On April 14, 1921, the Sentinel reported on the first local women’s groups to affiliate themselves with new National Council of Catholic Women.
On April 14, 1921, the Sentinel reported on the first local women’s groups to affiliate themselves with new National Council of Catholic Women.

After decades of advocacy and protest, American women had only just secured the vote nationwide. A few years earlier, while the doughboys were fighting overseas, mothers, wives and daughters had stepped into influential roles — including in the Catholic Church.

By April 1921, three Northwest Catholic women’s societies had affiliated themselves with the new National Council of Catholic Women. The women’s auxiliary of Portland’s Ancient Order of Hibernians; the Confraternity of Christian Mothers in Cottonwood, Idaho; and the Women’s Order of Catholic Foresters of Seattle all wanted to be part of what would become an umbrella organization for groups across the country. Together, Catholic women reasoned, they could do greater good on a national scale.

The new NCCW board hoped to mobilize a million women. At a 1920 meeting in Chicago, the leaders had listed their priorities: a national program for housing working women and girls, protection and care of immigrant girls and women, a national school for social workers, promotion of better films, and “an effort for proper and economic dress for women.”

In Oregon, the new association would have an additional duty.

In support of Catholic schools

By fall of 1924, Archbishop Alexander Christie of Oregon City recognized women’s clout and asked the women’s groups in the archdiocese to form a unified Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women that was affiliated with the national group. He called the new council immediately into the fight to save Catholic schools, which were under fire from a Ku Klux Klan-influenced state government and electorate. After all, these were the women whose children attended the threatened schools.

The women took up the battle with zeal. They secured the latest textbooks. They organized visiting nurses and dentists to see to children’s health, a duty the state was shirking.

In its first years, the ACCW met regularly at the cathedral hall at 17th and Couch streets, getting its meeting notices posted on Page 1 of the Catholic Sentinel.

The first local ACCW convention was held at the Portland Hotel in December 1924, and it resounded with lofty calls to action.

Holy Names Sister Miriam Theresa, a sociologist and former labor activist, spoke on “the need for leadership among Catholic women.” She urged the members to forget self and personal glory and instead embrace charity to accomplish great aims.

Bishop John Patrick Carroll of Helena, Montana, gave a homily in support of the survival of Catholic schools, an issue that was then headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. “Your union, service and leadership, my dear women, were never needed more than they are today to help the church solve the many and great problems that confront her,” Bishop Carroll said, calling Oregon “sacred ground” in “one of the most momentous religious battles ever fought in America.”

In addition to mobilizing for schools, members voted to support citizenship classes and Catholic college clubs. They opposed the Equal Rights Amendment then under debate in the nation on the grounds that it would jeopardize recent legislation that protected women.

“A decided stand against immoral literature and motion pictures was urged,” said a Sentinel report on the meeting.

Health needs of children

The ACCW visiting nurses program was to begin immediately at Cathedral School, St. Patrick, St. Michael, St. Lawrence, St. Philip Neri and The Madeleine.

“The children will be weighed and measured, examined for defects of the eyes, throat, nose, teeth, ears, skin, etc., and a report will be made to their parents,” the Sentinel reported.

In April 1925, ACCW leaders formed an immigrant aid committee led by Louise Manning and Vivian Jenning. The committee would write to Ellis Island in New York to receive names of Catholic immigrants headed to Oregon and then offer welcome and assistance.

In its first years the ACCW led the opening of the Parochial Dental Welfare Association, through which dentists would examine the teeth of Catholic school children annually.

In 1935 alone, 364 children from 30 schools received dental care from ACCW visiting clinics.

Alongside the health projects, social events were part of ACCW life from the start. The council hosted a card party at the Portland Hotel in September 1925 and convened a study club in 1927, the first of many through decades.

Spiritual enrichment alongside service

Building up the spiritual life of members also was a goal from the start of ACCW.

A 1936 meeting held at the Portland Hotel featured Holy Cross Father William Scanlon from the University of Portland speaking on the miracles of Jesus. The intent of formation, leaders told the Sentinel, was to help women “defend Christian doctrine on the grounds of reason and to give a prompt and efficient explanation of their faith.”

Membership was still vibrant but had dropped from the heady start in 1924. Attendance at the 1939 convention luncheon was 185.

The ACCW women were stalwarts in the war effort and after, volunteering for the USO. Paired with that good work, a 1946 council session was a Holy Hour with the Dominicans at Holy Rosary Church in Portland. The women focused their prayers on the needs of Archbishop Edward Howard.

Through the 1950s, as the nation feared communism and the erosion of religion, the ACCW in Oregon launched a “Keep Christ in Your Christmas” campaign. Members also made rosaries to send to foreign lands.

In 1954 ACCW sponsored the first retreat at Our Lady of Peace Retreat House, a project they had promoted heavily.

In 1956 members bought a car for a nun who moved to Portland as a catechist.

Training lay leaders among archdiocesan women was a major activity of the Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women. In 1959 Mrs. Robert Monson of Sweet Home, ACCW vice president, addresses the group during the annual convention. (Sentinel archives)

Social services and government advocacy continued as part of ACCW life.

In 1960, the organization was chosen for a national pilot project to find young women in need of basic education and training for jobs, home and family life.

In 1961, the ACCW collected baby clothing at St. Stephen Parish in Portland to give to needy families.

The annual “Mother of the Year” award was renamed “Woman of Achievement” in 1968. The award committee still took motherhood into account but also looked at parish and community action.

During the 1970s, Maureen Gieber, ACCW legislative chairwoman, published a legislative review every week in the Catholic Sentinel.

Portland hosted the 1975 annual conference of the NCCW. Gladys McCoy, a prominent local Black Catholic leader, urged community involvement and political action.

“As Catholic women concerned with your life, lives around you and the community, you must see that politics is where the spirit must be manifested,” McCoy said. In a turnaround from 1924, McCoy advocated passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Assisting archbishops

In the early 1980s, ACCW collected $1,500 to restore a painting of Archbishop Francis Blanchet, 19th century founder of the archdiocese. That was a sign of the organization’s ongoing devotion to the needs of the leader of the archdiocese.

Archbishop William Levada in the late 1980s asked the council to conduct a survey on women’s issues around the archdiocese. The effort convened many meetings and gathered information from 350 respondents and had a part in the national document calling on more leadership opportunities for Catholic women.

ACCW officer Geri Mitchell was chosen by Archbishop Levada to serve on a committee reflecting on the Black community in preparation for the National Black Catholic Congress of 1992.

Through the 1990s, the council continued to promote perpetual eucharistic adoration, protection for the unborn and post-abortion healing programs.

In recent years, the council has offered education on domestic violence, human trafficking and assisted suicide. On that last topic, the Oregon women advised councils in other states, since Oregon passed its law before anyone else.

ACCW led the local Moses Project, which sought to provide migrant laborer families with cribs and other baby needs. There had been a spate of infants suffocated because they were sleeping in crowded conditions.

In another recent effort, ACCW women used bread bags to weave plastic mats to give homeless people a waterproof sleeping surface. The creative instinct to serve goes on. Sue Anker, an ACCW leader for two decades, would like to launch a new project in which women create soft eyeglass cases of oven mitts so the spectacles can be sent to Africa for people in need.