Written by Robyn Fahy
The International Union of Catholic Women’s League, now known as the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organisations (WUCWO), was founded in Brussels in 1910 following a meeting of representatives of league organisations from France, Germany, England, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Spain, Lorraine, Portugal, Switzerland and Uruguay. In this centenary year of WUCWO, we should pause for a moment to remember the courageous actions of its members, not only during times of war, but also during times of peace as messengers of faith, hope and love.
When World War I broke out, the strong bonds already forged between the members of the union enabled them to work together to try to protect those most affected by the war. The league in Belgium sent women and children, including many orphaned and abandoned babies, directly to the League in London. Members of the Patriotic League of French Women put their organisation at the service of their country and its allies by driving field ambulances, searching for missing persons, providing relief to prisoners and, helping to reclaim the access of military chaplains to soldiers and the wounded. In Victoria, the league provided invaluable support to our soldiers’ families, some of whom were living in appalling conditions.
After the destruction and horror of World War I, there was a worldwide yearning for peace. The international campaign for disarmament that took place between the two world wars was one of the most substantial non-governmental campaigns ever to be undertaken. At the forefront of this campaign were the women of the union. Joining with Mary Dingman’s Disarmament Committee of Women’s International Organisations, which represented more than 45 million women worldwide, the union collected the signatures of more than 26 million Catholic women on a petition for peace.
In 1932, this petition was presented at the opening of the World Disarmament Conference, which had been convened in Geneva by the League of Nations. It was arguably within the power of the delegates at that conference to fashion the pattern of world history.
Mrs Steenberghe-Engheringh, the president of the union, was the only official Catholic delegate to address the conference. The photo that captures this moment is somewhat haunting as those delegates present seem to be paying little attention to this fearless Dutch woman who represented the strength, depth and worldwide character of the movement for peace.
Tragically, the Disarmament Conference that had begun with such hope, much like the League of Nations itself, ended in dismal failure with the withdrawal of Japan from the League of Nations in March 1933, followed by Germany’s withdrawal in October 1933.
Germany launched an invasion of France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands on 10 May 1940. Members of the union destroyed their archives in Holland on 14 May 1940 so the invaders could not lay hands on them and use them to find people who had collaborated with them. In June 1940, the Gestapo searched the union’s offices. Dr J. Hoogveld, the union’s chaplain since 1930, was arrested and later died as a result of the ill-treatment he suffered.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, Catherine Schaefer, the union’s representative at the United Nations, played a vital role in the campaign to have member nations accept the principle of representation by non-government bodies. The union was also a force in the creation and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Today, WUCWO is still present today in international forums as a strong voice defending the dignity of the human person.
Each member of the Catholic Women’s Leagues throughout Australia is also a member of WUCWO. If you would like to join the league in Victoria, please contact Ann Robinson on firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about the league in other states is available at www.cwla.com.au
Robyn Fahy is CWLA Public Relations and Community Engagement Officer.