Background: American Catholics and World War One

Joan of Arc Post, 1918

A Joan of Arc themed poster links Americans to Europe in an appeal to buy war savings stamps, 1918 (Courtesy Library of Congress).  

With the “total wars” of the twentieth century, all of U.S. society’s resources were marshalled toward victory in the conflicts.  The First World War, a shorter conflict for the U.S., required less of a commitment, but set the template for the organizational activity that would take place in the Second World War.

U.S. involvement in World War One was precipitated by the sinking of the British ship, the Lusitania (128 Americans were among the 1,198 killed), by a German submarine in 1915 and the revelation of the “Zimmerman telegram” proposing that Mexico ally with the Germans should the U.S. enter the war.  The U.S. was involved in the war from April 6, 1917 to November 11, 1918. 

Nearly 5 million personnel were mobilized to fight the war (of a U.S. population of about 105 million).  Two million U.S. soldiers fought in the war, with 116,000 dying.  The conflict was further complicated by a flu epidemic, which claimed 43,000 U.S. lives.  The war saw 38 million military and civilian casualties, with more than 17 million people dying in the war globally. 

Catholics, many of them immigrants, were generally neutral when the war broke out in June of 1914.  Generally marginalized from mainstream American life due to their ethnic and/or religious affiliations and not generally attached to the forces that led to the outbreak of war in their homelands, most Catholics in the U.S. didn’t feel engaged with the conflict in Europe. 

When the war came, the American bishops expressed support for the “Preparedness Movement.”  Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore endorsed universal military training.  After Congress declared war on Germany, the US archbishops informed President Woodrow Wilson: “We are all true Americans, ready as our age, our ability, and our conditions will permit, to do whatsoever is in us to do, for the preservation, the progress and the triumph of our beloved country.”

This marked the beginning of participation in large scale national activities for Catholics in the U.S.   From Liberty Loan drives to raise money to fight the war to Red Cross drives, United War Work, and war saving stamps sales, Catholics participated in all of these.  One million Catholics were among those serving in the armed forces, gathered from a total of about 17 million Catholics in the U.S.

The Knights of Columbus, the largest lay Catholic organization in the country, spearheaded much of the Catholic service effort during the war.  The Knights ran recreational facilities, offices, chapels, and hundreds of centers stateside and overseas to provide services and recreation to soldiers.  The thinking was that Catholics could be offered services—religious, social, and recreational—more relevant to their social and cultural worldviews through their own cultural institutions.

The Knights carried the full service burden at the time because in 1917 the Catholic Church had no national organization to provide such services.  The only vehicle for unified action among the U.S. Bishops was through the annual gathering of the archbishops, who since 1890 met on an unofficial basis. 

In 1917, several key figures  gathered to discuss how to address the situation: John J. Burke and Lewis O’Hern, Paulist Fathers, William Kerby, a sociologist at Catholic University, and U.S. Commissioner of Labor, Charles P. Neill, who was also a member of the government’s Commission on Training Camp Activities.  One hundred fifteen delegates from sixty-eight dioceses and twenty-seven societies selected John Burke to to head the new National Catholic War Council. 

At the time, the formation of the new organization was a big step, and in retrospect even more so.  The National Catholic War Council (NCWC) evolved into the National Catholic Welfare Conference and today is known as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.  At the time, it marked the first national commitment to social and political action by organized Catholics in the United States. 

The early NCWC collaborated with the Knights of Columbus to organize services during the war.  Catholic women, as these documents and photos suggest, were an integral part of that effort. 


Catholic Women’s Organizations and World War One

The Daughters of Isabella and the Catholic Daughters of America

The Daughters of Isabella was founded in 1897 in New Haven, Connecticut as an auxiliary group to the Knights of Columbus. The founding women and men were inspired by the example of Queen Isabella from Spain as a strong and independent Catholic woman who cared deeply for the education of her children and countrymen.

The Daughters of Isabella, whose motto is “Unity, Friendship and Charity,” was originally open to women whose male family members were in the Knights of Columbus, but eventually became open to all Catholic women. In 1903, a second Daughters of Isabella was established in Utica, New York with the intention of becoming a national organization under the same name. Similarly to the New Haven group, the Daughters of Isabella in Utica was established as a ladies auxiliary to the Knights of Columbus. The incorporation of the Utica court in New York, otherwise known as the “National Order of Daughters of Isabella,” led to a long legal dispute, ending in 1921 with the Utica court changing their name to the Catholic Daughters of America (which became Catholic Daughters of the Americas in 1954 to reflect their expansion overseas). The Catholic Daughters of the Americas' motto is “Unity and Charity.” Both groups participate in charity work, hold social functions for their members, and have a legislative arm for lobbying.

The National Council of Catholic Women

The NCCW was founded in 1920 as an initiative of the lay organization department of the National Catholic Welfare Council (formerly the National Catholic War Council). Thousands of independent Catholic women’s organizations existed in the United States in the early twentieth century, and the Council believed that they needed a unified voice, especially following the passage of the 19th amendment to the Constitution allowing women to vote.

The NCCW volunteers in Catholic Action projects and acts as spokespeople for social issues affecting women. The NCCW is an umbrella organization for many lay women’s groups, including the Daughters of Isabella and the Catholic Daughters of America.


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