Audrey Pineau, left, one of St. Anthony’s Parish CWL Council’s longest serving members, with one of its newest members, Joanie Chislett. Photo by Rita Arsenault

Youngest member sees future in CWL

  • January 15, 2021

As the newest and youngest member of the Catholic Women’s League (CWL) at St. Anthony’s Parish in Bloomfield, P.E.I., Joanie Chislett hopes to carry the rich legacy of the organization forward to future generations.

The 38-year-old mother of two says although she always admired the league, which celebrated its 100-year anniversary this past year, the decision to join in January 2020 was a long time coming.

“I think it was a CWL Sunday two years ago when I saw the ladies lined up and they had their pretty blue pashminas on,” said Chislett, whose two sons are age eight and 20. “They represented women’s empowerment (to me) I guess. It just kind of struck me that day and I had thought about joining ever since.”

The CWL has just under 72,000 members across Canada, a long way from its high of 130,000 in  the 1980s. CWL national president-elect Fran Lucas said the drop may be attributed to aging members passing on, those who may have moved on to join other organizations and the overall decrease in church attendance. 

Still, Lucas finds encouragement in anecdotal stories such as Chislett’s that she’s hearing from parishes across the nation that show the culture and community surrounding the CWL continues to uplift, inspire and encourage women.

Chislett said long-time CWL member Jean Bulger helped to finally convince her to come on board last January with a simple question — “When are you going to join the CWL?” As the organization moves into the future, Chislett hopes to be able to motivate other young women to do the same.

“After she asked me, I thought about it and I was at the next meeting,” said Chislett. “Maybe that’s something that I could do for a younger person — help them to see a bit of the possibilities as a CWL member and just to build it and make it stronger. I’m the youngest member there and there’s probably 10 years between me and the next lady so it’d be nice to kind of bridge that a little bit and represent Catholic women.” 

Bulger, who became a CWL member in 1997 while living in Mississauga, Ont., and is now retired in her husband’s hometown in P.E.I., doesn’t hold any formal title in the parish’s small CWL group but has a real heart for recruiting young women. Having connected with Chislett on several occasions she is thrilled to be a part of her journey to the organization.

“She was a young mother and I think I just smiled at her one Sunday in Mass and we just kind of connected,” said Bulger. “I think I approached her maybe to help with the church picnic or something like that because I thought she’s young and can help. She said, ‘Well I have thought about joining and I am interested,’ but said, ‘I’m going to think about it,’ so I gave her time to think.

“I was helping at the funeral for her (great) uncle, and I kind of asked her about it and she said, ‘Yes, I think my calling is telling me that I should join.’ ”

The decision to join the CWL could not have been timelier for Chislett. In a year of global uncertainly with many seeking to reconnect spiritually, she says having the support of a community of women in the CWL has been a great encouragement. Growing up Catholic, her spiritual inspirations were her mother and grandmother who is a long-time member of the CWL. After drifting from her faith as a young adult, she has spent the last decade reconnecting with it and says joining the CWL has been a significant milestone in her journey back.

“My grandmother was always very active with the CWL,” said Chislett, who attended church every Sunday growing up and was confirmed at St. Anthony’s. “She turned 90 in August and I know she’s been with it since before she had children and her oldest daughter is 70.

“In my 20s, I kind of got away from that. Just in the last probably 10 years, I kind of realized something was missing and I had to get back to church and back to how things were when I was a kid.”

Lucas said the CWL has continued to be active during the pandemic, expanding its social media presence on platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. It recently launched a video series called To Inspire to share the CWL’s history, core values and vision.

“The vignettes tell the story of a hundred years inspiring women in their faith, service and social justice,” said Lucas, who officially takes over as president during the 2021 annual convention Aug. 8-11 in Toronto.

“They’re meant to inform, to remind others of our history, but also to let non-CWL members know what we do, why we do it and the gambit of things we’re involved in from community work to international work.”

Working for a non-profit organization for adults with disabilities, Chislett says virtual work meetings throughout the pandemic have taken a toll so being able to connect with the women of CWL when restrictions were lifted was very meaningful physically and spiritually. She already feels a strong sense of community and encouragement in the faith and hopes to help the CWL continue to make an impact.

“I don’t know what the future holds,” said Chislett. “But hopefully the CWL stays around for another hundred years.”

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