The Catholic Women's League of Christchurch

The Catholic Women’s League was first founded in England in 1906 by Margaret Fletcher. It flourished through Europe, America, and Australia, reaching New Zealand in 1931 and Christchurch in 1936.

The object of the League was to unite Catholic women for the promotion of religious, social and intellectual interests and charitable work under the direction of the Bishop.

While some parish branches are renowned for their fundraising efforts, commentary on social issues, and service to the Catholic faith is a constant thread through all branches and regions. 

As the Christchurch centenary approaches, the CWL in the Diocese remain committed to serving their Catholic communities, in ways to meet the needs of today.

War stories focus on men in arms. But women played an important part too. In World War I New Zealand nurses became heroes in the eyes of wounded servicemen.  Likewise, stories from Catholic Church history focus on men in soutanes. But women have played an important role here too. One such was Ann Buckley, also known as Annie. She was a woman of strength, a pioneer and leader of the Christchurch branch of the Catholic Women’s League.

A highly regarded Christchurch nurse, Buckley joined the New Zealand Army Nursing Service in 1914. She was a member of the original group of 50 registered nurses who sailed from Wellington in early-1915 to serve in military hospitals in World War I. She worked in trying conditions, under canvas, in rolling ships and in crowded hospitals. Conditions ranged from icy blizzards in one of England’s coldest winters, to gruelling heat and sand storms in the North African desert. She treated patients suffering from ghastly wounds and illnesses, many of them facing inevitable death far from home.

Buckley served in Egypt, Bombay, a hospital ship in the Persian Gulf, Salonika, Mudros Harbour, Malta and England. 

Back in Christchurch, Buckley made her mark in a different way. She was an original member of the Christchurch Diocesan’s Catholic Women’s League (CWL) which was founded in 1936. She served as its second president, from 1938 to 1946. As other branches opened throughout the far-flung diocese, Buckley became Diocesan President of the CWL as well.

In her history of the Christchurch CWL’s first 50 years, Josephine Van Montfort writes of Buckley then: “leading her own army of League workers through the Second World War”, and says: “Miss Buckley was a much respected and loved foundation member of the League”.  Buckley was awarded the MBE by King George VI in 1949.

For all her strengths, Buckley would not have been out of place in the CWL. For this was a band of strong women who built a powerful and progressive movement in “a man’s world”. Sources held by the Archives of the Christchurch Diocese show the League won the highest regard of bishops, priests and lay people and worked well with them. Long before Buckley died, in 1961, the CWL was an essential element of Catholicism in the Christchurch Diocese.

All this began when 60 Christchurch women rallied to Bishop Brodie’s call to attend a meeting at the Ferry Road Convent in March, 1936. The aim of the meeting was to form an organisation for women that would make a collective effort to help the needy, while promoting social and reverential goals among the members. Membership was limited to practising Catholics.

At the inauguration, members decided on the name of Catholic Women’s Club. Its motto would be “Faith and Service”, under the divine patronage of Our Lady of Good Counsel and St Joseph, her spouse. Mina Ward, a well-known musician and church organist, was elected president. However, her marriage to an American citizen and their move back to the USA soon after meant a new leader was needed. Ann Buckley was duly elected. Bishop Brodie accepted the position of patron.

Also prominent among the “strong women” was founder-member of the CWL, Florence Dobbs. Strong in a different way, she was elected secretary of the CWL at its inception. Mrs Dobbs, widow and mother, was a tireless volunteer who gave her services to many Church and civic welfare causes. Her help for people in need foreshadowed the establishment of Catholic Social Services. In eulogies at her funeral in 1965, she was lauded for the leadership she had provided to all helpers. Her strength was based in gentle love rather than curt command.

A few months after the inauguration, the bishop moved that the name “League” replace the original “Club”. The change was made, mainly because it would allow the group to affiliate to the international CWL that had been founded in England 30 years earlier. The movement had spread around much of the world, reaching Australia in 1914. The Auckland Diocese started a CWL in 1931, fostered by Bishop Liston who, on a visit to Australia, had had been impressed by the League in action. Bishop Brodie picked up the idea from Bishop Liston.

New Zealand’s two other dioceses launched branches of the CWL, Wellington in 1944 and Dunedin in 1949. Hamilton and Palmerston North dioceses were established in 1980-81. CWL branches already operated in these areas and continued to do so.

Economic effects of the Great Depression, World War II and the period of austerity that followed the war stressed the importance of helping people in need. The Christchurch CWL adopted this as a prime ministry. Bishop Brodie, his successor, Bishop Lyons, and the League’s chaplain, Fr Edward Joyce (later to succeed Lyons as bishop), supported this focus, while ensuring the spiritual dimension remained strong. Bishop Brodie stipulated that members should promote understanding of the Catholic faith in the wider community. The League must be non-political, he added, but discuss political issues deeply and openly to help mould good legislation.

In an early step towards ecumenism the CWL held a reception for the many Christchurch women’s societies, in 1937. The aim was to familiarize the League with the general population. Invitations went out to every women’s society and nearly all sent representatives. The atmosphere was amicable and lasting relationships were forged – with individuals and groups. Notable among the groups represented were the National Council of Women and the Women’s Committee of the National Council of Churches. One outcome of the function was the CWL becoming a member organisation of these groups.

CWL opinion did not always mirror that of other groups, however. As an example, League views on the much-vexed issue of “birth control” differed from those of the Plunket Society, and others.

The Christchurch CWL grew rapidly. A junior section, known at first as The Grail, was established for young adults in 1939. It was renamed Junior CWL three years later. School groups also were active


Miss Mina Ward, First President of the Catholic Women's League Christchurch Diocese 1936 [2/1]
Miss Ann Buckley M.B.E., President of the CWL Christchurch Diocese 1937-1946; 1949-1950 [2/2]
Miss Kathleen O'Connor (Pro Ecclesia et Pontifica Medal) President of the CWL Christchurch Diocese 1945-1948 [2/3]

Very soon League member numbers reached 300. The rooms they rented in the Stewart Dawson building, at the corner of Cashel and High Streets, were inadequate. Bishop Brodie then offered the CWL a former girls’ hostel at 245 Cashel Street. The spacious building was renovated and the League moved there in 1941. Continuing growth in membership and a broadening range of activities necessitated extensions to the building in 1944.

The new home was named Maryknoll. It was big enough to provide space for other Catholic and other welfare groups, including Corso, Save the Children, the Catholic Education Board and the Catholic Youth Movement. Two flats in the building were let, the rentals contributing to the League’s finances. An off-street parking area allowed groups to hold meetings, conferences and entertainment events there.

Maryknoll served the CWL well until 1970, when the Catholic Education Board took over administration. Member numbers had been falling as other branches of the CWL were established. The Christchurch branch then was reduced to using the former parlour, a small meeting room and an office. In her history of the CWL Van Montfort writes: “League feelings for Maryknoll were never quite the same after that time”.

Unable to afford other accommodation, the CWL moved into the newly opened Cottesmore College. It rented rooms in this stately but short-lived Catholic girls’ secondary school, on Greers Road opposite Burnside High School.

Various activities were available to members of the CWL. These ranged from sewing and knitting circles, their products being sent to the needy at home and abroad, to music and drama circles that performed around the city. There were such groups as a homemakers’ circle, helping young mothers in their homes, a Polish circle to liaise with wartime refugees from Poland, a mission circle to assist Catholic missionaries overseas with food, clothing and other requirements. The League helped the Carmelite Sisters and the Holy Name Seminary students. It prepared Mass kits for priests. It altered discarded wedding gowns to produce church vestments. And always the members prayed for God’s blessings and mixed socially.

During World War II the League launched a Welcome Club to cater for servicemen on leave. Working with Red Cross it packed and sent parcels to servicemen overseas and to the needy in post-war Britain. It contributed to leisure facilities for trainee soldiers at Burnham Camp and served in a canteen there.

Much of the CWL’s work was funded from jumble sales, fairs, other fundraising events, donations, grants and subscriptions. Many CWL “treasures” that were housed at Maryknoll had to be sold when the League moved out. The proceeds were invested in the Catholic Development Fund.

The Depression years, the war years and the immediate post-war years were a major growth period for the Christchurch CWL. The popularity of the League during this time led to other branches in the Christchurch Diocese being formed. Among the early (pre-1950) ones were: Chatham Islands, Akaroa, Timaru, Ashburton, Hokitika and Waimate.

To aid communication and ensure unity, a Diocesan Council was established for CWL branches in the Christchurch Diocese, in 1945. Just four years later a Dominion Conference for branches around New Zealand was held. This followed the establishment of the national (or “Dominion”) body, the Catholic Women’s League of New Zealand.

A set of “rules” for all League branches stated the aim as: “to unite Catholic women for the promotion of religious and intellectual interest and charitable work under the direction of the Bishop of the Diocese…..and to foster and sustain united opinion on matters of Catholic principle, action and interest throughout New Zealand”.

The spread of CWL branches to parishes of all sizes and degrees of remoteness gathered speed from about 1950. This triggered a de-centralisation of the movement. Within 30 years of the Dominion Conference, new branches of the CWL had opened in 41 parishes of the Christchurch Diocese. Two-thirds of these were located in rural areas. The Christchurch Branch, by now surrounded by other branches in the city, was renamed Central Branch. (Its name changed briefly to Cathedral Branch but reverted to Central Branch.)

De-centralisation of the CWL was promoted by Christchurch’s Bishop Joyce and supported by his successor, Bishop Ashby. The bishops, as consecutive Patrons of the League, favoured granting recognition to all branches. The tiny size of some branches prompted the establishment of regions where small branches could interact.

Bishop Ashby said, de-centralisation would “take the League to the people”. Much inspired by his attendance at latter sessions of Vatican II, the bishop stated that de-centralisation would allow all branches to have their say. He saw the CWL as “a sounding board for lay opinion and a springboard to lay activity”.

“The lay apostolate …. must have a source of strength so that it will be meaningful and well directed. The League, assured and strengthened by its meetings, has the perfect set for this,” Bishop Ashby said.

So, as Van Montfort wrote, the late 1950s and 1960s were “a time of great growth in the CWL”. However, just as these decades were marked by growth, the period since then can be seen as a time of change.

Great change in the CWL since the 1970s has been sparked by social conditions regarding women’s rights and roles in the community and by changes in the Church resulting from Vatican II. How has the CWL changed? Perhaps when the Christchurch branch reaches its centenary, in 2036, the effects of change and the adaptations of the League may be more clearly defined.

I was introduced to the League in Bryndwr about 30 years ago.  We had been in New Zealand only a short time, emigrating from Ireland. I was also a new convert to the Catholic faith.  I had been brought up in England as a Baptist. I always held a firm belief in God and felt Jesus’ love for me and know He has guided me through various difficulties.  

My husband is an Irish Catholic and we agreed that our children would be baptised into his faith.  When our son was born, and as a family we went to Mass, I came to the realization that I would have to “get off the fence” and make a firm decision to commit one way or the other.  I’m sure that the many Novena’s his Aunt Sal prayed for me helped steer me.

My faith journey then started when we came to New Zealand, firstly in Auckland and then in Christchurch, and through a very welcoming couple who befriended us, I  joined the League, and found welcome and fellowship, and wonderful examples of faithful women truly living the League motto of Faith and Service.  

I have learnt so much from these women who have been grounded in the Faith from childhood and who are confident and active members in their Parishes, who see communities in need and respond, and do not hesitate to defend their Faith in todays world, in these changing times. 

I served as Secretary and Treasurer for many years at Bryndwr and twice as Regional Rep for Region 2.  I am currently the WUCWO representative for the Diocese and this has expanded my understanding of Catholic women worldwide working towards a common goal of serving Christ by serving his people, without discrimination and judgment.  I decided to transfer to Sockburn branch of the League at the time of the amalgamation of the Parishes, as St Theresa’s in Riccarton is our local church and is now joined with OLV and St. Bernadettes in the Christchurch West Parish.  

I am hopeful that the amalgamation will be an opportunity for the League to glean new members, and widen our service in the community.

I believe there will be a League into the future, it may look somewhat different to now, as we now look different from the early days.  My hopeful prayers are that there will be faithful,  younger women to carry it on, when they find that busy hectic lives need spiritual nourishment and a space in their lives for “giving back to God.”

Liz Roche, CWL Christchurch Diocesan Council member


Mike Crean (author)

Thank you to the Catholic Women’s League, Christchurch Diocese for their assistance in this exhibition, and for permission to use the Archives of the Christchurch Diocese Catholic Women’s League [Series 1, 2 and Series 10]

Thank you to all CWL members, in the Christchurch Diocese, who have stood together giving a voice to Catholic women and inspiring those around them.