but would nonetheless do my best to help the organization grow in the Archdiocese of New York and beyond. "They provided a great conclusion for a rather unpleasant week, I observed, "and – more importantly – they are an immense blessing for your wife’s Church and mine.

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York