The Catholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga is an organisation with a rich and inspiring past as well as a dynamic, evolving future. Although the profile and structure of the league have changed significantly over the years, it continues to respond creatively to the needs and dreams of Catholic women and the broader Catholic community around Victoria and beyond.

Anna Krohn OAM is approaching the end of her three-year term as president of the league. As she speaks about recent events and initiatives, and about the league’s potential to transform the lives of women of all ages, her enthusiasm is infectious.

Her presidency has been eventful, she says, but not without its challenges.

‘I’ve been the president over the time of COVID, so it’s been a pretty difficult time. We hadn’t been able to see people face to face,’ she explains. The organisation was almost at a ‘tipping point’, she says, because ‘some of the older women were just not coming out. So we thought we’ve got to really reach out and rebuild the grassroots.’

As COVID restrictions gradually eased, an urgent need became apparent to start reconnecting people through face-to-face events. One way the league has been going about this is by running regional retreat days, which Anna says have been ‘very successful and very warmly received’.

‘We’ve put a lot of energy into being … a spiritual community, encouraging lay people, and women particularly, to come to events like a very simple retreat day or [an event with] a focus on a particular topic.’

In Ballarat, where Anna is based, for instance, they held an event that focussed on St Maria Goretti. ‘It was open to men and women … the kind of inspiring event that I think the league is hoping to sponsor in the future.’

Another regional ‘grassroots’ event came about when Fr Matthew Restall, Assistant Priest at St Paul VI Wimmera Malle Parish, brought together the Catholic Ladies Club at St Mary’s Warracknabeal (not officially affiliated with the league) and the Ballarat Catholic Women’s League to help them organise a retreat day. The Ballarat diocesan executive was only too happy to help, taking the attitude, ‘Let’s not worry about whether someone’s a member or not; let’s just connect on the level of faith.’

The event had a ‘great response’, she says. ‘We had some people from Swan Hill with their parish priest; we had Warracknabeal; we had Horsham … And the Anglican ladies [in Warracknabeal] did the lunch for us, so it was a marvellous day.’

This kind of regional and ecumenical cooperation isn’t unique to Warracknabeal. ‘In Dunkeld, there’s a branch that works ecumenically,’ Anna points out. ‘The Christian churches there are, in a sense, combined and cooperative; they work together very well.’

This more flexible, less rigidly structured approach is characteristic of the direction the league is taking as it seeks to reconnect with women who have traditionally been the backbone of the league but who ‘have drifted away because the responsibility of running a branch was quite heavy’.

Anna explains that for much of its history, the league was ‘a constant presence’ in most parishes, ‘a bit like the Legion of Mary or St Vincent de Paul, and particularly in the regional areas’. Originally founded in 1916 by Fr William Lockington (Archbishop Daniel Mannix’s friend and spiritual director), with a young Dr Mary Glowrey as its first president, the organisation—then called the Catholic Women’s Social Guild—had about 11,000 members at its peak in the mid-1930s. As members have aged and numbers have fallen, though, the original branch structure has become more unwieldy and difficult for small regional branches to maintain.

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As a young women, Dr Mary Glowery was the first president of the Catholic Women’s Social Guild (now known as the Catholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga). (Photo courtesy CWLVWW.)

‘For the older members, the branches have fallen apart because nobody wanted [the] job of being treasurer. We said, “How can we make that easier?” So quite a few of the younger members got to work on helping to change the constitution to make it a bit more flexible, to make it adaptable to the needs that people found in their own areas, to make it more regionally focussed.

‘I suppose a grassroots “reconnect” is the way we’re working rather than [through] the more heavily structured branch structure,’ Anna says. ‘Things were very formal. That’s not what younger people are looking for; they’re looking for connection. They’re looking for role models, and they’re looking for friends. So I’ve been trying to make that our emphasis—it’s a looser, more “networking” kind of approach.’

Part of this evolution has come about through the incorporation of the Anima Women’s Network as an apostolate under the ‘wider umbrella’ of the league.

Anna had served as the convenor of Anima—a Catholic network for younger women—from its beginnings in 2003 under Archbishop Denis Hart, and while she recognises that there are ‘lots of cultural differences’ between the two groups, she believes the resulting cross-fertilisation has been very fruitful.

Anima’s approach had always been to run conferences and retreats. ‘So that kind of dynamic has now been adopted a little bit in the Catholic Women’s League: they’ve said, “Oh, that’s a good idea; we should do that too.” It’s a very good way of community-building because people say, “Oh, we really want something more.”

That desire among Catholic women of all ages ‘for something more’—for deeper formation and a greater sense of spiritual connection—has been one of the driving forces behind the evolution of the league in recent times.

‘Part of our challenge has been: “How do we respond to the needs of women now?” And some of the things that we’ve discovered are that women are very hungry for spiritual inspiration [and] formation in their faith … They can get it online, but there’s nothing like sitting with other people who share your ideas or thoughts or commitments.

‘So that’s partly what we’ve been trying to do: to look at where we are now and what our resources are, and what our resources can respond to.’

One response has been the establishment of the Mary Glowrey Prayer Circle, which provides opportunities for women of all ages and walks of life—but particularly those who might be homebound or hospitalised—to remain connected and to support the league’s mission through prayer.

While the league tends to enjoy greater support in the regions, Anna points out that women in Melbourne who might not have a branch in their local parish can nevertheless join as general members and stay in touch through the league’s newly developed social media accounts or through Horizon, the quarterly magazine that the league has been publishing since 1917.

The Anima Network also continues to provide events that are ‘often a combination of hospitality, contemplation, prayer and time for women to come and share’.

The league has tried this model too. A recent retreat day in Brighton, for example, attracted about 40 women of various ages. The women attended Mass together, and Anna gave a talk on being made in the image and likeness of God. The enthusiastic response confirmed for Anna the real need for this kind of fellowship and formation. ‘So many women emailed me saying, I’ve never heard this before,’ she says.

And at another retreat day at St Roch’s Glen Iris in September, women of all generations came together for Mass, time for personal reflection, Adoration and Confession, and to hear Sr Mary Sarah OP speak on ‘Finding happiness through the Beatitudes’.

‘I’ve been so encouraging of our younger group to come and meet the older women,’ Anna says, ‘because it’s very easy for one generation to get isolated and assume that it knows what other generations are like.’ While facilitating intergenerational exposure can sometimes be difficult, Anna thinks the challenge has been worthwhile, ‘because I can see that there’s been a bit of influence each way.’

As well as building up the ‘grassroots’ of the league through face-to-face events and retreats, the league’s other main focus is promoting the cause of Mary Glowrey, particularly through the Mary Glowrey Museum, which Anna refers to as the league’s ‘shopfront’. She is very excited about the important work curator Fiona Power and her team at the museum are doing, not just on the custodial side—conserving and researching Mary Glowrey’s legacy—but also in working with Catholic schools to provide students with a greater appreciation of Mary Glowrey’s remarkable life, and of their broader Catholic heritage, through an ‘immersive experience’—including through the museum’s innovative Catholic Precinct Walking Tour App.

More exciting days are ahead for the league as it prepares to co-sponsor the inaugural Benedict Conference later this month, at which Anna will be a panellist. She says, ‘This event seems to have attracted great interest, and it will be a great opportunity to explore the inspiration of Pope Benedict XVI. His insight about the evangelising power of love and beauty is still vital for us today, especially in our mission to women of faith.

To find out more about the work and apostolates of the Catholic Women’s League, including upcoming events, visit the league’s website or follow them on Facebook.

Banner photo: Participants at the Lamps Alight mini-retreat co-sponsored in February by the Anima Women’s Network (an apostate of theCatholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga) and the Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia. More than 100 women from the Melbourne area gathered for morning Mass, Adoration, an opportunity for Confession and to hear Fr Pascal Corby speak on ‘The dignity of woman and the order of love’. (Photo courtesy CWLVWW.)