The Catholic Daughters of the Americas are marking more than a century of prayer, service and charity in Mount Carmel. It’s a milestone built on a foundation of faith and rejuvenated less than a decade ago with a renewed focus on membership.
Established on December 12, 1920, Court Our Lady of Victory #588 of the Catholic Daughters of the Americas is 101 years old, founded just 17 years after the official birth of the national order in 1903.
In Mount Carmel, the Court has lived up to the national organization’s motto of “Unity and Charity” and its two-fold purpose of spirituality and service.
Wherever there has been an opportunity for involvement in promotion of human life, education, youth, spirituality, leadership, service and legislation, members of Court Our Lady of Victory have stepped up to the task.
It’s an effort worth celebrating, as the Court faithfully remembers its past and looks forward to continued growth and service in its future.
“As members of the Catholic Daughters of the Americas, we build each other up, and we pray together and for each other. We work to get women to live their faith and consider every day what it means to be Catholic,” said Mary Catherine Wydra, a 31-year member of the Court and its current treasurer.
The Catholic Daughters of the Americas was founded in Utica, N.Y., in 1903 by several members of the Knights of Columbus who wanted to establish a charitable and patriotic organization specifically for Catholic women.
From the outset, the organization’s mission was clear: “to embrace the principle of faith working through love in the promotion of justice, equality, and the advancement of human rights and human dignity for all.”
In the early days, Catholic Daughters were heavily involved in efforts during World War I, including working as nurses and conducting seamstress classes for the Red Cross, hosting socials for servicemen, and working with the Knights of Columbus to raise funds for activities for those who were enlisted.
During World War II, they conducted blood drives, purchased several million dollars in war bonds, and crafted millions of surgical dressings, while continuing to serve as Red Cross instructors.
The ladies eventually expanded their focus to include social work, community service, literacy programs, equality, and support of the Catholic press.
Urged by then-Bishop Fulton Sheen to “become Catholic Daughters of the World” during their convention in 1952, the organization began to extend charitable efforts to the poor throughout the world.
Today, the Catholic Daughters of the Americas are nearly 63,000 members strong in 1,250 courts in the United States, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands and Mexico. Court Our Lady of Victory in Mount Carmel is one of two Courts in the Diocese of Harrisburg, along with Court Queen of Peace #1023 in Lancaster County.
Mary Catherine Wydra joined Court Our Lady of Victory – founded from Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Mount Carmel – in 1990 with her mother, as both women were involved in activities serving the Church.
“At the time, the Catholic Daughters of the Americas here were very active with parities, activities and service,” Wydra told The Catholic Witness.
Eventually, participation waned, to the point where the Court nearly folded in 2004.
With nine members on the roll, an aging member of the Court nominated Wydra as its regent – which is akin to an organization’s president – in order to fulfill state-level requirements for the naming of officers.
Acknowledging the dwindling numbers and lack of activities at that time, Wydra contacted the state Court of the Catholic Daughters of the Americas, seeking information on how to disband. But the dissolution of the Court wasn’t the answer. It was named, after all, for Our Lady of Victory.
“When I made the call to the state to disband, they stepped in to keep us going,” Wydra said. “The state regent and vice regent came here to Mount Carmel, where they met with five of us on the Court and convinced us to keep going. They spoke at all of the Masses in our local parishes that weekend, and membership increased.”
“Their efforts helped save Court Our Lady of Victory that weekend,” she said.
State representatives of the Catholic Daughters of the Americas returned to Mount Carmel again on December 4 of this year. This time, they came not as a way to help save the Court, but rather in celebration of its centennial and the efforts of its 49 members in continuing the traditions of the Catholic Daughters of the Americas.
Second vice national regent Essie Walker, Pennsylvania state regent Shirley Hall and first vice state regent Margaret Giordano were among a congregation of state and local Court members, invited guests and parishioners gathered for the anniversary Mass. The liturgy was celebrated by Bishop Ronald Gainer at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church. Father Francis Karwacki, Court chaplain and pastor of Our Lady’s, concelebrated the Mass.
“Through these 100 years, you’ve remained faithful – all of your predecessors, the women who have been part of the Court here – to the motto of the Catholic Daughters of the Americas, ‘Unity and Charity.’ You’ve fostered that in your hearts, within your family, within your parish family, and within this community and region,” Bishop Gainer told the members.
“The Catholic Daughters of the Americas tries to enrich the gifts of each of its members so that they can give a more meaningful contribution to the Church and to others, especially in their religious, charitable and educational apostolates of the Church,” he said. “Through this century, your predecessors and you now have been faithful to that mission.”
“Congratulations, and may God continue to bless your court, all of your members, and continue to prosper you into the future as you begin the second century of the Court of Our Lady of Victory,” the bishop said.
Father Karwacki also congratulated the Court, commending its members for their dedication, faith and charitable outreach.
“The Catholic Daughters of the Americas are a good service to the parish and the community,” he told The Catholic Witness. “They serve those in need locally, and always keep the Catholic faith at the forefront of their efforts.”
The Heart of Their Work
Assisting others in the spirit of Jesus Christ is at the heart of the work of the Catholic Daughters of the Americas. The organization centers its works on a “Circle of Love” image, from which radiates efforts in human life, education, youth, spirituality, leadership, service and legislation.
Court Our Lady of Victory, at nearly 50 members strong, is involved in a number of local and national efforts, giving of their time, talent and treasure.
“The Catholic Daughters of the Americas is an organization of unity and charity, dedicated to assisting the community and helping everyone in their faith and in their struggles,” said Kathleen Peeler, current regent of Court 588. “We like to call ourselves prayer warriors. That’s the number one thing that we do. We find out those in the community who need our prayers, whether it is because of illness or the stresses of everyday life – and put them on our prayer list to say prayers for them every single day.”
Local efforts include the coordination of a food collection box at the Mount Carmel Library in support of the local food bank; a prayer shawl ministry; creating the annual display of a 100-year-old Nativity set in the library window; and setting up a religious-items stand at the town’s annual three-day picnic.
Prior to the pandemic, the ladies made frequent visits to residents of the nursing homes in Mount Carmel, Kulpmont and Shamokin, singing carols and distributing gifts at Christmas. Due to precautions surrounding Covid, the women have been sending cards to the residents on a monthly basis, assuring them of their continued friendship and prayers.
National efforts of Court Our Lady of Victory include financial support of Habitat for Humanity, Holy Cross Family Ministries, Catholic Relief Services, Morality in the Media, and SOAR! (Support Our Aging Religious).
“Spreading the Word of God and sharing our faith with others is very rewarding to me with these local and national efforts,” Wydra said.
She noted that she’s also found reward in working with the women of the Court, especially in the development of their leadership skills.
“One of the spokes on our Circle of Love wheel is leadership. I served as regent of our Court for nine years as we were getting reorganized and reactivated. Recruiting women to serve as vice-regent, financial secretary, treasurer and recording secretary was a challenge. Finally getting women to serve as an officer was rewarding in itself, however, watching them learn and grow was most rewarding. They learned how to run a meeting, follow parliamentary procedure, delegate, team building, stress management, effective communications, motivation and more….They grew in self-confidence and are now mentoring other women in the court,” Wydra said.
Peeler, the current regent, joined the Court after receiving a personal invitation from one of its members.
“Meeting these women and hearing the stories of what they do was so inspirational, I decided to join,” she said. “It’s been a beautiful journey ever since.”
“I’m truly blessed to be a member of the Catholic Daughters of the Americas,” Peeler reflected. “I belong to an organization of very strong, talented and beautiful women. We are committed to each other and work with each other in support of the community as faithful, Catholic women.”
Membership in the Catholic Daughters of the Americas is open to any Catholic woman over the age of 18. Court Our Lady of Victory welcomes women from Mount Carmel, Kulpmont and Shamokin.
(Mass photos by Rachel Bryson, The Catholic Witness. Nativity photo courtesy of Mary Catherine Wydra.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness