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USCCB at 100: Nascent bishops’ council a vehicle for laity to live out their faith

A clergyman and women with the National Catholic Welfare Conference are pictured in an undated photo. The conference, which was founded as a council, was the precursor to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. (CNS file photo)

(Second in a series)

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — When the National Catholic War Council was established in 1917, the U.S. bishops soon took charge of the nationwide body meant to coordinate spiritual and recreational opportunities to American Catholic soldiers in Europe in World War I.

Although it was bishop-run, it could not be solely “bishop-done.” For one thing, there were only about 100 bishops in the U.S. hierarchy a century ago.

While priests were recruited as chaplains to provide spiritual comfort to the soldiers, the National Catholic War Council became a vehicle for the U.S. Catholic laity to live out their faith in service to the church.

One of the more remarkable efforts was that of the Women’s Overseas Division, a group of 153 women who served in Europe in 1919 and 1920, after the fighting had stopped. They couldn’t get overseas any earlier since all transport was done by ship, and the war effort monopolized oceangoing vessels, according to Katherine Nuss, information and archive services manager for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The National Catholic War Council, renamed National Catholic Welfare Council (then Conference), evolved into what is today the USCCB.

“They (the women) served the American population of soldiers that were still in Europe, either injured or awaiting transport,” Nuss said.

“Not only did they have these community houses for the soldiers that remained in Europe, they also operated housing areas where women and children could live and be fed and be trained for work,” she told Catholic News Service.

They were assigned to war-ravaged areas in Belgium, France and Poland.

“They taught English, typing, sewing — any work skills they could. Anything they could do to help get women back into the workplace and until the postwar economy kind of stabilized,” Nuss said. The Women’s Overseas Division, some of whose members were nurses, worked in conjunction with the Red Cross and religious orders ministering in the affected areas.

Nuss said the conditions the U.S. women worked in “depended on how the urban area had been changed by war. They don’t describe conditions as terrible and they weren’t in war zones per se, but they were primarily in the cities. They would occupy a building for a time and offered housing and assistance.”

The Women’s Overseas Division had what was an open-ended charge. “It seems to me that they didn’t know how long they were going to be there,” Nuss said, although all came home by the end of 1920.

Refugees are greeted by a woman with the National Catholic Welfare Conference in 1957. The conference was the precursor to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. (CNS file photo)

No records have been found that mention whether any of the women serving died while in Europe. News coverage of their efforts was also spotty, as the NCWC News Service – the forerunner to today’s Catholic News Service – had only started in April 1920, as the Women’s Overseas Division’s work was winding down.

In 1942, as another World War was well under way, the selfless dedication of the division was honored at a luncheon in Washington as a plaque bearing their names was unveiled. Nineteen of the women who served in Europe were at the luncheon.

Franklin Dunham, president of National Catholic Community Service, speaking at the luncheon, lauded “the splendid tradition of service set by these women.”

The assistant director of NCCS, Anne Hecley, noted the parallel of lay service in the past and present war: “the preservation of spiritual values for those caught in the hazards of this crisis: men in uniform, girls in war industries and trailer families.”

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Follow Pattison on Twitter: @MeMarkPattison.