CWL raises a glass to its unsung heroes


Historical exhibit documents many of the good works achieved by the Catholic Women's League.

June 18, 2012

The Edmonton Catholic Women's League is marking its centennial with a historical exhibit that highlights its vocation of service.

The display, which opened June 11 at the Provincial Archives of Alberta, documents the entire 100-year history of the league in several segments, from the early days to the present.

It's made up of 17 large acrylic panels containing documents and photographs of the league at work over the last century.

"We are so proud of it; it's a good history of what we've done as a league," said Rose-Marie McCarthy, who led the six-member team that put the display together.

"This is a really good overview of our history over the last one hundred years," added team member Connie McBride.

Over the last century the league has helped establish many of Edmonton's essential social services, particularly those supporting immigrants and women.

Journalist and social activist Catherine Hughes founded the league in 1912. "Neither of us despaired, we simply turned to the women," Hughes said at that time of the challenges facing the new organization.

At that time, Edmonton was experiencing an economic boom with hundreds of people arriving daily to seek work and housing. Within weeks of the founding of the CWL, league volunteers from seven parishes had set up an employment bureau for women and met every train arriving in the city.

Within a year, the league had opened a hostel for women needing to live and work in the city.

In the following decades, the CWL established shelters in Edmonton for women in abusive situations.

It was also key in establishing Meals on Wheels and in supporting organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, KARA Family Resource Centre, Edmonton Youth Emergency Shelter and Catholic Social Services.


"Think about the parishes; what would they have done without the women looking after the poor?" asked McCarthy.

Susan Stanton, director of access and preservation services at the Provincial Archives, says the Provincial Archives is proud to host a display of an organization such as the CWL, which has contributed so much to Edmonton.


"The league has been around for 100 years and they've done important charitable work kind of quietly but they have been able to accomplish so much," Stanton said.

"This exhibit is a way to give credit for all the work they have done."

McCarthy said the league was started during a difficult period for women in general.

"At that time women didn't get educated, they had no money of their own, they weren't people under the law and they couldn't vote," she pointed out.

"So these were really brave women."

Led by McCarthy, the six-member team worked on the display for about three years, mostly doing research. "We had boxes and boxes of material," McBride noted.

Then the Edmonton Heritage Council offered its financial and technical support and helped the team turn its large collection of pictures and documents into a professional display. It cost about $14,000 to put it together.


McCarthy said she was surprised with the depth of commitment of those early pioneers.

"These women got together right away and started to meet the trains right away and set up a shelter within a couple of months," she noted. "They were given a job and they went ahead and did it."

What surprised McBride is how poorly the CWL councils have reported over the years.

"Because we don't ring our own bell, we didn't keep track of how many hours of we put into things, how much money we put out of our own pocket or how much we made as councils even," McBride noted.


"We tried to find out how much did we actually raise in a (given) year in all our councils in the diocese, but we couldn't find that because they don't report well."

The Edmonton Catholic Women's League was the precursor of the national CWL, which started in 1920. That's the reason the CWL is holding its national convention in Edmonton in early August.

The display will stay at the Provincial Archives until Aug. 31.

A replica of it will be shown at the national convention at the Shaw Conference Centre. Then the exhibit will travel to places like City Hall, where it will be on display in November for three weeks.

The Provincial Archives of Alberta is located at 8555 Roper Road.