Monica Doumit: Standing tall on womens’ shoulders

The  CWL celebrates the 100th Birthday of Audrey Stewart, a CWL volunteer of 75 years, in late January. Photo: Patrick J Lee
The CWL celebrates the 100th Birthday of Audrey Stewart, a CWL volunteer of 75 years, in late January. Photo: Patrick J Lee

This coming Friday, 8 March, is International Women’s Day, which the United Nations describes as “a day when all women are recognised for their achievements.”

I’ve always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with this occasion. On the one hand, it is obvious that women make a significant contribution to public and private life, and I know that I stand on the shoulders of generations of women who fought for the right to do just that. On the other, International Women’s Day stems from socialist roots, and for many people, still holds on to those links quite tightly.

This year, however, I will definitely be celebrating the day.

I was honoured to be asked to host an event run jointly by the Catholic Women’s League and Catholic Women’s Mentoring.

The former is an organisation with more than a century of history in this Archdiocese (and longer around the world), the latter just a couple of years old, but with a unified purpose of providing a space for Catholic women to support each other, and to have opportunities to excel.

While I have known about Catholic Women’s Mentoring from its inception, I hadn’t really known much about CWL until recent weeks.

My late grandmother had been a lifelong member, and mum tells me that CWL members would visit her every week when she was ill.

See related article: Catholic Women’s League volunteer still going strong at 100

I must confess that I imagined CWL as a ladies’ auxiliary-type organisation, with scones and tea and nice tablecloths, polite conversation and that’s about it.

How wrong I was!

When I visited them a couple of weeks ago, I was struck first by some of the incredible signs scattered around the office, pulled from the archives in preparation for Friday’s event.

The first was one advertising a fundraising appeal to buy a bus for those suffering with AIDS, so that they could be taken to and from their medical appointments at a time when people were still too afraid to be near the patients.

The next was raising awareness about domestic violence, including in Christian families, and encouraging people to reach out to CWL for help if they had been affected. Long before these and other marginalised groups received attention from other charitable organisations, CWL was there to lend a hand.

I was fascinated.

From its early beginnings of running a Catholic Women’s Hostel, and its running of the Marian Court Apartments in Strathfield, which provide independent living for those over the age of 55, to the present day, the theme of hospitality runs throughout CWL’s history.

See related article: Melbourne ethicist and CWL leading light in Australia Day honours list

Chatting more to the group, I heard about CWL’s involvement in prison ministry, and how long before it was ever thought necessary to establish one, two CWL members would volunteer each day to provide a small canteen at the Coroner’s Court in Sydney, offering not only cups of tea and coffee, but a listening ear to those who came to give or listen to often harrowing testimony surrounding death.

Other activities are too numerous to mention: providing scholarships for children with disabilities to attend the schools they need, working with refugees, volunteering at pregnancy help centres, fundraising for mission projects overseas… the list goes on. In its later years, CWL was also a voice in the public square, offering a Catholic women’s voice on social issues that impact women and families.

Of course, the work was grounded in a deep faith. I read in one place that during the 1928 Eucharistic Congress here in Sydney, 140,000 women showed up for the special ‘Women’s Day’ Mass on 8 September, which is the celebration of Our Lady’s birthday and ironically six months after the celebration of ‘International Women’s Day’ – on the opposite side of the calendar, as far away as you can get!

It seems that no matter what gifts a Catholic woman has, and how she seeks to use them in service, CWL was and is a place where she is able to do that, with support from other women seeking to do the same thing.

I mentioned earlier in this piece that I stand on the shoulders of generations of women who fought for a place for women in the public square. Until meeting the good ladies at CWL, I was not aware that I also stand on the shoulders of women who have – for more than a century – faithfully modelled the role of ‘women in the Church’ in the Archdiocese of Sydney.

I am humbled to have been invited to host this Friday’s event. I would love for you to join me there. You can register at www.catholicwomensmentoring.org.au/#upcoming-events or by calling CWL on (02) 9307 8383.