The Grail and the NCGM

Chapter 2

The Grail and its relationship to the NCGM

I did and still maintain that the Grail were ‘ahead of their time’ in focusing on the role of women not only in the Church but in society at large in focusing in their training that we as women be prepared to as it were to ‘stand up and be counted’, to be ready to be different if circumstances presented themselves.

Rene Spellacy, past member Grail/NCGM

The Grail (or Ladies of the Grail) played a crucial role in the establishment of the NCGM in Australia. Together with the National Secretariat of Catholic Action, they were responsible for the development and direction of the NCGM in the early years. In fact in 1942 the Secretariat recommended to the bishops that the Ladies of the Grail be asked to take over control of the national movement. The Ladies of the Grail accepted and were in control of the national movement from early 1943 until mid 1944 when their request to be relieved of this role was accepted by ECCA.

The Grail

The Grail began in the Netherlands in 1929, as a movement of young Catholic women. The initiators and senior leaders of it were members of a lay community of women called the Women of Nazareth, which had been founded just eight years before in 1921 by a Dutch Jesuit priest, Jacques van Ginneken. The members of this community had been inspired by him to give their lives to working for the ‘conversion of the world’, not as religious in a convent, but as lay women in the Church. After three years intense preparation and training, they made a formal dedication of their lives in ‘chastity, obedience and apostolic poverty’ to bring the world to God through their energy and talents.

Father van Ginneken’s vision regarding women was vital to development of the ethos and spirit of the Women of Nazareth. His main ideas are summarised below.

His ideas centred around the vision of the new valiant woman of the Catholic Church who would need to be spiritually strong, at the same time modern in her outlook, way of life, use of technology and confident in herself and her abilities. Women would have to be aware of the obstacles and opposition they would meet in the Church, which he considered to be anti-feminine. They would have to overcome them whilst not denying the ultimate authority of the bishops. He believed in the potential of women, that they had advantages over men in various areas and that they had an important role to play in changing society. He thought that women should define their own role and cultural parameters, that they were not the moral guardians of society and that education was their right, not a privilege allowed them by men.

He saw Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a capable independent woman in the home and in the world. He thought that lay women needed to be in and of the community and that they had to maximise their independence. He wanted them whenever possible to organise their own courses, retreats and liturgies and not rely on priests for their spiritual direction. He recognised that Christ’s perfection embodied a harmony of masculine and feminine and that this perception of Christ should be shown to the world. This would result in i balanced society in which neither men nor women would be superior over the other.

Van Ginneken also felt that women had to prepare for the challenge and take the risk to be different. He felt that the Women of Nazareth had a crucial role in preparing them. Like the promotors of Catholic Action, van Ginneken saw that Christian faith and Christian values could not be separated from the culture in which it existed. He wanted all Catholics to get out of the ghetto-like atmosphere in which they lived in the Netherlands in the 1920s and 1930s. He believed that women could play an important role in achieving that He also believed that women should take responsibility for the development of ritual and liturgical practices in the church.

Until 1929 the three main functions developed by the Women of Nazareth were the organisation of retreats for non-Catholics, contacting girls in factories to document working conditions and preparing to establish a university in the Dutch East Indies. In 1929 the Bishop of Haarlem, where the Women of Nazareth were living and working, directed them to make the prime function of their group the organisation of young Catholic women into a mass movement. It was decided to give this movement the name of ‘The Grail’ because it was a name rich in Christian symbolism and inspiring to youth. In 1932, just three years after the movement was established, there were 8000 members. By 1941 it had just over 21000 members before it was suppressed by the Nazis.

This Grail movement of young women became the all-absorbing work of the Women of Nazareth and after their expansion into England, they increasingly became known among English speakers as ‘Ladies of the Grail’. In Australia during the period relevant to our discussion, this is the name they were commonly given, whenever it was necessary to it distinguish them from the leaders and general membership of the young movement they inspired and directed. It is the term, therefore, that will be used in this text from now on. (Since the 1960s, this identifiable group within the Grail movement has been renamed ‘The Nucleus of the Grail’ and its members referred to as ‘Grail Nucleus Members’).

The Grail was not the only youth organisation to develop in the early 20th century but most of them, like the Boy Scouts (founded 1906), concentrated on the personal development and formation of young people and on occupying their time in positive activities. The Grail was to be different from such organisations. It was to be an instrument of change. Like the YCW, it was to be proactive and missionary. Van Ginneken had investigated the various socialist and communist youth groups that existed at that time and, though he rejected their aims, he did admire their assertiveness, discipline, commitment and the role drama, songs and literature played in their success. The Women of Nazareth incorporated many of these features into the Grail movement. It is interesting that Cardijn had begun his work with youth about the same time, and like van Ginneken studied the various social and communist organisations but also rejected them and developed his own ideas.

The organisational structure and methods of the Women of Nazareth and the Grail movement were very new in the context of the time in Europe in the 1920s, as were Cardijn’s. The theories and attitudes of the Women of Nazareth were certainly different from anything which existed at that time. They were confident women, they were conscious of the position of women in the Church and were prepared to use strategies to change it. They had enormous potential to be an important factor for change in the Church.

The Grail in Australia

Five members of the Women of Nazareth — Dr Lydwine van Kersbergen, Judith Bouwman, Frances van der Schot, Brigid Huizinga and Patricia Willenborg — came to Australia in 1936. They were joined in 1938 by Elizabeth Somers, Helen van Cleef and Therese Langemeyer. Bishop Dwyer from Wagga Wagga had been to the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 1932 and he had seen a contingent of young Grail members marching. This aroused his interest and he had discussions with the Women of Nazareth. He was very impressed and wanted to have the Grail introduced into Australia. In the period between 1932 and 1937 he spent a great deal of time speaking to various groups in different dioceses and this resulted in the Women of Nazareth coming to Sydney.

In her pamphlet, ‘The Grail’, Dr van Kersbergen (the leader of the five women) wrote that the aims of the Grail movement were to develop a pro-God movement to answer the Pope’s call to the lay apostolate.

By striving with the utmost zeal and fervour for their own sanctification and the development of their natural powers and talents.

By loving and serving others for God’s sake, in order to ‘restore all things in Christ’ and to help in the establishment of His Kingdom.

The activities of the Grail movement covered six areas — Religious, Cultural, Charitable, Missionary, Family and School — and it was an organic whole with one united aim and spirit in which each member had her place in accordance with her own individuality and capabilities. Lydwine also wrote:

that the ‘Apostolate of the Personality’was the greatest of all forms of Catholic Action and that this development ofpersonality for the greater glory of God is at the heart of the Grail movement.

When the Women of Nazareth arrived in Australia very little was known about them or what their exact role was to be. As one early member said, they had clearly defined aims but not a specific plan of action. Sally Kennedy in her book Faith and Feminism says that the response of the Catholic women of Australia to the message of the Women of Nazareth was both immediate and strong. Those women who were ready to hear the new message responded enthusiastically because:

It offered them affirmation of women’s worth in the church, a coherent analysis of women s position in the structure of the church and strategy to deal with it.

These new ideas appealed to the independent feelings in the women — feelings which had been largely unnoticed, unrecognised or ignored by the clergy. She also states that the Catholic press explained they they were able to translate their ideas from Europe to the clergy-dominated Australian Church without being absorbed by it. The Women of Nazareth had a radical concept of the role of lay Catholics and their aim was to bring this radical concept to the Catholic women of Australia.

It was certainly very different from the ideas and attitudes of women in the Australian Church which were in fact dominated by the Catholic view of women as the pious supporters of their husbands and the clergy. This meant that the perception of a woman’s role and sphere of influence was virtually restricted to the family environment. This perception is supported by the fact that no attempt was made by ECCA or the Secretariat to set up a specialised Catholic Action organisation for adult women. However, Kennedy says that it was not for want of trying by Catholic women as the Catholic Women’s Social Guild (CWSG) in Melbourne had tried in vain to be accepted and included as a specialised Catholic Action movement for adult women. Mr Frank Maher, the first president of the Secretariat, believed that Catholic women were restricted in what they could do by their environment and that their environment was the family. This was obviously the mind of most of the bishops because in their statement on Catholic Action they said of the NCGM that it should assist all girls to achieve their proper destiny by the organisation of educational courses designed to prepare them for marriage.

Though in Australia the Grail movement was never designated as one of the specialised official Catholic Action organisations it was approved as such in Europe by the Vatican on 8 June 1935. Though the organisational structure and method of operation of the Grail movement did differ from that of the Cardijn-based movements it is easy to see how similar the Grail movement was in its overall aims to those stated by the Australian bishops. Van Ginneken felt that the Women of Nazereth could contribute to changing the world by bringing Christian ideas into patterns of life and social institutions. The bishops said that Catholic Action had to change the ideas of people, their habits and the institutions to which they belonged.

Training and formation of girls

Once they established their headquarters at ‘Loyola’ at Greenwich in Sydney, one of the first and most important things the Grail did was to organise Grail courses for young girls. The most important courses they ran were the Summer Schools. The first of these week-long live-in courses was run in January 1938. Forty young women from twelve dioceses in Australia and New Zealand attended. There were four people from Brisbane who attended that first Summer School. The theme of the first course was ‘Women and the Lay Apostolate’ and its main thrust was that Catholic women could have a dynamic role in society. The attendees at this course found the ideas proposed very liberating as they were very different from the pious mould in which Catholic lay women in Australia lived at that time. It is interesting to note that one of those who attended, Elizabeth Reid, from Brisbane, was the editor of the NCGM national newspaper Torchlight from 1943 to 1948 and was the first Australian to join the Women of Nazereth. In the period 1938 to the mid 1940s the Ladies of the Grail ran courses in various metropolitan and country centres all over eastern Australia including Melbourne and Brisbane.

Besides running the Summer Schools, the Ladies of the Grail organised activities in Sydney for women and young girls and set up the Grail movement there. Membership of the Grail youth groups was open to all girls who had left school and were over 15 years of age. There were junior Grail groups called ‘Vanguard’ for younger girls aged 13 to 18. The members wore uniforms on official occasions but not cloaks or veils (like the Children of Mary). Their uniforms consisted of brightly coloured skirts, blouses and beanies. They had a badge and held badge conferring ceremonies. The conferring of badges was not automatic and had to be earned. By the end of 1938 the Grail movement in Sydney had 600 members and by 1940 there were 900 members. They had parish groups, special groups based on activities such as drama, and vocational groups based on type of work. In general, each Grail group had a committee with a President, Secretary, Treasurer and Propagandist who were called responsible members. The committee had a monthly meeting to facilitate and co-ordinate activities and communication. They also published and circulated material concerned with issues affecting women and girls. The Grail members paid a membership fee of which one-third went to the Grail headquarters and the rest was retained by the group to do with as it saw fit.

In 1939 the Ladies of the Grail transferred much of their activities from Sydney to Melbourne and established their headquarters at ‘Tay Creggan’. It became a centre for Catholic youth and the Ladies of the Grail ran training courses and social functions for the women and girls of Melbourne. As well as these activities, they developed, in conjunction with the Secretariat of Catholic Action, the idea of organising a program of intensive training and formation for young women in the work of Catholic Action. These courses were to be six month live-in courses called ‘Quests’. These courses stressed that the integration of religious, cultural and social values into a way of living was of apostolic urgency for youth within the Church. The Ladies of the Grail were not unknown in Melbourne as the five leaders had stopped off in Melbourne on their way to Sydney and attended a rally organised by the CWSG. Those attending had been most impressed by the women and girls from Melbourne attended the first Summer School in Sydney in January 1938.

The first official co-operation between the Secretariat and the Ladies of the Grail was in 1938 when they organised a course on Catholic Action for the various members of the Catholic girls groups in Melbourne including the Catholic Girls Movement. Berna Foster (Trenkner) was president of the Melbourne Catholic Girls Movement at that time and later became a member of the early NCGM national executive. In a talk at a Melbourne YCW Past Members meeting she explained that the forerunner to the NCGM in Melbourne had been the Catholic Girls Movement which began in Melbourne in 1935. It had been set up in response to the call to Catholic Action. Its aim was to help girls safeguard their Catholic faith. The approach was firstly to set up girls clubs which organised such activities as physical culture, drama classes, picnics, hikes, indoor games, tennis and basketball. They also organised lectures and Christian doctrine talks to help develop and broaden the Catholic outlook of members as well as lay retreats, foreign mission and study groups. The CWSG were very involved in this and Berna said, ‘they spared neither encouragement nor expense to foster the movement’. Other groups were operating at that time including Catholic Action groups and the Clitherow Society (the female counterpart of the Newman Society).

However, Berna went on to say that though they all understood that Catholic Action was a call to prayer, study and action and to participate in the work of the Hierarchy, no one knew how to go about it. This changed after that first course run by the Ladies of the Grail and a subsequent leaders course run by Judith Bouwman for Catholic Action leaders in March 1939. According to Berna, the plans made at that meeting in March and at subsequent ones formed the basis of the NCGM programs. She also pointed out that, up to that time, Catholic Action had been interpreted in a more or less intellectual way but the Ladies of the Grail encouraged them to seek their personal sanctification and the development of their talents for God. They realised that Catholic Action meant Catholic life, and that they as young women had to make the Catholic life of Australia really J|1 Their own environment was to be their sphere of action and so they followed la Preliminary Training Programme to fit them to be leaders. Late in 1940 the Catholic Girls Movement and the Catholic Action groups merged into one organisation called ¡9 Catholic Girls’ Legion but eventually the named was changed back to the Catholic Girls Movement.

The co-operation between the Ladies of the Grail and the Secretariat continued in the period between 1939 and 1941. The Secretariat and the Ladies of the Grail combined their respective expertise to organise training for leaders, the establishment of leaders groups, the development of parish group programs, a leader’s bulletin and campaigns. However, by mid 1941 Frank Maher felt the various groups involved were sufficiently developed to inaugurate the national movement. Therefore the relationship between the Ladies of the Grail and the Secretariat had to be formalised.

One thing that concerned the Secretariat from the outset was avoidance of the situation where there would be two different mass movements competing for the attention of girls. There was ongoing discussions about how the Grail and the new emerging movement could combine their efforts. Frank Maher was particularly concerned that there not be two separate movements set up, one based on the techniques and activities of the Grail and the other based on the techniques of the YCW movements. The Secretariat particularly didn’t want the Ladies of the Grail to set up parish based Grail groups. The parishes were to be the preserve of the Catholic Action organisation set up by the Secretariat.

The National Catholic Girls Movement

The basis of the agreement suggested by the Secretariat was that both the Ladies of the Grail and the executive of the NCGM would give mutual support to all matters relating to Catholic Action for girls in Australia and New Zealand. Some of the main points were:

  • That the Ladies of the Grail would not set up a mass movement.
  • That any Grail groups that were established could only be central groups and in no case parish groups.
  • That, after training, the Grail members would give assistance to the NCGM parish groups.
  • That the NCGM groups would be under the control of the national and diocesan executives of the NCGM but there be a Lady of the Grail on the national executive and all diocesan executives.
  • That Grail members working in parish groups would use NCGM programs, bulletins and campaigns.
  • That the Grail would assist in the training of leaders, organise summer schools and special courses of training and help develop bulletins and campaigns.

There was some delay in making the announcement due to difficulties with the situation in Brisbane where the central specialist Grail groups called ‘The Brisbane Catholic Youth Group’ and the parish-based groups called ‘The Urban Youth Movement’ merged and changed their name to the Grail. Coupled to this was the decision taken by the Brisbane Secretariat, with the approval of Archbishop Duhig, not to affiliate with the national movement. They decided that a Grail movement was better suited to the needs of Catholic Action in Brisbane as Mr J.P. Kelly felt that the girls in Brisbane would be able to advance Catholic Action as Grail members rather than pioneers of a national movement. He had a very high opinion of the original leaders in Brisbane and he said of them,

The leaders of that movement have developed a sense of responsibility which I have never seen equalled and are attached with their whole beings to the Faith having that inner vision of Catholic truth which is not so much the mark of the learned as of the true apostle.

This development caused difficulties for the Secretariat because Frank Maher felt that he could not go ahead with the inauguration of the national movement if Brisbane was not affiliated because Sydney had already opted to have its own Catholic Action organisations.

A temporary solution was arrived at when the Brisbane Secretariat declared that it was in favour of affiliating with the national movement and would do so when a Grail house was established in Brisbane. The national Secretariat put it to ECCA that a movement called the Grail would be recognised as part of the national movement because they would affiliate when the Grail house was established. ECCA agreed and the national movement was inaugurated in October 1941. At that time it was anticipated that a Grail house would be established in Brisbane. Archbishop Duhig came close to purchasing a place for that purpose. The architect for the archdiocese, Mr Frank Cullen, recommended the purchase of Ashton Hall at the corner of Bonney Avenue and Victoria Parade, Clayfield. However, the Ladies of the Grail were not able to come to Brisbane on a permanent basis at that time so the establishment of a Grail house was put on hold and never eventuated.

In late 1942 the Ladies of the Grail approached the Secretariat about the possibility of taking control of the NCGM in Melbourne. The Secretariat felt that this was not practical as the Grail would be in control of the NCGM in Melbourne and the national movement would be working on different lines. The decision was that the Grail would take over the national control of the Movement. Its main functions were to be the nomination of new members to the National Council, the drawing up of programs for Melbourne and interstate movements, the publication of the Beacon, correspondence with interested groups and looking after Torchlight.

This arrangement lasted until 1944 when the Ladies of the Grail asked to be relieved of their role because they preferred to assist the NCGM from the outside. The Secretariat agreed and after 1944 the involvement of the Ladies of the Grail was confined to helping with the training and formation of leaders, providing services such as Retreats and Days of Recollection, and helping with programs for activity groups. It was a complex mix of factors which brought it about but it represented an acknowledgment by both parties that it was not possible to combine the Grail method of operation with a YCW method of operation.

The NCGM was very fortunate in its association with the Grail. Even though the direct input of the Grail had virtually ended by 1950, its input did have important influences ofl the development of the NCGM. It is interesting to look at the structure and organisation of the NCGM. It had uniforms (skirts, blouses and berets) and banners. Each group a President, Secretary, Treasurer and Propagandist. There was a diocesan executive which consisted of representatives nominated and elected by group presidents. They published their own national paper Torchlight and Brisbane had its own publication Challenge. Its method of paying membership fees was that half of the fees went to diocesan headquarters (half of which went to national headquarters), and the remaining half stayed in the group to do with as they saw fit. It is easy to see how closely the NCGM structure was to that of the Grail movement.

The Grail legacy to the NCGM

The Grail left a wonderful legacy to the NCGM with its highly developed structure and organisation. This gave the NCGM a head start because there was no need to develop a new organisational structure. It had only to be adapted to suit the new direction. There was already in place a method of operation, a training method, uniforms and activities organised by women for young women. It gave the Movement a depth and maturity beyond what any new organisation would have had in the early stages. What would have happened if the NCGM had started with a group of untrained and inexperienced young girls in charge? It gave the NCGM a breadth of experience and intellectual base from the start. Combined with the help of the early chaplains, this ensured its success and explains why it applied the techniques of Catholic Action so well.

It also meant that the early executive members of the NCGM had a great deal of maturity and independence which was essential for establishing a right relationship between the clergy and the members. An indication of this is the number of NCGM executive members and full-time workers who in the early years were or had been members of the Grail (in Brisbane alone at least 12). Catholic Action was not meant to be clergy-dominated and the Grail influence ensured that this did not happen with the NCGM. The partnership between the NCGM members and the priests was a mature one from the outset as both respected each other’s position and worked together to build the Movement and train mature and effective leaders. This was very important as there was no other such model of lay women/clergy relationship in the Australian Catholic Church at that time. The major Catholic adult lay organisations were still following the older Irish Catholic model of clergy control and leadership.

One practical example of this legacy was that so early in its history the Movement was able to organise and print a national paper. What organisation of 14 25 year olds in the 1940s left on their own would have had the maturity to do such a thing. Another example is the Beacon which was the leaders bulletin and national source for information dissemination from the national executive. It was first published in 1941, and though it did not reach its full development until the late 1940s, it served as a unifying force, a training document and a nurturing agent for the ethos and culture of the NCGM. It also gave a directional focus for local groups and emphasised the national character of the NCGM. The Secretariat and the Grail also developed the original preliminary training program which the Grail promoted at the Quests and wherever they set up branches of the NCGM. In some ways the, NCGM was really up and running right from the start thanks to the Grail.

However, the major contribution of the Grail was the transfer of its ethos and spirit to the NCGM through the transfer of its ideas and ideals. The ideal of the development of women to their full potential and the development of independence of thought and action through training and formation provided an inspirational role model. The idea that women had a real role to play in the Church and in changing the world and that it was their obligation as baptised Catholics to fulfil that role brought out the commitment only waiting to be tapped. The demonstration that women were intelligent and valuable contributors to the Church and the world gave the leaders a sense of self worth and self esteem. These, combined with the example they gave, showed that women had the qualities and talents to lead each other to greatness. The emphasis on the potential of women was the essence of the Grail and its legacy to the ethos and spirit of the NCGM.