Ten Catholic women who changed the world

Ahead of International Women’s Day on 8 March, we take a closer look at some Catholic women in history who made a real difference.

Phyllis Bowman

Starting out as a journalist on Fleet Street in Britain, it was her time working for a medical newspaper, seeing the plight of the disabled in hospital and researching the cause of disabilities in unborn babies,that eventually saw Phyllis Bowman involved in a parliamentary struggle for those at risk of euthanasia and unborn children, or what she termed her ‘battle for the baby’.

Born Jewish before converting to Catholicism, Phyllis sought people from  different religious backgrounds and walks of life to join her in her pro-life fight.

Phyllis was a tireless and brave fighter who wasn’t frightened of her opposition. In 1975, when James White brought a challenge to the abortion laws and her offices were subsequently broken into on several occasions, her reaction was to arrange for staff to take turns sleeping on the office floor. Even towards the end of her life, Phyllis was still sending out letters and giving instructions to those fighting on her behalf from her hospital bed.

Founding the Right to Life organisation in 1999, Phyllis eventually established the Right to Life Charitable Trust in 2003 in help give emergency aid to pregnant women in difficult circumstances, with the aim of reducing abortion rates.

Mother Teresa

For over 45 years Mother Teresa served the poor, the sick, the dying and the orphaned.

As a young Loreto nun she received ‘a call within a call’ to found the Missionaries of Charity to serve ‘the poorest of the poor’. Having obtaind Indian citizenship she underwent basic medical training to prepare her for working in the slums.

After she met Hillary Clinton in 1994, the pair set up a centre in Washington DC where orphaned babies could be cared for. In 1995 they also founded the Mother Teresa Home for Infant Children.

Mother Teresa continued to lead the expansion of her congregation until shortly before her death in 1997. Today there are over 4,500 Sisters in 133 countries.

Since her death, Mother Teresa has become a role model for people all over the world.

Dorothy Day

Born into a family of journalists, Dorothy Day spent her youth working on a variety of Left-wing newspapers and making friends with the likes of Eugene O’Neill and leading anarchist Emma Goldman.

As the Great Depression raged on, she founded the Catholic Workers’ Movement along with Frenchman Peter Maurin in 1932. The pair set up numerous urban houses of hospitality for the homeless, communal farms to grow food and soup kitchens.

Though Day suffered her own financial hardship, she continually divided her time between writing for their newspaper The Catholic Worker, publishing books, protesting against injustices and ministering to the poor.

St Thérèse of  Lisieux

Canonised in 1925 and becoming a Doctor of the Church, many remember Therese for her book The Story of a Soul. Her words were revered by many, as readers felt a personal connection with Therese and the humble personal insights she presented throughout the book.

Therese’s book talked of establishing a radical path to redemption by seeking holiness in humble, everyday life, known as the ‘Little Way’. By talking of the hardships she faced in her life, Therese always preached kindness even to those who held her in contempt.

In more recent times, those who travelled with the relic of St Therese would often report miraculous events, such as a Carmelite seminarian,who was travelling with the relic in 2009 through England. During the trip his hand was mangled in a car door but it was reportedly completely cured within moments.

Mother Angelica

Mother Angelica grew up in a world of poverty in Ohio during the 1920s, after her father abandoned her family and her mother struggled through the Great Depression with mental health problems.

Becoming a nun at 30, she had written 50 booklets and recorded 150 cassette tapes about her faith by the 1970s.

Wanting to have her Catholic messages reach millions, Mother Angelica started a small Catholic television station which quickly grew to have a strong presence on north American cable networks. She also expanded her reach to radio, creating a wide distribution on AM radio stations with her start-up EWTN. This network has been credited as being the catalyst in a sudden increase in the number of Catholic radio stations popping up across America at that time.

Edel Quinn

Joining the Legion of Mary at age 20, Edel Quinn had plans to become a Poor Clare sister before being struck down with a serious case of tuberculous.

The founder of the Legion, Frank Duff, saw through Edel’s poor health that she still had a  continued desire and potential and appointed her to the Legion in Africa.

Beginning  a new life in Africa in 1936, though she was constantly in a state of exhaustion, Edel was able to spread love for Our Lady to thousands in the continent as she founded hundreds of Legion branches and multiple councils.

Edel died at age 36 in 1944 after spending eight years in Africa.

St Hildegard of Bingen

Born in 1098, St Hildegard of Bingen began experiencing visions from the age of five. These visions were studied later  in her life by  Pope Eugene II who recognised her as a seer when he discovered her visions to be true.

Hildegard had myriad talents and she is still celebrated nearly 1,000 years after her birth as a feisty Benedictine abbess, mystic, physician, musician and polymath.

Hildegard founded two abbeys in Rupertsberg and Eibingen in the Rhineland, composed the liturgical drama Ordo Virtutum, which is thought to be the oldest surviving morality play, and supervised various works of art.

While the medieval society of her time viewed sickness as a punishment from God, Hildegard instead chose to spend time studying how to treat the sick. She wrote a medical textbook, Physica, which was controversial due to its descriptive methods on healing women.

Dolores Hope

Living life as an entertainer, Dolores Hope worked as a professional singer in New York City, recording five albums during her career.She married comedian Bob Hope in 1934.

Appearing in many of her husband’s television shows and often accompanying him on his tours entertaining American troops, Dolores also had a passion for improving the lives of others.

Taking time out of her own career to raise her four adopted children, she became known as the champion of Catholic charities with her continual generous donations to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Bob and Dolores were given the honour by John Paul II of being declared Knight and Dame of St Gregory the Great, an achievement given to very few women.

Eleanor Josaitis

After seeing footage of people being tear-gassed and beaten with clubs during the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, in the 1960s and experiencing similar violence in her home town of Detroit, Eleanor Josaitis felt a call to social activism.

Collaborating with Fr William Cunningham, she co-founded Focus: HOPE in 1968 with the aim of educating marginalised people so they could enjoy career prospects by funding and running practical programs.

Together they created the Machinist Training Institute where they provided everything from classes on job interviews to basic literacy. If someone wasn’t quite ready for the training or hadn’t received a primary school education, time was also taken to ensure they received a proper education first. Those who particularly benefited from the scheme were women and other minority groups.

While some attempted to stop her efforts with hate mail and firebombed her offices, Eleanor continued to fight and help others.

In the years since its inception, over 11,000 men and women have graduated from the schemes she put in place and had the opportunity to live more prosperous lives.

Flannery O’Connor

A legendary female novelist and short story writer, Flannery O’Connor was the first novelist of the 20th century to have her works published by the Library of America.

Her novels were dominated by fundamentalist Protestant characters who would undergo personal transformations after much suffering, with her book Completed Stories winning the 1972 National Book Award for Fiction and being hailed as the ‘Best of the National Book Awards’ in 2009.

O’Connor found herself inspired by St Thomas Aquinas’ concept that the created world is charged with God and would write highly descriptive and emotive nature scenes that testified her love of God’s creation in her books.

Sadly, O’Connor became a victim of lupus and died at age 39.

Stay tuned to MNnews as we continue to celebrate the innumerable contributions women have made to the world and to the Catholic faith.

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