New CWL president speaks out on issues of faith, family and service

CWL president Fran Lucas carries the league flag at the convention in Kelowna. (Bil Gowans photo, The BC Catholic, CCN)

CWL national convention held in Kelowna, B.C.

By Nicholas Elbers, The B.C. Catholic

[Kelona, BC – Canadian Catholic News] – After a pair of COVID cancellations, the Catholic Women’s League finally celebrated its 100th anniversary, two years late. As with most milestones of this kind, it came with a sense of accomplishment, but also introspection about the reality of the organization in 2022.

At its core last week’s convention in Kelowna was “about making sure that women know what the CWL is doing and what they need to know about what is happening in that space,” CWL President Fran Lucas told The B.C. Catholic.

To build a vision for the next 100 years Lucas dove into the CWL’s history of Christian charity. She is clear that in essence nothing has changed. The organization is the same as it ever was.

“Our core purpose is to unite Catholic women to grow in faith and to promote social justice in our faith, Canada, and the world, she said. “Our first CWL was formed in Edmonton because of the refugee situation [after the First World War].”

“We helped newcomers to integrate,” she said, “we are still doing the same thing. We have come full circle – still helping.”

It speaks to the nature of what the CWL is as the Catholic Women’s League as an organization that embodies a uniquely feminine appreciation for relationship and connection that Lucas’ first response to COVID was to phone members at random.

“I called them just to say ‘hello, this is your president, how are you doing?’” Lucas said, “the stories that I heard were tearful, sad, and inspiring – a real mix.”

Checking in allowed her to not just let members know she was there and that she cared about them – something more leaders might do well to learn. Hearing about their strained and broken relationships helped solidify the focus that Lucas wants at the centre of the next 100 years.

“I want to make the focus about building relationships – building them back,” Lucas said.

Ultimately she chose the theme “Catholic and Living it!” for the Kelowna convention to help emphasize everything the CWL has been for members, but also what it will look like in the future.

Considered within the context of countless bake sale fundraisers, and the contributions the CWL is known for in parishes, this might seem rather humdrum and mundane. The hope is that members will feel energized to go out and re-imagine how they can do the same thing, but in a way that meets contemporary challenges.

In many parishes, the CWL has an understandable image problem. As members get older, younger women have a hard time envisioning how they may fit in with the aging organization.

Lucas believes this is a problem of education, not reality. She believes the CWL is perfectly capable of being a place for young women to thrive and connect with others, but it has been hard to demonstrate this.

The convention marked the fourth year of a five-year plan to update the CWL. Lucas highlights the website as a focus of attention since it centralized a lot of the tedious parts of running a local council. It has also become a great place for councils to get resources so they can skip a lot of the guesswork that might stop them from being active.

Lucas believes the efforts have largely been a success, but there is still a problem of dwindling membership. Young women don’t seem to understand that the CWL doesn’t need to be bake sales and banner making.

“We just need to get the message out to younger women,” she said.

A lot of time has gone into pushing a message that things might be different and that the CWL does great work. Lucas hopes that young women will consider browsing the website to see that the CWL may be relevant to them now.


Barbara Hlus, national president of the Ukranian Catholic Women’s League extends a hand to CWL president Fran Lucas. (Bil Gowans photo, The BC Catholic, CCN)

Getting to the heart of the matter

Are church service organizations relics of the past? The CWL says no

By Jarrod Thalheimer, The B.C. Catholic

[Kelowna, BC – CCN] – Our brave new world has an answer for everything – and these days it’s almost always digital in nature. Food delivery? Skip the Dishes. Transportation? Uber. Need a room? Vrbo. Buy a house? Zillow. Need a friend? Facebook. Need a better friend? Tindr. The list goes on.

So how does an organization that emerged “old school” from church basements even compete? The signs of decline are everywhere. CWL councils are suffering steep drop-offs in membership. The diehards are aging out and new members are few and far between. Everyone expects youth to take over but they’re not actually showing up. They’re either too busy or too distracted. The future is not looking all that bright as the Catholic Women’s League starts their second century.

So where does the CWL get off holding a massive convention in downtown Kelowna that was downright vibrant, optimistic, and alive? Out of the 500 plus faces in attendance you’d be hard-pressed to find one without a massive smile. What tech platform are they suddenly using? Did they launch a new app? Maybe Elon Musk offered to buy them out?

Everywhere you turned at the event, you saw women engaged in conversation, making connections, laughing, enjoying each others company. Old friends greeted with huge hugs and expansive smiles. The warmth was genuine and palpable, real, not forced in any way. A table of strangers became a clutch of friends as names were exchanged, stories shared and ties created. Cross-sections of the entire country were represented without any barriers whatsoever. Politicians would kill to take credit for this kind of sincere unity.

“You can have real life, or you can have online echo chambers,” said keynote speaker and honorary life member Barb Dowding. “We choose real life.” (Bil Gowans photo, The BC Catholic, CCN)

“You can have real life, or you can have online echo chambers,” said keynote speaker and honorary life member Barb Dowding. “We choose real life.”

Dowding contends that the CWL endures because it is focused on families – its own and the families it represents. “And in that family, love will prevail.”

Dowding’s speech was less lecture and more group-connection session. A back and forth that laid bare the reality behind the true strength of the CWL – individual membership and the confidence that when they are needed, they will be there.

There was no hand-wringing over declining member counts. There were no panicked cries for emergency outreaches. And no plans for an app that might hopefully, possibly save the day. The event was a celebration of real face-to-face service to others and the unique contribution each woman makes to that shared commitment.

“The feminine ability to community and to encourage the humanity and connection within us – like when Mary visited Elizabeth … that’s what gives life. That’s what the CWL exists for,” Dowding said.

She dismisses the sanitized anonymity so prevalent today thanks to social media. “It misses the point of living.”

Sharing the stage with numerous past presidents, some in person, others in word alone (as some had since passed on), each offering experiences and relationships both personal and transformative. These are the stories of women who reached out their hands to help and received life-long connections in return. The gifts of sharing actual humanity, in all its glorious imperfection.

Speaking afterward, Dowding drove home the point. “CWL parish councils are the heart of the league. Nothing happens without them. It’s the most important, most critical part of who we are.”

To her, it’s a no-brainer. The spiderweb of human outreach exemplified by the CWL is actual community and it doesn’t happen because someone in a boardroom wrote a memo or drafted a bylaw making it so. It comes about because one person sees another person in need and offers to help personally. No intermediary. Just real people, one-to-one getting things done. It’s about humility. It’s about sincerity. It’s about grace.

Looking across the crowd, Dowding smiles. “I remember when I thought the CWL was for old women – now I am one.” Deep laughter fills the room, knowing glances shared all around. No illusions, only truth and acceptance. Confidence. And joy.

“You know one thing that really bugs me?” said Dowding. “When people claim women are marginalized people. Women are not marginalized people. We are full and complete. Women hold up half the sky!”

“The feminine ability to community and to encourage the humanity and connection within us – like when Mary visited Elizabeth … that’s what gives life. That’s what the CWL exists for,” speaker Barb Dowding told members of the Catholic Women’s League in Kelowna. (Jarrod Thalheimer photo, The BC Catholic, CCN)


Big problems, small solutions

Author Elizabeth Tomlin on small group ministries and communities that need them

By Jarrod Thalheimer, The B.C. Catholic

[Kelowna, BC – CCN] – Elizabeth Tomlin is excited to tell the story of the ox but she “can’t really remember the exact numbers …”

And then with a wave of her arms she explains how one ox can pull “like, a lot” but that as soon as you link him up with another ox, the new team is suddenly capable of pulling “way more than just two times, like A LOT more weight. Like THOUSANDS of pounds more!”

She raises her hands in the air, acting out her fascination at the (somewhat) garbled fact. The crowd laughs. Tomlin uses the story to illustrate the reality that one person doing something is great, but that as soon as you add another the multiplier effect starts to work, which is why women do so well in groups. “Together we can do so much more than we can do by ourselves.”

Heads around the room nod in recognition. They’ve seen it themselves. They know she speaks the truth.

Elizabeth Tomlin, Catholic author and general counsel for the Archdiocese for the Military Services in the United States, says an important element for small group success is the presence of pastoral care. “Never try to run a small group ministry without setting up pastoral support.” (Bil Gowans photo, The BC Catholic, CCN)

Tomlin is a Catholic author, general counsel for the Archdiocese for the Military Services in the U.S., and a catechist and director of stewardship for the Military Council of Catholic Women.

She has also served as president, director of faith formation, and finance manager.

Tomlin earned her bachelor of science degree in chemistry in 2002 from the College of William and Mary and her juris doctor from the George Mason University School of Law in 2010. She is a member of the New York State Bar, Catholic Bar Association, John Carroll Society, Catholic Women of the Chapel, and the Military Spouse JD Network. She also happens to be a wife, mother of three, and military spouse living in Washington.

Intimidated yet? Don’t be. Tomlin is as friendly and as approachable as her storytelling style suggests. She speaks with the understanding of someone who has “been there, done that” but still genuinely wants to hear the stories and experiences that you might want to share with her.

Her book, Joyful Momentum: Growing and Sustaining Vibrant Women’s Groups, is a literal roadmap to building small group ministries in any community. It grew from her personal stories, spiritual insights, and desire to offer practical advice to any woman looking to start a spiritual book club or a group for moms with young children. Or maybe someone just trying to breathe new life into a tired committee or stagnating prayer group. Tomlin’s sense of humoir shines through as she makes the case for small group ministries. “It made a difference in my life. It will make a difference in yours too!”

An important element and, according to Tomlin, absolutely crucial for small group success, is the presence of pastoral care. “Never try to run a small group ministry without setting up pastoral support.”

She explains that sacraments like reconciliation and the Eucharist are critical parts of what makes the group exercise so valuable. “The sacraments are gifts from God. We need them to be successful. Having a strong relationship with your pastor is too important to neglect, no matter how small your group may be.”

For a woman so focused on small group ministry, she held a room of 500 souls at the CWL National Convention in thrall throughout her presentation. Not bad for someone advocating groups of two or three to start.

But small remains the message. “Don’t ever be afraid of small.”

She adds, “The early church was small. Just a bunch of disciples in an upper room – and look what that led to – the basilicas of the world. Small is good!”