Photo courtesy of Mary G. Vial
The Catholic Woman's Club of Richmond met for the first time in 1914, the year when electric streetlights came to Broad Street, and the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad initiated a passenger steamship line to Richmond, the arrival of each boat announced by a round of cannon fire.
Bishop Denis J. O'Connell, then head of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, encouraged a group of women to establish the club, which initially rented space at 205 E. Franklin St. The 123 original charter members paid a membership fee of $1 and annual dues of 20 cents.
"I learned that there were only 16 automobiles in Richmond when the club was founded," says Mary Vial, the club's historian and archivist. "Just stop and think — they had on long dresses and probably rode in carriages or walked to attend their meetings." Years later, the club raised funds to purchase the Millhiser House at 916 W. Franklin St., then sold it to Virginia Commonwealth University in 1963. Since that time, the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic club for men, has allowed the women to meet in its building on Pump Road.
"During one of the moves, I opened a closet door and 1914 fell out," Vial says, laughing. "Everything — all their minutes, letters, correspondence and photograph albums — had been thrown in, helter-skelter. The minutes were handwritten notes, some on old pieces of sheet paper. In 1925, they started typing, which was wonderful." Club records from 1931 to 1960 are missing, but Vial has archived information from 1914 to 1931 and from 1960 to 2013. One of the club's early missions was to assist young Catholic women coming to Richmond looking for work. The club rented rooms to these women for as little as $5 a week and supported them in various ways. Members also stayed abreast of legislative matters, something that continues today through Maggie Disney, the club's legislative liaison.
After 100 years, the Catholic Woman's Club is still making a difference in the community. Its fashion show, book and author program, and other fundraisers help to support 12 charities. Among those is the St. Francis Home, an assisted-living residence for adults of limited financial means. "It was originally a home for unwed mothers, one of the first initiatives of the club," says publicity chair Jan Shaughnessy. The club also sponsors scholarships to St. Gertrude's High School each year. "The heart and soul of the club, though, is the camaraderie of knowing different women from all over Richmond and learning from each other," Shaughnessy says.
That learning will continue on March 29, when members gather to celebrate the club's centennial anniversary with a 10:30 a.m. Mass at Mary Mother of the Church Benedictine Abbey on River Road, followed by a luncheon at the Hermitage Country Club at noon. Both meetings are open to the public, men included. (Reservations are available by calling Joan Walton at 266-3612.) Vial, the historian, will speak at the anniversary event along with Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo, who oversees the Diocese of Richmond. The program also will honor Arnita Thompson, a member for 75 years.
The club had about 900 members at its peak in the 1930s. Membership, which now stands at 177, is available to any woman who is active in the Catholic Church. Monthly meetings include an annual memorial Mass for deceased members; a wreath-laying ceremony to honor the first Catholic settlement in Virginia, established in 1645 north of Fredericksburg; a Lenten retreat every spring; and other various social functions. "We have come so far since the horse and buggy days," says Bea Sykes, the current president, "but we haven't wavered in our dedication to volunteer and be involved in community work."