1862 – Present
The Catholic Women’s League has a long and proud history which began with our Founder, Margaret
Margaret was the daughter of an Anglican clergyman and was born in Oxford in 1862. The latter part of the
19th century was an exciting time for women. It was the age of improved educational methods, especially
for girls. At 17, Margaret went to the Slade School of Art in Oxford and then went to Paris to continue her
studies, living with other students and nationalities, discussing life, religion and politics. A deeply religious
woman, Margaret could never blindly accept everything she was taught, and, when reading the writings of St John of the Cross, she decided to become a Catholic. Having sought the advice of a priest friend who
sent her to the Jesuit church in Farm St, London, she was received into the faith on September 9, 1897.
Returning to Oxford, she took an active part in parish work and also became friendly with Mary Miller, who, having travelled widely on the continent doing research work on Catholic secondary education for girls, told Margaret how impressed she was by a newly founded Catholic organisation in Germany.
Margaret and Mary had many discussions on the topic of education, the outcome of which was that
Margaret, having obtained permission from Cardinal Bourne, launched a new quarterly called The Crucible. With the aim of arousing the interest of teachers and schools in getting better social education for women, The Crucible ran for eight years and it was in one of its last issues that the proposal for forming a league of Catholic women was made, for Margaret saw that Catholic women would have a great responsibility in the future. She saw too that they must be organised not only in England but throughout the world.
In 1906 a national Catholic conference was held in Brighton, and permission was given to distribute a
pamphlet about the proposed league. From then on things moved steadily forward. Margaret Fletcher
became president and Ada Streeter agreed to act as secretary. In the choice of members, Margaret Fletcher insisted that the League needed women with “balanced common sense”, and that they should “utilise the average woman in convincing the Catholic world that business-like methods and intellectual gifts are excellent weapons in the service of God”.
By the end of 1907, the Catholic Women’s League had held its first general meeting under the presidency of the Archbishop of Westminster and had sent from there a message of filial homage to His Holiness Pope Pius X and received through Cardinal Merry del Val the Holy Father’s “affectionate blessing”. The Tablet described the meeting as “deeply significant of the times, and one calculated to have far reaching
consequences in the Catholic life of the country”.
Membership of the League steadily grew and the by the 1930s there were 10000 women who had joined.
Membership peaked in the 1960s with numbers reaching over 25000. The League today still flourishes and
proves to be every bit the ‘weapon for God’ that Margaret Fletcher first envisioned. Most recently, in 2017, we became a Charitable Incorporated Organisation and so became Catholic Women’s League CIO.
Discover more about CWL’s work with Refugees
A History of the CWL Relief and Refugee Work
The Catholic Women’s League has helped Asylum Seekers and Refugees who have sought refuge in the UK since the First World War. Up until recently, this important work was monitored by a special committee who worked with agencies all over the country requesting small grants to help those seeking to build a new life. Even though CWL Special Committee for Relief and Refugee closed in 2020, supporting vulnerable people who have fled persecution for whatever reason in their homeland is still an important part of our work.
During World War One refugee work became part of the League’s activities with the earliest refugees coming to England from Belgium. Members who could speak French or Flemish helped in the office with some working from 8am until midnight registering the bus loads of refugees who arrived at Bristol docks. Clothing was also provided. Dress-making classes were held for the women and carpentry for the men. 8000 refugees were helped by League members. Sections in Wales and the Bristol area formed Cardiff Branch in order to co-ordinate this work.
Austrian children were also helped, mainly in the Liverpool area.
Similarly in 1939, refugees were arriving from all over Europe and in 1942 the National Committee for Relief and Refugee was formed to care for those abroad who were sick or displaced. Many refugees in England needed on-going care including Poles, Yugoslavs, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians and Czechs.
1956 saw another influx from Hungary. League members helped to establish Kolbe House in Ealing to care for victims of concentration camps who were unable to cope mentally or physically after their ordeals. Please see p8-9 in CWL Magazine Issue 6 for more information on Kolbe House.
In 1960, the Committee worked closely with CAFOD, a charity started jointly by the CWL, NBCW and UCM whenever there were major disasters around the world. They were involved with partition in Palestine when more than a million Arabs fled to Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, living in vast camps. Chinese refugees who fled to Hong Kong in 1937 needed help and a soup kitchen was set up in Kowloon. Wives of Government officers, army personnel, businessmen, doctors, nurses, a lot of them members of the League, helped with an influx of one and a half million refugees by supplying first aid and care annually for overcrowded families living in sampans and often in squalor. CWL Members continued to give generously in support of the Relief and Refugee fund. Many projects organised by CAFOD benefitted from the fund.
In 1979, working with the British Council, the League was involved with the training and teaching of the Boat People from Vietnam. Members of Portsmouth Branch supported those living in the old forces huts in Sopley Camp, Hampshire, by offering household goods and clothing, including a full wedding outfit and reception for a couple who met on one of the boats.
During the 1980’s, individual applications for grants were received. A small Relief & Refugee Committee managed the assessment and awarding of grants. The Committee began to meet monthly as Charity Registered Agencies were increasingly formed to support the larger numbers of people seeking asylum in the UK. By 2019, 501 asylum seekers and refugees, including 213 children, from 40 different countries, were awarded small grants.
O Divine Master, you were once a refugee.
Have pity on millions of our fellow men, uprooted from their homes today.
Teach us so to understand and love,
that they may once again know peace and joy.
I was hungry and you gave me food;
thirsty and you gave me drink.
I was a stranger and you brought me home; naked and you clothed me;
sick and you cared for me.
CWL’s work in developing people’s faith
Our Lady’s Catechists
By 2023 Our Lady’s Catechists, (OLC), will have been working in the field of catechesis for 100 years. Our Lady’s Catechists was founded in 1923 when Cardinal Bourne asked Margaret Fletcher, Founder of the Catholic Women’s League, to help with the religious instruction of children not at Catholic schools. Two years later there were 52 trained catechists and an equal number in training and in 1931 a standing committee of Our Lady’s Catechists was established.
In 1956 OLC became a special committee of the Catholic Women’s League, with a representative from every Diocesan branch of the League. Four years later, in 1960, the OLC Certificate was recognised by the Hierarchy and the Bishops agreed to countersign the certificates. OLC, through the generosity of CWL members, were able to facilitate distance learning of catechetical courses for children and also adults. The committee provided postal courses for First Communion training for children living abroad or where training is not available. As well as this they provided useful courses for education of prisoners in the Catholic Faith. Before their closure in 2023, they created a new course on the Rosary and this can still be used today as a study aid for prayer groups and parish groups alike.
O Mary, Seat of Wisdom, watch over your catechists,
and help them so to teach those entrusted to their care
that together they may advance in the knowledge
and love of your Divine Son Jesus Christ. Amen.
Discover more about CWL’s work with HM Services
The Catholic Women’s League (CWL) has a rich and proud history of being involved with the Armed Forces from the 1st World War up until the present day.
During the 1st World War they ran huts and canteens to cater for the Troops transitioning through this country to the War Front in Europe and in WW2 the ladies were in uniform and served abroad doing this work wherever the war went. They ran mobile canteens close to the front lines.
In the 1960s, the last of the huts were sold and the proceeds invested to help those in need in the Service community.
Father of us all, whose Son uncovered faith in a soldier under obedience,
keep close to you the serving sons and daughters of this country
who put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of others.
Be a shield around them and a courage within.
Invest them with persistence in duty and a thirst for what is right.
Be the words of their Chaplains and the touch in their hands.
Inspire these pastors to be channels of your grace.
We ask this through Christ our Lord, Amen