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Ten Catholic women who changed the world

Mary O’Regan profiles 10 Catholic women who transformed the planet with their holiness, untiring work and incredible creativity

By on Thursday, 31 May 2012

Edith Stein, St Teresa of Avila, St Thérèse of Lisieux and St Catherine of Siena are depicted in a stained-glass window in Montauk, New York (Photo: CNS)

Edith Stein, St Teresa of Avila, St Thérèse of Lisieux and St Catherine of Siena are depicted in a stained-glass window in Montauk, New York (Photo: CNS)

1. Phyllis Bowman

On May 7 Britain lost arguably its most dynamic fighter for the unborn. Phyllis Bowman was a journalist on Fleet Street before she became involved in the parliamentary struggle for the rights of unborn children and people at risk of euthanasia.

She was not always pro-life, working for a medical newspaper and seeing the plight of the disabled in hospital. But she became convinced by the pro-life position after researching the causes of disabilities in unborn babies. At the time she also suffered a terrible tragedy with the death of her first husband.

From 1967 to her final days, Bowman waged what she called her “battle for the baby”. During her last weeks she dictated letters and gave instructions to her group of campaigners from her hospital bed.

Bowman was born Jewish, had a period of agnosticism and then converted to Catholicism. Her faith and her pro-life mission became entwined. But Bowman never felt superior because of her Catholicism and sought new members for the pro-life movement from every religion and walk of life.  She often quoted Paul VI on life issues and was motivated by the teachings of Blessed John Paul II. She attended seven different conferences with the late pope. Bowman was inspired especially by John Paul’s message that pro-lifers may strive for attainable goals. “He said it was important to strive to get what we could,” she recalled. She was a tireless and brave campaigner, and the opposition did not succeed in scaring her. In 1975, when James White challenged the abortion laws, her offices were broken into several times and the BBC filmed the smashed-up rooms. Undaunted, Bowman arranged for staff to take turns sleeping on the office floor.

With decades of experience in lobbying politicians and in preventing attempts to legalise abortion on demand up to birth, Bowman founded Right to Life in 1999. Recognising that giving emergency aid to pregnant women in difficult circumstances could reduce abortion, Bowman founded the Right to Life Charitable Trust in 2003. One case study involved Izabela, a young Polish mother whom the trust helped by providing baby equipment, a flat and assistance in getting a job.

We mourn Phyllis Bowman‘s passing from this life, but as her friend Lord Alton said: “We have a friend in high places.”

2. St Thérèse of Lisieux

In 1897, when St Thérèse died, stricken by TB, most regarded her as an average nun, without extraordinary ability. History has shown otherwise. She was canonised in 1925, proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by John Paul II and her book Story of a Soul established a radical path to redemption, the Little Way.

The idea was of seeking holiness in humble, everyday life was inspired by Thérèse’s convent life, which was not always easy. On one occasion, she pinned up pictures of the saints by her bed, which some other nuns thought laughable. But she offered up these little hardships and had a strategy of being especially kind to those who held her in contempt. Accurate comparisons are made between Thérèse’s writing and that of the literary giant James Joyce. Both Joyce and Thérèse mastered the stream of consciousness technique that records trains of thought in contrast to traditional storytelling.

Readers often say that after reading Story of a Soul they feel they know Thérèse. This is because her most personal insights are presented so humbly. Her devotees have ranged from Padre Pio to Princess Diana. In 2009, when St Thérèse’s relics toured England, over 250,000 people venerated them. Miraculous incidents are reported wherever her relics go. One Carmelite seminarian, who was travelling with the relics in 2009, got his hand mangled in a car door reportedly in an instant his hand was completely cured.

3. St Hildegard of Bingen

St Hildegard of Bingen was born in 1098, the 10th child of a knight.

A precocious child, Hildegard experienced visions from the age of five. Later in her life Pope Eugene III ordered a study of her visions. On finding them to be true, he recognised Hildegard as a seer.

There was seemingly no end to Hildegard’s talents, and nearly 1,000 years after her birth she is celebrated as a feisty Benedictine abbess, mystic, physician, musician and polymath.  Hildegard founded two abbeys in Rupertsberg and Eibingen in the Rhineland. And she composed the liturgical drama Ordo Virtutum, which is thought to be the oldest surviving morality play.

During her lifetime medieval society believed that sickness was a punishment from God. But Hildegard held a remarkably bright view
of humanity. She made detailed studies of how to treat the sick. Her work Physica, a medical textbook, was controversial, because it described methods of healing women. She also supervised works of art. Hundreds of years after her death, Dante and Leonardo di Vinci listed her as an inspiration. In 2009, Vision, a dramatic account of her life, was released. It is a gripping piece of cinema, but it focuses more on the conflicts between Hildegard and Church authorities than on the gifts she gave to humanity.

4. Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day was born in New York in 1897 into a family of journalists. In her youth she worked on a variety of Left-wing newspapers, never quite becoming a Communist. Her circle of colourful friends included Eugene O’Neill and leading anarchist Emma Goldman, who encouraged her to experiment with free love.

Day’s biggest sacrifice came in 1928. Immediately after she baptised her daughter Tamar, the baby’s father, Forster Batterham, left her. She refused to renounce the faith, which had given her solace during psychological problems caused by an abortion.

In 1932 Day met the charismatic Frenchman Peter Maurin. Together they founded the Catholic Workers’ Movement when the Great Depression raged. Day and Maurin set up urban houses of hospitality for the homeless and communal farms to grow food. Soup kitchens were founded where the hungry were addressed as “Sir”.

Day knew financial hardship, but put unpaid bills under the statue of St Joseph, and somehow she always pulled through.

Day divided her time between writing for their newspaper, the Catholic Worker, publishing books, protesting against injustices and ministering to the poor.

Since Day’s death in 1980 the movement has had no leader, but there are now over 200 communities.

5. Edel Quinn

Edel Quinn was an impeccably dressed young woman with arresting blue eyes. She hailed from Cork, attended a finishing school in Cheshire and worked as a secretary. At 20, she joined the Legion of Mary. Feeling the stirrings of a vocation, she declined a proposal of marriage from a successful businessman, Pierre Landrin.

But Edel’s plan to become a Poor Clare was ended by a serious case of TB.  But Frank Duff, the Legion’s founder, saw that despite poor health Edel had great potential and appointed her the Legion envoy to Africa. In 1936 she began a new life in Africa. She worked alone in a state of exhaustion, but founded hundreds of Legion branches, multiple councils and enthused thousands of Africans with love for Our Lady. Her work extended as far as Mauritius.

She died in 1944, when she was only 36, having spent eight years in Africa.

Miraculous occurrences are associated with Edel Quinn. A Dublin friend of hers was a young mother in dire straits. One day, the young mother was crossing O’Connell Bridge, so depressed that she was about to drown herself in the Liffey. Suddenly she saw Edel Quinn ahead. She hurried towards her, forgetting suicide, but could not find Edel. Two days later, the young mother read that, shortly before she spotted her in Dublin, Edel had passed away in Nairobi.

6. Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa was a young Loreto nun when she received “a call within a call” to found the Missionaries of Charity to serve “the poorest of the poor”.

After obtaining Indian citizenship she did basic medical training, which prepared her for working in the slums. So difficult was the first year that she resorted to begging. But it wasn’t long before more young women joined her. She came to prominence after Malcolm Muggeridge’s 1969 documentary Something Beautiful for God.

For over 45 years Mother Teresa served the poor, the sick, the dying and the orphaned. When she met Hillary Clinton in 1994 they didn’t agree on abortion, but Mother Teresa assiduously sought Clinton’s help in setting up a centre in Washington DC where orphaned babies could be cared for. Clinton and Mother Teresa were good collaborators and in 1995 the Mother Teresa Home for Infant Children was founded.

Gifted with keen intelligence, Mother Teresa led the expansion of her order until shortly before her death in 1997. Today the order has over 4,500 Sisters and is active in 133 countries.

Since her death, Mother Teresa has become a role model for people enduring the dark night of the soul. For over 40 years she felt isolated from God’s presence, but her doubts never overwhelmed her.

7. Eleanor Josaitis

In the 1960s Eleanor Josaitis was a busy mother. She felt called to social activism after seeing footage of people being tear-gassed and beaten with clubs during the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. When similar violence erupted in her home city of Detroit, Eleanor was convinced that her role in giving others equal opportunities was to educate marginalised people so they could enjoy career prospects.

Collaborating with Fr William Cunningham, she co-founded Focus: HOPE in 1968. Their goal was to fund and run practical programmes. They created the Machinist Training Institute by purchasing an unused factory and outfitting it with modern metalworking machines. They provided everything from classes about doing interviews to basic literacy. If someone was not ready for training or missed primary school time was taken to make sure that they received adequate education. Those who immediately benefited were women and minorities.

The 1970s presented Eleanor with trials. Her offices were firebombed and she was a victim of hate mail. But this only strengthened her resolve to help others.

Years later Eleanor took enormous pride in the fact that over 11,000 men and women had graduated from the training schemes she put in place. She died in 2011.

8. Mother Angelica

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

She became a nun when she was 30, but in those days was considered “a late vocation”. By the 1970s Mother Angelica had written 50 booklets and recorded 150 cassette tapes. Realising that her messages on the importance of Catholic identity could reach millions, she formed a tiny start-up in Catholic television, and in a few years she became a strong presence on north American cable networks. Some argued that radio was dying, but Mother Angelica expanded with a shortwave radio presence, followed by wide distribution on AM radio stations.

Her start-up, EWTN, is credited with being the catalyst in the sudden increase in Catholic radio stations across America. Without EWTN, smaller networks could never have afforded to produce Catholic programming to fill a daily schedule. Mother Angelica’s traditional habit of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration has been a great advertisement for religious life and has resulted in a surge of vocations to her order, and EWTN is recognised as the inspiration for the growth of Adoration chapels in the States.

None of this would have happened without Mother Angelica’s vision, drive, and fearlessness.

9. Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor is one of the best female novelists and short story writers ever to have lived.

She was the first novelist born in the 20th century to have her works published by the Library of America. And her Completed Stories won the 1972 National Book Award for Fiction and was hailed as the “Best of the National Book Awards” in 2009.

But her life was one of contradiction. She was born in 1925 to “an old Catholic family” in the Bible Belt. Her family were conspicuously Catholic, but O’Connor was an adept chronicler of southern Protestant life. O’Connor was convinced by the power of Catholic sacraments to change the human condition by divine grace.

Her novels, however, are dominated by fundamentalist Protestant characters who undergo their personal transformations after much suffering. Key to the success of her short stories and novels such as Wise Blood is that she had enormous respect for her Protestant subjects, admiring their search for truth and their discipline.

O’Connor was inspired by St Thomas Aquinas’s concept that the created world is charged with God, and the fervour with which she wrote about wild or serenely beautiful nature scenes testifies to her love of God’s creation.

O’Connor was a victim of lupus and died at 39.

10. Dolores Hope

Dolores Hope was born in Harlem to an Irish mother and an Italian father. She worked as a professional singer in New York City and married Bob Hope, the comedian, in 1934.

Despite being a talented vocalist, Dolores took time out of her career to raise four adopted children. She appeared in many of her husband’s television shows and on occasion accompanied him on his tours entertaining American troops. One Christmas they were entertaining the troops in Vietnam and Dolores performed “Silent Night” with such feeling that it reduced many of the soldiers to tears. That is but one example of how Dolores impressed others with her profound love of God.

She also had an abiding passion for improving the lives of others and was known as a champion of Catholic charities. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles benefited regularly from her generous donations. The Hope’s home had a chapel, and Dolores had a little way of encouraging their celebrity friends to read Catholic spirituality books.

John Paul II gave Bob and Dolores the honour of being a Knight and Dame of St Gregory the Great. Dolores was one of the very few women in the world to achieve this, along with Phyllis Bowman.

Dolores enjoyed a revival of her singing career in 1993 and recorded five albums.

She died in 2011, aged 102.

  • http://profiles.google.com/fightlikecrazy20 Josemaria Lazaro Errazuriz-For

    EWTN Inspired the Rise of Adoration Chapels?

    Could YOU please Cite your Sources about This Alleged Fact?

  • http://www.windsorlatinmass.org/ AlexB

    Until the mid to late 1980s, Eucharistic Adoration of any sort was rare indeed in North America. Likewise use of Latin in the Mass. As EWTN grew in popularity, Adoration, Adoration Chapels, Holy Hours, and the like began to blossom, as did scattered use of Latin in parishes where that was unthinkable only a few years prior. EWTN advocated these practices and was arguably reaching more people than any other Catholic media at the time. It is not illogical to see a connection.

  • Llaunaspol

    Even in an American-centered view such as in this article, Queen Isabel the Catholic of Spain should be present. She was the most influential woman in history and also in Church history. It was because of his support to Colombus that America exists and is the most Catholic continent in the world. She forbade the slavery of Indians and asked and provided for their evangelization. Without Queen Isabel there would not be America. 

  • guest

    God please help me to strive to be like these women

  • Jeannine

    I agree with you; although it looks like the author was going for recent history. To her list I would definitely add Pres Corazon Aquino of the Philippines.

  • seanie

    Saint Joan of Arc.  Saint Catherine of Siena.

  • Roseannek34

    I agree with all, happy to see little flower & mother theresa on the list but was hoping St.Faustina Kowalska would b included, the beautiful soul who brought the vision and message of divine mercy to the world

  • Parasum

    Marie Curie doesn’t get a look in ? Shame :(

  • Parasum

    “She was the most influential woman in history and also in Church history.”

    ## “In history” ? That is a long long time, and a lot of space.  It’s a mammoth of a claim. The whole premise of the article is pretty silly: especially as no “baddies” figure. Just a bit too convenient.

    As for the US being “most Catholic Continent”….  I thought only US Evangelicals went in for the “Most Christian Country” game: the same claim is made for the US as “Most Protestant Country” (sometimes with the UK in a supporting part)

  • Matt R

     He was referring to the continent at large, which would include Central America…the US is not a continent.

  • liulan991

    tinyurl.com/73huk6r

  • Balds50

    What about Margaret Thatcher, who was a Methodist and also hanged her country and its people (not always for the better).Don’t only focus on Catholics. What about President Gloria Arroyo, classmate of Bill Clinton at Yale. She is currently mired in a corruption scandal but she did abolish the death penalty in her ountry – the Philippines!
    What about Mary Robinson in Ireland? Graca Machel who is now Graca Mandela? isn’t she worthy of anything? And the countless lady nuns and modern ladies groups that have opposed ABORTION. What about the ladies who have founded female religious organisations like Sister Clare, the founder of the Franciscan nuns?
    What about the greatest of them all? Mary the mother of Jesus Christ? Her “yes”to the invitation of the angel Gabriel was the pivotal moment that changed Western civilisation for ever.She answered without hesitation and thewhole histroy of the world was changed (for the better!)

  • 5mdriscoll

    Thanks for this article.  I will be able to read on some new mentors and how they walked their path in grace. :)

  • maideqi

    tinyurl.com/73huk6r

  • John of Moonah

    Mary of Nazareth wasn’t a Catholic.

  • John of Moonah

    Nor American!

  • Joe Paris Lee

    No mention of St Mary MacKillop, or St Mary of the Cross, Australia’s first saint? If we all followed her example the world really would change.

  • Ronk

     surely the most influential woman in history was the Blessed Virgin Mary.
    Maybe Isabella would come equal 2nd with St Helena who so transformed western civilization.

  • Ronk

     Pretty bizarre to say that a list of “Catholic women who changed the world” should include a non-Catholic.

  • Ronk

     She was and is the first Catholic and is the Mother of the Catholic Church.

  • Sean_haran

    I add Mabel Haran, without whom there would be no CFC-Wales, and so CFC-UK National Conference 2012 in Wales, and no annual Santa Cruzan / Flores de Mayo in the Diocese of Menevia

  • Mina Barker

    That 

  • robertamorocco

    That Dorothy Day “never quite [became] a Communist” is
    not so. In the Nov. 1949 “Catholic Worker,” Day called herself “an ex-Communist.” Copious evidence that Day’s Marxist political
    beliefs outlasted her conversion is presented in “The Catholic Worker Movement (1933-1980): A Critical
    Analysis,” by Carol Byrne. This essential work shows that Day  worked for “revolution” until the end of her life, cooperating with Communist Party USA Chairman Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and “Daily Worker” editor Mike Gold,  whose “proletarian” novel “Jews without
    Money,” she praised. (The novel’s hero exclaims “O workers’ Revolution …. You are the true Messiah.”) Day was a  public speaker with Gurley Flynn, as well as a “hand-picked” observer at an annual Communist Party Convention.  She and French-born socialist agitator Peter Maurin attempted to fashion a “Christian communism” and
    graft it onto the Catholic faith.  Dr. Byrne’s book is available at amazon.com; her  extensive supplementary notes are at http://www.communigate.co.uk/ne/tradition/page42.phtml. “Dorothy Day Another Way” ( dorothydayworker.blogspot.com)
    is a US blog that asserts Day is not worthy of canonization. Day  said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be
    dismissed so easily.”

  • renming328

    tinyurl.com/cyrj7eu

  • beimabao

    tinyurl.com/73huk6r

  • ubiPetrusEst

    I don’t believe Dorothy Day should be included, despite the current myth that she was not a Communist. After
    her conversion, Day did not change her Marxist and pro-Communist views.
    She still believed in class warfare, the withering away of the
    state, and a revolution that would overthrow the US’s system, which she
    claimed “is not worth maintaining.” She continued to support Communist causes in the “Catholic Worker,” to appear publicly
    with Communists, and to send  writings to “The Daily Worker.” The main
    change in her view was her “hope”  that the “inevitable” revolution
    would be “nonviolent.” Day called herself “an ex-Communist” in the
    “Catholic Worker,” while those who disagreed called her “Moscow Mary.”
    Evidence of Day’s unchanged political beliefs is provided in Carol Byrne’s book “The
    Catholic Worker Movement: A Critical Analysis” and in  her Supplementary
    Notes (posted on the Internet), as well as the blog “Dorothy Day
    Another Way.” Both Day and Peter  Maurin sought to baptize their
    Socialist views by working “to make the rich poor, and the poor
    holy”–as Maurin phrased it