fostering a community spirit
Pictures of ladies at church bazaars and Knights of Columbus marching in a parade are common images of Catholic life. Through the centuries, parishes and local communities have created groups to enliven the faith life of its members.
With the influx of immigrants in the 19th Century, parishes grew quickly. Often working in a missionary setting, pastors knew they alone could not reach all of their parishioners. Relying on leaders in the laity, there were established groups and societies that supported the various demographics of the parish. These societies were a way for members to receive mutual edification, encouragement and serve as a resource to support the parish. Creating societies for every stage of life guaranteed that every parishioner belonged to the community and could avail themselves of the spiritual and social advantages of membership.
Whether for men, women, married couples or children, societies first promoted the spiritual development and growth of their members. In a time when reception of the Eucharist was infrequent, members would be required to go to confession and receive together as a group once a month. Popular devotions were encouraged in and outside the society. For example, the Holy Name Society at St. Bonaventure Church in Cincinnati gave religious kits with sacramentals to parishioners who were fighting in World War II.
Societies also assisted the parish and community through both practical and financial means. They raised funds to purchase a new organ or altar, assisted with parish debt reduction, supported families in need, raised money for local charities, and provided for ongoing needs like orphanages, or natural disasters. Some organized groups, such as the Knights of Columbus or Knights of St. John, required membership dues, and, in turn, provided insurance.
Additionally, societies provided members and the parish community with social activities. Concerts, plays and recitals brought the community together and strengthened their bonds.
An anniversary book from St. George Parish in Cincinnati lists the many societies of the parish and, for some, the year they were founded. It includes: St. George Men’s Society (1868), St. Mary Married Ladies’ Society (1869), St. Michael Young Men’s Society (1870), St. Frances Young Ladies’ Society (1878), and the Christian Mother’s Society (1883).
As was common, a men’s society was created first. Working in the secular world, they were advocates for the faith to non-Catholics, and, in the parish, they offered consultation on financial matters. Women’s groups applied their talents to create beautiful spaces by sewing altar linens and keeping the church clean. In homes, women’s societies encouraged and supported Christian motherhood. Whether for men or women, a core feature of the societies was to encourage family prayer.
The abundance of church societies in the 19th and early 20th Centuries was a remarkable episode in the history of the Church. Although most of these groups do not exist today, parishes still create ways for parishioners to give of their time, talents and treasure to the Church and local community.
This article appeared in the July 2021 edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.