It was in 1910 that Madame de Vélard, President of the Patriotic League of French Women (later Action Catholique Générale Féminine, ACGF) suggested uniting the leagues of Catholic women throughout the world.
This meeting, called “the Committee for Initiative”, took place in Brussels (Belgium) and brought together the Leagues from Germany, England, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Spain, France, Lorraine, Portugal, Switzerland and Uruguay, along with the International Catholic Society for Girls, ACISJF.
In her address Madame de Vélard outlined the aims of this meeting, which was the first step in the process of instituting the International Union of Catholic Women’s Leagues (UILFC) which became WUCWO in 1952:
“…We have met because we want to enlarge our horizons …study the obstacles and the way to overcome them, and to arm ourselves better for Catholic Social Action. …
Daughters humbly obedient to the one Church... we have felt we must work to realise the union of all Catholic Women throughout the world…
…Let us not dream ! We have no time to do so; besides dreams are fatal: they waste our energy on imagining difficulties which may perhaps never materialise… Let us prepare for the future: to do so let us share serious and well organised action…”
Another delegate stated:
“The time has come for Catholic women to understand that changing times demand changing duties. When we can no longer content ourselves with small, narrow, enclosed associations, in which piety and charity are cultivated with discreet timidity; the time has come to have a broader outlook; to widen our arena; to bring together all the works and good will into strong federations, capable of being an active force in the service of Christian social renewal throughout the world.”
In the course of this meeting, with the encouragement of the Bishops of Malines and Paris, the following decisions were taken :
This International Federation of Catholic Women’s leagues unanimously adopted the statutes which opened as follows :
Art. 1: An International Council is formed between the Catholic Women's Leagues, independent of all political parties, the aim of which is to work to maintain Faith, defend religious liberties and organise Catholic social action in a spirit of full and constant submission to the ordinances of the Sovereign Pontiff.
Art. 2: The Council adopts the name of “International Council of Catholic Women’s Leagues”. A meeting will be held each year and a central communication secretariat will be open in Paris for a period of five years.
Second International Council in Madrid (Spain): danger of freemasonry; work and women’s salaries; morality. Six new leagues asked to join the International Council. They came from the following countries: Argentina, Canada, the United States of America, Hungary, Luxembourg and Poland.
Third International Board in Vienna: Morality, Religious education, Women in the work place. So that the Holy See could approve the Statutes, the League in England undertook the drafting of amendments, to be voted at the next Board. Miss Fletcher, President of the English League, took on the considerable responsibility involved in co-ordinating this work.
Fourth International Board in London. The Statutes were amended and approved by Pope Pius X. The “Federation” adopted the name “International Union of Catholic Women’s Leagues”, simply called the “Union” which henceforward would have a Cardinal Protector. The Union comprised 27 Leagues from 17 countries. The Holy See appointed the Countess Wodzicka (Poland) as president.
During the 1914-1918 War the Union ceased to function and only resumed activities in 1921.
Nevertheless the President managed to keep in touch with the Vatican as well as with several national leagues.
In 1921 there was an executive meeting in Cracow (Poland) to re-launch the Union and prepare for the fifth International Congress taking place in Rome the following year.
Fifth International Congress in Rome: “Preservation and Propagation of the Faith”; women’s campaign for morality; against traffic of women; for preparation of women for civic responsibilities.
Mrs Steenberghe-Engeringh (The Netherlands) was elected president (nominated by the Pope) and remained so for 30 years. Under her guidance the Union (IUCWL) expanded rapidly and was in a position to become WUCWO in 1952. With 19 new organisations the Union numbered 40 leagues in 20 countries.
The Sixth International Congress in Rome: “Dangers threatening the family and, through it, the whole of society”. Mrs Steenberghe-Engeringh was re-elected President.
In May, the “Young Women’s Section” of the Union met in Luxembourg. An integral part of the structure of the Union, the Young Women’s Section had its secretariat in Ghent (Belgium). The Holy See nominated an advisory chaplain, and Christine de Hemptine (Belgium) was nominated as its President. [The Federation of Young Catholic Men dates back to 1921]. An extract from the “Cahiers de l’Union” reads :
“One of the biggest and most important tasks that we now have to face is in the social field. Women’s problems are an integral part of social problems, while on the other hand, social problems are so closely linked to women’s problems that they are completely interdependent and cannot be treated separately.”
Mrs Steenberghe-Engeringh, the President of UILFC played an active role in founding the Conference of International Catholic Organisations (CICO).
ICO presidents held their first meeting in Fribourg (Switzerland). Their principal aim was to represent Catholics at the Society of Nations whose headquarters were in Geneva.
Seventh International Council and first Study week at The Hague (The Netherlands) to prepare the International Council in 1930.
In a letter to the President, His Holiness Pius XI stressed the importance of remaining exclusively Catholic leagues and of collaborating with neutral or protestant organisations only in exceptional circumstances. From then on study days alternated with meetings of the International Council. The former were held in different places, whereas the latter always took place in Rome until 1967. There was one exception: in 1951 the 12th International Council was in Fribourg (Switzerland)
In contemporary publications, the meetings of the International Council were often called “International Congresses”. As explained in a document dated “Utrecht; May 1936”, “The meeting of the Council is rather more like a kind of congress.” These meetings involved a large number of delegates, between 150 and 250, and even over 500 when the “ Young Women’s Section” joined IUCWL. The League of Nations granted the Union representation on the committees “Traffic of Women” and “Protection of the Child”, two representatives were nominated.
Eighth International Council in Rome: “Rebuilding family morality”. The subject of study for the next 4 years was education. First Council of the Young Women’s Section.
The International Labour Office (ILO) ratified the nomination of a delegate to the Commission studying issues related to women.
The delegation in charge of petitions for peace from 26 million Catholic women; in the front row, Mrs Steenberghe- Engeringh, Mrs Hawks, United States delegate and Mrs Ferrazzini, President of the Catholic Women’s League of Geneva, Conference on Disarmament, 1932.
Study week in Lucerne to prepare the International Council of 1934; The purpose of these study weeks was to take into account the work done by the Commissions which that year had studied Faith, Family, Education, Women in the work place, Morality, Hygiene, Women in public life. For the “Youth Section”: Sport and Health. The same year Mrs Steenberghe-Engheringh, President of the Union was the only Catholic delegate to address the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.
Ninth International Council in Rome: “That Christian principles of education penetrate the family and society”. The commissions continued with the addition of new subjects : the Training of Catechists and the Handicapped. There were 512 participants – not all of them women, as many priests also attended. They represented 46 adult and 13 youth organisations. There were as many young girls as adults.
Council of Youth Section of IUCWL in Paris to prepare the International Study Congress in Brussels (Belgium), scheduled for Easter 1937.
Study days in Brussels: “Catholics in today’s world” (principles of Catholic social feminism). The Youth Day brought together 227 participants to discuss: “Young Women in Today’s World”.
Tenth International Council in Rome: “Catholic women and the restoration of Christianity in society today.” Youth Day: “The apostolate of conversion”. At the time, the Union comprised 55 affiliated organisations, from 32 countries, covering some 25 million women. The countries were mainly European, Latin American, and North American, with two Asian countries and Australia.
May 14, 1940, Mrs Steenbergh-Engeringh destroyed the archives in Holland “so that the invaders could not lay hands on them and use them to find people who had collaborated with us (the Union).” (Notebooks February 1946)
In June 1940, the German police searched the UILFC offices. Dr. J.H.E.J. Hoogveld, chaplain to IUCWL since 1930 was arrested by the Gestapo and died as a result of the ill-treatment he suffered. During this time work went on locally in some countries depending on their circumstances.
Contacts were made for the resumption of international work.
In 1946 the United Nations created the Commission on the Status of Women before adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948.
Eleventh International Congress in Rome preceded by a study week “Christian Women’s contribution to the Human Community”. In order to obtain consultative status with UNESCO the “Youth Section” broke off from the Union to become the World Federation of Young Catholic Women. However, it remained closely linked to UILFC and its president took part in meetings of the Bureau. In the same year, IUCWL obtained consultative status with ECOSOC.
In the following years UILFC gained consultative status with other U.N. agencies. Although UILFC had spoken at the League of Nations between the two wars, it was from this date that IUCWL representatives, then WUCWO’s, made the voice of Catholic women heard at the International centres of New York, Geneva, Vienna, Rome, Paris and Strasbourg.
It became involved in an ever-growing number of areas. Its participation on the Commission on the Status of Women put IUCWL in a privileged position to make the voice of Catholic women heard, which in many cases was the universal voice of women. By taking part in international life, the IUCWL women were faithful to the words expressed by His Holiness Pius XII during an audience with him:
“In the role of defending the Church against the danger of being engulfed in the “temporal” sphere, a rallying call dating back several decades continues to gain ground: a return to the purely “spiritual”. The call should be for the opposite : for the Faith, for Christ, in every way possible, presence everywhere where vital interests are involved… wherever the soul of a nation is forged by education…”
Study week in Fribourg (Switzerland) to prepare the International Council for the following year.
Twelfth International Council in Fribourg (Switzerland): “International Life”.
A statement noted a new situation where Catholic women had a personal role to play in a newly developing international community. Their responsibility was to be present “to develop and assert, as opportunities occur, the rights and requirements of an international Catholic conscience in face of general opinion.”
Further work was done on the statutes and this draft was sent to the Secretariat of State for information before drawing up the final document to be voted on in 1952.
In October 1951, Mgr Montini (who later became Pope Paul VI) replied personally, commenting on several points. In particular, he stressed the importance of having more members elected to the Bureau and fewer ex officio. He wondered if it was not preferable to have the President elected by the whole Council (later called the General Assembly) rather than by the Bureau. This last suggestion was not followed and the President was elected by the Bureau, as stated in the draft document. She would therefore no longer be named by the Holy See but elected from among three candidates proposed to the Secretariat of State by WUCWO.
Thirteenth International Congress in Rome: “Peace in the world and the contribution of Catholic women”; the new statutes were voted in by the Bureau and approved by Rome.
The Union officially adopted the name of World Union of Catholic Women’s Organisations (WUCWO). Marie du Rostu (France) already Vice-President of the Youth section in 1926, was elected President by the Bureau (not nominated by the Holy See).
WUCWO comprised 166 organisations from 66 countries from all over the world, numbering 36 million women. From 1952 onwards many countries from Africa, and also from Asia Pacific and Oceania joined WUCWO, consolidating it as truly international in scope.
Among these 166 organisations were large international organisations such as International Association of Charities (IAC). Also, since its foundation, the International Society for Girls has taken part in Board meetings with the right to speak but not to vote.
Study Days at Mont St Odile (France): “The personality of the Christian woman in International Life” Marie du Rostu referred to an address given by Pope Pius XII in 1947 in which he stated that the mission of Christian women was equal to that of men as a necessary factor in civilisation and progress.
In November during a Board meeting, and on the occasion of the Marian Year, it was decided that the President should write to Mgr Montini to inform him of the importance that Catholic women attached to the WUCWO Day of Prayer which had been inaugurated many years before by Mrs Steenbergh-Engeringh and which was celebrated on March 25. “On that day they are happy to know they are united with their sisters throughout the world, and to pray with them for the intentions of the Universal Church.”
Study Week in Ghent of the World Federation of Young Catholic Women together with the World Federation of Young Catholic men.
Study Days in Fatima: “The life of faith and the interior life, Family life, Apostolic life both social and civic”. The statutes were amended to remove all official participation by the World Federation of Young Catholic Women. They were approved again by the Holy See.
It is important to mention amendments appearing in the statutes of 1952 and 1954 particularly in reference to the vocabulary: WUCWO is composed of affiliated members and corresponding members, which are organisations and not individuals.
The International Council is composed of all affiliated members and meets every two years. The “bureau” of 14-20 persons is named for four years and meets at least twice a year. (It was only in 1979 that the International Council became “General Assembly”, and the “bureau” became the Board.) A Cardinal protector was assigned and a “general” chaplain appointed by the Holy See.
Study Days in Copenhagen (Denmark). The same year, “Marie du Rostu, then President of WUCWO, launched a campaign against hunger, even before FAO. This historic manifesto was the starting point of numerous programmes throughout the world and set in motion a new awareness in the Catholic world.” (Mgr Delaporte, Bishop of Cambrai, France). Pax Christi and the Secours Catholique (Caritas) took part, basing their action on the speech made by Pope Pius XII for the eleventh anniversary of the FAO. The project came to fruition in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) at the Eucharistic Congress during a meeting with Mgr Lalain (Chile) and Mgr Helder Camara (Brazil). As a result, probably in 1961, the official “Campaign Against Hunger” came into being during a meeting of the FAO where WUCWO and Pax Christi took a leading part, thus bringing about the mobilisation of the International Catholic Organisations (ICOs).
Fourteenth International Board in Rome: “Mission of Catholic women in today’s world”. The three discussion themes were: Catholic women working in the world, Formation of the personality of the adult woman, Hunger in the world. The “bureau” was enlarged.
In the preceding week the World Congress of the World Federation of Young Catholic Women also took place in Rome. “The inner life in a technological world”.
Study Days in Paris: “Present to Christ, present to the world”.
The International Council was held in Rome (April 29-May 5) on the eve of the Ecumenical Council with the theme “Catholic women, source of unity in Christ and in his Church”. Four main points:
• Women’s three vocations (Spiritual, Human, Social).
• The technical world working towards unity.
• Catholic women, agents for unity.
• The responsibility of the Christian conscience in the face of hunger in the world.
Pilar Bellosillo (Spain) was elected President, and Marie du Rostu Vice-President once again.
In preparation for the Second Vatican Council, WUCWO sent requests and proposals:
“Very respectfully, WUCWO ventures to present several requests formulated at the wish of and with the collaboration of Catholic women from various continents, so that the requirements of the integral Christian formation of women and their opportunities for making a contribution to the Church may be studied more and more deeply and adapted to present day circumstances. In the event of the laity being allowed to take part in the preparatory work of commissions, WUCWO asks if there would be the possibility of envisaging the acceptance of women’s participation with due respect to their abilities”.
Pilar Bellosillo was part of the delegation chosen to assist at the solemn opening of the Council, and also to be an observer, as President of WUCWO, an organisation uniting about 36 million women worldwide.
Proposal of Statute “ad experimentum” of Regional Commissions in WUCWO. Five Commissions on general topics, called external commissions were formed: the Silent Church, Adult Education, State of Women, Women and Work, Family-Childhood, and also three internal Commissions: Finances, Affiliations, Bulletins.
Pilar Bellosillo was involved in the work of the Council during the session revising Schema 13 ( preparation of “Gaudium et Spes”, and also in the Commission “Marriage and Family”. Speaking about the lay men and women associated with the work of these commissions, Paul VI referred to them as “Experts on life”. Twenty years later, Pilar said :
“My great conviction is gradually taking shape: to be at the service of others, at the service of their fulfilment as both people and Christians. To be at the service of God’s plan for the world. To support God’s work in its historical context.”
Those in charge of WUCWO raised another issue :
“The organisation on its own will not attract members unless it is attuned to life and current issues. We may wonder why nowadays the majority of young women do not spontaneously join organisations. And yet we see that they do come when their organisations are in touch with the problems they encounter on a daily basis.”
There was an Ecumenical meeting of women in Rome with Pilar Bellosillo, and WUCWO became deeply involved in the International Conferences on the Status of Women (Iran, Uruguay), on Population, and, in the Council of Europe, on Women and Work.
Study Days and Statutory Assembly in Paris. Discussions with the World Association of former pupils of the Sacred Heart Schools (AMASC). The president of the Union of Major Superiors (women) was invited to the study days.
International Council in Rome: “ In a new world, woman’s role as co-artisan of a new humanity.” This Council was followed by the World Congress of the Apostolate of the Laity also held in Rome. Inauguration of the campaign for human rights. Establishment of the working group “Women and the Church”. In the Newsletter marking WUCWO’s 75 years (1985), Pilar Bellosillo wrote :
“With respect to the Church, according to the study on the freedom of women in the Church, half of God’s people seemed to play a passive role and were governed by the other half. It was then that WUCWO decided to become an honest critical conscience within the Church. It was at that time that the working group “Women and Church” was formed”.
Thanks to the Council there was awareness of the ecumenical dimension. An international Ecumenical Conference of women was held in Taizé (France) in June. It was organised by the Conference of ICOs, and by the Department of Cooperation between men and women in the Ecumenical Council of Churches in collaboration with the Universal Alliance of Christian Women’s Unions. Pilar concluded “In the future, together we shall continue to suffer the same suffering, pray the same prayers and hope with the same hope.”
As a result of the meeting at Taizé a WUCWO Commission for Ecumenism was created. Many member organisations of WUCWO took part in the “Women’s World Day of Prayer” founded by Protestants in 1887 for worldwide ecumenical prayer in the first week of March. WUCWO then held two distinct days of prayer, WUCWO Day, begun in 1952, and the World Day of Prayer. This was for two reasons:
On one hand, to strengthen the identity of Catholic women and the spirit of solidarity inherent in WUCWO Day (collections that day), on the other hand to show their solidarity with women of other beliefs. Nevertheless, so that the two dates should not be too close, WUCWO Day was initially postponed to May at the General Assembly in Torhout (Belgium) and then (at the General Assembly in Guadalajara, Mexico) left to each organisation’s free choice. From 1969 onwards the preparation of WUCWO Day was entrusted to a different country each year.
Pilar Bellosillo was officially delegated by the Holy See to represent the Catholic Church in an ecumenical women’s group recognised by the Holy See and the World Council of Churches.
That same year, with the founding of specialised Catholic Action, the two young men and women’s ICOs had to reconsider their objectives, and joined forces at the Congress in Berlin to form the Young Catholic Women’s and Men’s Federation. This new organisation was dissolved in 1981 at their General Assembly in Nairobi, due to the small extent of their influence.
Following a survey of the affiliated organisations, it was concluded :
"The enquiry will not bring about a radical change in WUCWO's direction, but it can be said that it is a confirmation of the goals we are aiming for, that is to say, to be at the service of Christian women and of all the women in the world for their education and training. In brief, to bring about the advancement of women in every domain."
The Assembly of the Conference of ICOs took place in Fribourg. Pilar Bellosillo and Marie du Rostu played an important part in safeguarding the independence of this organisation of Catholic laity in view of the two new organs created in 1967 after the Council, the Council of the Laity (which became in 1976 the Pontifical Council for the Laity) and the Commission Justice and Peace.
International Council in Torhout (Belgium): "Women's Education". WUCWO objectives: Promotion of Women. Involvement for a more just society and for a greater participation in the Church. To achieve this a worldwide 4-year programme of education, openness to work with others and intensification of work in the regions was carried out. There were 17 organisations in Africa, 13 in North America, 29 in South America, 13 in Asia Pacific, 54 in Europe and 4 International. It was also the beginning of regional conferences.
Pilar Bellosillo was one of the four women (two of whom are religious) invited by the Holy See to the Bishops’ Synod.
International Board in Dar es-Salaam (Tanzania): "WUCWO, an agent for change for a more just society". Evaluation, a four-year programme. Two options: 1) regarding women (ecumenical if possible) the improvement of spiritual, human and social life. 2) regarding justice, a programme of education for justice and development. Elisabeth Lovatt-Dolan (Ireland) was elected President. About 150 participants.
International Year of Women. First World Conference on Women in Mexico City. Proclamation of the Decade of Women.
International Study Days at Maria Laach (Germany). Forty-six organisations from all over the world took part in this meeting between those held in Dar-es-Salaam and Bangalore (India).
A Latin American officer chose to stress the regional dimension rather than the international. She caused a large number of organisations in her region to break away, thus depriving them of the support of an organisation like WUCWO to make their opinions known with those of other Catholic women in the world.
Following a statement released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith on the admission of women to the priesthood, the WUCWO Board wrote a note which stressed their "desire to maintain dialogue on ministries without being opposed to the hierarchy".
Elisabeth Lovatt-Dolan, President, addressed the U.N. Commission on Disarmament in New York.
General Assembly in Bangalore (India): "Women, Justice, Evangelisation". Elisabeth Lovatt-Dolan was re-elected President. About 160 participants. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was present and addressed the assembly.
Participation at the Second World Conference on Women, which celebrated the mid-point of the Decade of Women in Copenhagen (Denmark).
General Assembly in Antigonish (Canada): "Woman: Identity – development – new communities". Priorities adopted: Spiritual formation; Women and the Church; Education for family life; Taking part in decision-making; Justice-Human rights-Peace; Women and work. Eleanor E. Aitken (Canada) was elected president.
Celebration of WUCWO’s 75th anniversary in Cologne (Germany). Participation in the Conference for Women, Nairobi (Kenya). In the preceding issue of the Newsletter, the President Eleanor E. Aitken underlined the growing attention paid to WUCWO representatives, in particular Alba Zizzamia, President of the CONGO (Conference of NGOs at ECOSOC) and Solange des Gachons, Vice-president of the Committee for Continuity of NGOs at UNESCO.
In the same issue, Pilar Bellosillo wrote: "At this moment of history, the awakening of women’s awareness in the world marks the beginning of our liberation. We must work to remove secular oppression. We must "free" the rich potential in each of us. Throughout the whole world, we must give ourselves to the tremendous task of humanising. And to achieve that…what providential opportunities WUCWO gives us !!… We are made in the image of God, together with man…We have the same dignity…Motherhood is just one aspect of women’s vocation: to reach our full potential as human beings…"
General Assembly in Roehampton (England): "Advancement of women – Enrichment for all". About 400 participants. Priorities chosen: Respect for human dignity; Forming networks.
Commissions: Family; Ecumenism; Development and Cooperation; Human Rights; International. Working groups: Bioethics; Women in the Church. Marie-Thérèse van Heteren-Hogenhuis (The Netherlands) elected President.
General Assembly in Guadalajara (Mexico): "Women and life: Vision – Reality-Action". About 450 participants. WUCWO priorities: Aids; Violence against women and children, including pornography; Preferential option for the poor; Environment. Marie-Thérèse van Heteren-Hogenhuis re-elected President.
Participation at the World Conference on Population and Environment in Cairo (Egypt). On this occasion the WUCWO Board voted a statement on WUCWO's position with regard to population and environment in the world.
Synod of African Bishops in Rome. Three African WUCWO Board members were invited and two were asked to address the meeting.
Presence at the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen (Denmark).
WUCWO took an important part in the World Conference on Women in Beijing (P.R. of China) as well as in the NGO Forum at Huairou which preceded it.
Four WUCWO women, three of whom were Board members, also took part in the official delegations of their countries. Another Board member from Nigeria was part of the official delegation from the Holy See.
The title of the Conference was: Equality, Development, Peace. During the previous Board meeting, statements had been prepared on all WUCWO priorities, and these were widely distributed in Beijing.
General Assembly of Canberra (Australia): "I make all things new (App.21.5): Women, Reconciliation and Hope". About 700 participants. Priorities voted: Elimination of violence against women; Women and health; Women and decision-making.
Maria Eugenia Díaz de Pfennich (Mexico) was elected President General.
In March 2001, the WUCWO General Assembly was held in Rome (Italy) on the theme «The Prophetic Mission of Women». More than 750 women were present representing all continents. At the dawn of the new Millennium WUCWO women gave a strong message of hope. Priorities voted: Education, Violence against women, and human rights.
Maria Eugenia Díaz de Pfennich (Mexico) was reelected President General.
The WUCWO General Assembly was held May 31st –3rd June 2006 in Arlington, Va (USA). The theme was Women Peacemakers: United in Faith and Action (Matt 5,9 Blessed are the peacemakers”) Priority voted: Building a Culture of Peace: with special attention to Education and the Alleviation of Poverty.