Leadership Conference of Women Religious

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LCWR History

1950 | 1960 | 1970 | 1980 | 1990 | 2000 | 2010


Pope Pius XII convenes the First General Congress of the States of Perfection, calling to Rome the superiors general of religious orders throughout the world. 

August 1952

The heads of men and women's religious organizations meet at the National Congress of Religious of the USA. Reverend Arcadio Larraona, secretary of the Congregation for Religious, refers to a "movement" requiring change: "We must live in our times and according to the needs of our times." Mother Gerald Barry, OP, chaired a national committee of sisters to plan the women's section of the Congress. 

September 1952

At the First World Congress of Mothers General of Pontifical Right, Larraona again asks the women present what their founders would do if confronted with the needs of the world today. 

April 1956

The Vatican's Congregation for Religious asked U.S. sisters to form a national conference. 

November 24, 1956

The U.S. sisters' committee invites general and provincial superiors of pontifical communities to Chicago to discuss the formation of a national conference. By unanimous vote, the Conference of Major Superiors of Women (CMSW) is launched to: 

  • promote the spiritual welfare of the women religious of the USA 
  • insure increasing efficacy in their apostolate 
  • foster closer fraternal cooperation with all religious of the United States, the hierarchy, the clergy, and Catholic associations. 


The Conference promotes its first regional program: "Revitalizing Religious Life for the Individual and the Community through Combating the Effects of Naturalism, Lack of Mortification, and Excessive Activity." 


CMSW forms standing committees on Latin America, Catechetics, Health, and Finance. Florence Wolff, SL, is named the first part-time national coordinator.


Second National Congress of Religious in the USA convenes superiors of men's and women's communities at the University of Notre Dame. Archbishop Agostino Casaroli asks U.S. communities to commit ten percent of their personnel to Latin America over the next decade. 


The National Secretariat moves to Washington, DC. 


First "CMSW National Conference" brings together membership in a single location for the first time with a program that included a formal business meeting. National Chair, Consolatrice Wright, BVM, challenges communities to listen to the "eternal now" of the Spirit. Mary Luke Tobin, SL, is elected national chair; the CMSW National Executive Committee sends her to Rome to "hang around the halls of the [third session of the Second Vatican] council" to see what she could learn. On the way to Rome, she is invited by the Vatican to be one of a handful of women observers. Rose Emmanuella Brennan, SNJM, becomes the first full-time executive director of the Conference. 


A national gathering of CMSW with the theme, "Sisters and the Council," marks the beginning of annual assemblies. The National Executive Committee initiates the Canon Law Committee so that U.S. women religious have a voice in the revision of church law. The first of many assembly resolutions is adopted at the national meeting. 


The national assembly, called "The Sisters' Survey," focuses on results of a Conference-sponsored survey of active women religious in the United States. The study, conducted by Marie Augusta Neal, SND, is designed to provide hard data to individual communities about their members' readiness to adopt Vatican II's mandate for renewal. 


CMSW submits Proposed Norms for Consideration in the Revision of the Code of Canon Law to the cardinals on the Pontifical Commission for the Revision of the Code of Canon Law. In a follow-up questionnaire, eighty-nine percent of members indicated that Norms had a positive influence on renewal in their communities. The first meeting of "the new liaison committee" marks a formal mechanism for regular CMSW contact with American bishops. 


The National Executive Committee begins an organizational study of CMSW's purpose and services. 


The regions are restructured with the original six replaced by the present fifteen; and all members enjoy universal suffrage, able to vote for national officers for the first time. The concept of a three-stage "presidency" is defined. 


The national assembly, meeting in Atlanta, adopts new bylaws and changes the name of the organization to Leadership Conference of Women Religious . Other "firsts:" The first assembly entrusted to a program committee; the first with pre-assembly seminar preparation; the first mixing content with large group and workshop sessions; turned the face of the Conference firmly toward justice issues. 

A splinter group of CMSW members holds a meeting. With the name Consortium Perfectae Caritatis (CPC), the group drew members concerned that the newly-named LCWR was deviating from "authentic" church teaching about the essentials of religious life.  The first of ongoing periodic meetings among women and men religious in Canada, Latin America, and the United States. 

Meeting as we do at a moment when our nation, our world, our Church are all "facing an uncertain future" (Apostolic Letter from Paul VI on the Occasion of the Eightieth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum), we have a special opportunity to witness to the charity that fosters mutual trust, the charity that casts out fear, the charity that is the source of joy which we experience when, in Christian hope, we feel we can face the future with confidence. I am confident that we can spend these days together in Atlanta, to quote a phrase from [Paul VI's recent apostolic exhortation to the religious of the world], in "that understanding cordiality which nourishes hope." The theme of this national assembly is expressed in a sentence spoken at a historic moment by Pope Paul VI: It was November 21, 1964, the closing of the third session of the Second Vatican Council "The Church," the Vicar of Christ affirmed, "is for the world!" At that moment the Pope was stating in capsule form what the Council said at great length and in many ways.  
-- Angelita Myerscough, ASC, LCWR President 1971-72


National membership numbers 648 members from 370 religious communities. They are 241 general superiors; 267 provincial superiors, and 140 others (regional superiors, members of executive committees, etc.). The Assembly has been responsive to the needs of migrant people, the displaced people of Northeast Pennsylvania, the oppressed of Bangladesh and of others in the Third World. The United States Catholic Mission Council, the National Sister Formation Conference, the National Sister Vocation Conference and NETWORK have been beneficiaries of LCWR members' support.

One danger for us is that we may become legitimators of society's commonly held values. The values we hold and the faith we articulate require strong supportive communities and a degree of apartness from the dominant culture if our life and mission are to be counter-signs to society's consumptive style, to its power to alienate and to destroy. Can we as a Conference discover ways to be supportive to one another in offering alternatives to society's prevailing mores?  
-- Margaret Brennan, IHM, LCWR President 1972-73


Regional programs and activities emphasize evangelization, the Gospel way of justice and the faith dimension of femininity. The creation of communications centers; the sharing in national Catechetical Directory (NCD) consultations; reconciliation experiences; participation in workshops sponsored by the LCWR Global Ministry committee; days of retreat; inter-congregational renewal experiences; actions in reference to the displaced persons of southeast Asia; assisting in the programming for the 41st International Eucharistic Congress; and efforts to speak out when human rights are violated are among regional endeavors. 


The Conference began a goal-setting process to clarify priorities in programming and allocation of resources. The resulting goals: to articulate a contemporary theology of religious life; education for justice; prayer, study and action on women's issues; collaboration with others to the maximum extent possible. 


The LCWR Office is granted non-governmental status at the United Nations, bringing the perspective of the woman religious to issues of disarmament, woman, and human rights through the practice of permitting certified organizations to participate on international committees. Marjorie Keenan, RSHM, of the LCWR staff, was appointed to the Peace and Justice Commission of the Vatican, a first for an American woman religious. 


The first joint LCWR/CMSM assembly, "Convergence," focuses on the connection between actions of U.S. corporations and poverty and oppression in the Third World.

Since 1973, the Conference has carried out extensive programs related to transforming the perceptions of and about women. We have promoted the recognition of sexism as destructive of both women and men. If we choose to continue work on this goal, from the position of our increased consciousness, we need to determine what options will most effectively insure images, structures and ways of relating consonant with God's reign. 
-- Joan Keleher Doyle, BVM, LCWR President, LCWR Conference Report 1978 


Theresa Kane, RSMLCWR president Theresa Kane, RSM addresses Pope John Paul II at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC on October 7, 1979.

As president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, it was my privilege to extend greetings to the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, last October when he visited this country for the first time. I thought it appropriate to pledge our solidarity with the Pope as he called our attention to the serious responsibilities we have to our sisters and brothers who live in poverty and destitution. I also sensed the need of some women to articulate their growing concern about being included in all ministries within the church. ä Within my own heart there were only sentiments of profound fidelity, honesty, and sincerity to our God and to our Church. As a result of the greeting, a few congregations withdrew from the conference. ä Through that experience LCWR became more public; the membership gained new responsibilities. Reflection papers commissioned by the Conference will analyze "the voice of the faithful" as found in the thousands of letters received. 
-- Theresa Kane, RSM, LCWR President 1979-80



Purchase of Silver Spring, MD, property gives National Office a permanent home. No-interest loans and gifts from members help LCWR secure the 8808 Cameron Street office it shares with CMSM. 

The challenge of leadership in our time is balanced in the tension of two juxtaposed realities. The first, graphically illustrated in the recent Study of Retirement Concerns, shows increasing numbers of aged members and dwindling financial resources. The second, our expanding awareness of human needs crying out for our presence, is the hard country we are called to enter. ä We are on a frontier of vast need, desirous of fulfilling our destiny to be servants, given that others might have life. There are far fewer of us than the tasks demand, but enough to begin. The exploration into prophecy does not require large numbers, but large faith. 
-- Bette Moslander, CSJ, LCWR President's Message, 1981-82


The Papal Commission on Religious Life (Quinn Commission) is instituted. LCWR members assist ordinaries and vicars in the design of listening sessions. Bette Moslander, CSJ, is appointed the Commission's official liaison with LCWR. In her response to Archbishop John R. Quinn's presentation about the Commission at the November 1983 National Conference of Catholic Bishops' meeting, she became the first woman to address the NCCB body.  The 1984 National Assembly in Kansas City resolved LCWR had a legitimate role to play in assisting members facing ecclesiastical problems. After a statement on plurality and abortion appears in the New York Times (October 7, 1984), the Conference provides canonical and theological resources to members involved in the resulting controversy; the LCWR presidency met with the apostolic pro-nuncio and the NCCB. 


The Tri-Conference Religious Retirement Office is formed by LCWR, CMSM, and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. (The office is later named the National Religious Retirement Office.) 

The theme of the assembly this year , uncovering the holy , invites us to find and reveal God in every reality we encounter: ourselves, others, the events and situations of life; it summons us to reverence what is holy and to transform what is not. ä Transformation calls us to justice; communion moves us beyond justice to love with the foolishness of Christ. The feminine experience of exclusion leads us to seek a God whose power invites, enables, and loves. The experience of domination teaches us to embrace conditions of life in order to use our power to transform them. 
-- Miriam Therese Larkin, CSJ, LCWR Presidential Reflection, 1986


First meeting of the Tri-Conference Commission on Religious Life and Ministry formed as the result of a Quinn Commission recommendation. The bishops, CMSM, and LCWR choose to focus on three areas: identity of religious life, collaboration, and procedures for ongoing issues. 

The 1989 Assembly explores the future of religious life; and results in the articulation of ten "transformative elements" that describe how leaders see religious life of the future. 



LCWR establishes a framework for collaboration with the Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM) by approving a memorandum of understanding on collaboration between the two Conferences.

. .. I see our collective efforts have focused on creating the results we desire through active engagement with others ä we had opportunities to be in dialogue with several groups: those representing women religious not affiliated with LCWR, the Catholic Health Care Coalition, the Catholic Education Futures Project, and the InterAmerican Conference. These encounters revealed the complexities of inter-organizational dynamics and the need for openness and flexibility in dealing constructively with diversity in language, process, and corporate culture.
-- Kathleen Popko, SP LCWR President 1990-91  


LCWR publishes Threads for the Loom: LCWR Planning and Ministry Studies , a compilation of the comprehensive ministry survey engineered by Anne Munley, IHM. 


Synod on Consecrated Life is held in Rome. LCWR members participate in pre-synod activities, including a comprehensive critique of the lineamenta . LCWR past president, Doris Gottemoeller, RSM, is named an auditor of the Synod. 

A think tank on the viability of religious institutes launches the Collaborative Viability Project, a joint effort of LCWR, the National Association for Treasurers of Religious Institutes (NATRI), and the National Religious Retirement Office (NRRO). The project later publishes materials to help religious institutes assess their likelihood of survival into the future and offers consultation teams to help religious interpret results of their viability self-assessment. 


Louise Akers, SC, the associate director for social concerns, and other LCWR members participate in the UN's Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. 

The renewal of our congregations, accomplished amidst unprecedented changes in culture and world order over the past thirty years, has brought us to a moment where the only questions that matter are profound: What is the mission God asks of religious in this post-modern world? What is the unique contribution of this way of life to the community called Church? 
-- Doris Gottemoeller, RSM LCWR President 1994-95


LCWR publishes Creating a Home: Benchmarks for Church Leadership Roles for Women , the result of a two-year study addressing a question from U.S. bishops: If ordination is closed to women, in what alternate ways can they exercise leadership in the church? The book lists 15 recommendations covering due process, personnel policies, compensation, theological education.  Prior to the national Assembly in Atlanta, more than 400 LCWR members hold a prayer vigil outside the gates of Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, home to the School of the Americas. The sisters call for the closing of the School, which has trained numerous Latin American soldiers tied to death, disappearances, and human rights abuses. 


A think tank on leadership results in the identification of capacities, skills, and competencies required for effective religious leadership. A small booklet, Dimensions of Leadership , defines these capacities as spiritual, relational, and organizational. LCWR collaborates in the Collaborative Viability Project to assist communities in assessing their "health" in the areas of mission, leadership, membership, resources, planning, and risk taking. LCWR further trains leaders to participate in on-site consultations, along with finance experts, to help communities evaluate their responses to the self-assessment. 


Another LCWR collaboration, the Center for the Study of Religious Life, opens in June at its headquarters at Catholic Theological Union. Its mission is to undertake interdisciplinary reflection on the experience of religious life since Vatican II. LCWR's partners are the Conference of Major Superiors of Men and CTU. 

The CMSM-LCWR joint assembly, "Human Rights at the Heart of Our Mission" results in "a clear call to conversion" from participants on attitudes, understand of and complicity in racism, sexism, unjust economic systems and other human rights violations. 

An LCWR task force begins a study of non-ordained persons in significant leadership positions in the church. The outcomes projected are quantitative and qualitative data to advance the discussion of the role of women in the church. 

Responding to a call from the LCWR Women's Task Force, women religious throughout the country organize "Gatherings of Women" to promote the roles of women in society through dialogue with women who are socially, economically, and culturally diverse. 

Several hundred women religious join thousands who gather at Fort Benning, the Georgia military base that houses the School of the Americas, which trains military leaders, and some say terrorists, from Central America. The peaceful protest succeeds to the degree that the hundreds who crossed the line without permission are not arrested and the publicity raises consciousness about legislation to close the SOA.


The LCWR Ministry Committee conducts a survey on the foundations and grants which religious communities use to fund collaborative ministries.

LCWR representatives from across the 15 regions gather to draft goals for the next five years, 1999-2004.



LCWR members commit themselves to a year of contemplation and fasting for the healing of broken relationships within the church and society. Individual congregations commit themselves to taking at least one day of the year to hold the church and world in a contemplative space, thus ensuring that prayer and fasting were happening every day of the year 2001.

The Conference of Pastoral Planning and Council Development honors LCWR with its 2001 Lumen Gentium Award, as "an effective vehicle for women religious in planning and process development."

LCWR publishes Women and Jurisdiction: An Unfolding Reality, a ground-breaking benchmarks study examining how women in Catholic church leadership roles participate in decision-making in the church with regard to church personnel, property and policy.


LCWR publishes Carriers of the Story: A Leadership Conference of Women Religious Ministry Study, authored by Anne Munley, IHM, which traces the ministries of US women religious in institutes led by LCWR members.


Mary Luke Tobin, SLLCWR establishes its Outstanding Leadership Award to recognize and honor persons and groups who have significantly contributed to the ministry of leadership and who reflect the LCWR mission. The award is presented annually at the LCWR assembly. The first award is presented to Mary Luke Tobin, SL.


LCWR and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) conducts a study to assess the extent to which religious institutes of women have put in place policies, procedures, and practices to prevent sexual abuse by members and to address allegations when they arise.


At the LCWR assembly, members call for a coordinated effort to assist the women religious in New Orleans in their recovery from the previous year’s hurricanes. In response, LCWR, in collaboration with the Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities (FADICA), establishes the New Orleans Recovery Project. The money raised will assist women religious to restore or reconstruct their ministries and housing, enabling them to continue their service to the people of New Orleans.


On May 19 the LCWR traveling exhibit, Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America opens at The Cincinnati Museum Center. The exhibit tells the story of women religious and their contributions to the growth of the United States and showcases more than 70 artifacts never before on public display. These items include a handwritten letter from President Thomas Jefferson, a cradle from the New York Foundling Home, a replica of an infant incubator designed by a sister, traveling trunks, journals of immigration experiences, pioneering healthcare devices, diaries, musical instruments, and more. The exhibit is scheduled to go to The Women's Museum: An Institute for the Future (Dallas, Texas); the S. Dillon Ripley Center at  Smithsonian (Washington, DC); Statue of Liberty National Monument/Ellis Island Immigration Museum (Liberty Island, New York); the Mississippi River Museum (Dubuque, Iowa); the Maltz Museum for Jewish Heritage (Cleveland, Ohio); Mount St. Mary College (Los Angeles, California); the Center for History (South Bend, Indiana); and the California Museum of History (Sacramento, California).


On September 22 the US House of Representatives unanimously approves a resolution honoring the historic contributions of Catholic women religious. The resolution (HR 441) "honors and commends Catholic sisters for their humble service and courageous sacrifice throughout the history of this nation; and supports the goals of the Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America Traveling Exhibit, a project sponsored by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in association with Cincinnati Museum Center and established to recognize the historical contributions of Catholic sisters in the United States." The Honorable Marcy Kaptur of Ohio introduced the resolution.

At its annual national conference Pax Christi USA bestows the Eileen Egan Peacemaker Award on LCWR.


Several organizations honor LCWR with awards. The University of San Francisco confers the degree doctor of humane letters on LCWR on behalf of all US women religious. The American Catholic Historical Society bestows its Service to Catholic Studies Award for the Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America exhbit. The National Federation of Priests' Councils presents its Mandatum Award for service to the Gospel of Jesus Christ given by LCWR and women religious.

LCWR produces a one-hour documentary entitled Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America that also tells the story of the contributions of women religious to the nation. National Public Radio senior news analyst and ABC News political commentator Cokie Roberts donates her services as the documentary narrator.