To be in the Union of Catholic Mothers means, as its enthusiastic members will tell you, being part of a nationwide family which supports you through good times and bad.
The UCM celebrates its centenary this year and Margaret McDonald, deputy president of the Liverpool branch, sums it up perfectly: ‘It is a family, and everyone is always there to share joys and sorrows.’
Her friend and colleague Ann Hogg knows this all too well. Ann, the UCM media officer, says: ‘Without the UCM I don’t know how I would have coped for the last 10 years of my life.’
Ann had an operation in 2000 following diagnosis of cancer of the womb. ‘I said the UCM would get me through it and with all the prayers from members all over the country, I sailed through.
‘When the Macmillan nurses asked me if I wanted someone to talk to me, I said, ‘No thank you, I’ve got the UCM’. Sadly, Ann’s troubles did not end there – in November 2009 her only child, Susan, who had alcohol-related problems, died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage, and five months later, her husband, Arthur, died of a heart attack. ‘ Again, the UCM got me through it,’ Ann adds quietly.
As both women point out, the UCM’s close, caring network ensures that those in difficulty receive support from fellow members across the country. ‘You get prayers and messages from all over the place, from Portsmouth to Cumbria,’ says Margaret. Ann adds: ‘I got hundreds of cards and emails when Susan and Arthur died. Masses were said in Rome and Dublin. It’s hard to put into words what support you get from the UCM.’
You could not talk to better people than these two doughty ladies about the UCM, which began in Liverpool in 1913 in Archbishop Thomas Whiteside’s day. Liverpool is one of the original member groups dating from that period, along with Bath, Birmingham, Boscombe, Brighton, Cambridge, Hartlepool, Huddersfield, Newcastle, Salford and Wolverhampton.
The UCM owes its existence to Mrs Ethelreda Chichester of Tiverton, Devon, who with her sister Miss Berkeley created a plan for the fledgling organisation. At a meeting in Leeds in 1913, Cardinal Bourne subsequently gave the Catholic Women’s League a mandate to develop the UCM. He felt it had something to contribute: the insistence of the sacramental character and permanence of marriage, a Catholic education for children, the training of members as ‘public-spirited citizens’ and ‘their active share of good works […] combined with a deep spiritual culture’. Some years later, Martha Thornley, UCM President from 1930-33, wrote in her notes of: ‘Our mothers who have always given me their unfailing loyalty and devotion. When I was glad they rejoiced with me, when I was ill or sorry they prayed with me.’ That tradition is as strong as ever.
Margaret McDonald, a mother of five from West Derby, has been in the UCM for 41 years and she saw the membership in the Archdiocese of Liverpool grow to more than 2,500 in its heyday. Interestingly, she is a former Church of England member who, at 20, decided to become a Catholic after reading Catholic Truth Society leaflets and going to a local priest to ask him to explain the faith. Born in Chester, she met her husband Brian in the police force and they transferred to Liverpool together. She was in St Paul’s parish and quickly became involved in the local UCM. She recalls: ‘May Derbyshire, who was from West Derby and the national treasurer, roped me in at a time when Bishop Kevin O’Connor was national chaplain and I ended up as vice-president. I became president and now I am deputy president of Liverpool foundation.”
She explains that the UCM was originally affiliated to the Catholic Women’s League but soon established itself as an organisation for ‘ordinary, everyday women’. The first foundation in Liverpool was at St Peter and St Paul in Crosby. There are currently around 700 members in the Archdiocese.
Records show that in 1936 the Liverpool membership was 1,240 and there were 29 foundations (parish branches). Members paid two pence a year subscription, though one generous lady paid one shilling and another the grand sum of two guineas!
On the recent decline in membership, Margaret adds: ‘It’s a generation thing. In the early 90s, when there were over 2,500 members, women didn’t go to work as much as they do now and they enjoyed going out to meet people. Now it’s a different scene and when they do go out after a busy week, it’s to something like a club.’ But, as Ann points out, the ethos of the UCM is unstinting: it is still there to support women, through caring companionship and prayer.
Ann Hogg grew up in Garston, in St Francis of Assisi parish. Her mother helped clean the church; she herself sang in the choir. Ann met her husband, Arthur, a cinema projectionist, through her office job with the National Association of Theatrical and Kine Employees. As for the UCM, she ‘was persuaded to join by one of our church members at St Thomas of Canterbury in Waterloo. For 12 years I didn’t take on any role because my husband worked evenings and I had to look after Susan. But when she got older I was asked to run a quiz for them and I don’t know how it happened but a year later I became parish president!’
That was just the start. At a bi-monthly Mass one of the diocesan officers asked Ann to put herself forward as Liverpool vice-president; then she was voted diocesan secretary, a post she kept for seven years. As study officer for the Archdiocese’s UCM, meanwhile, she organised wide-ranging talks – one month, a surgeon came to discuss breast cancer, another month Muslim women gave reflections on their faith.
She went on to serve as Liverpool Archdiocese president for three years, then three years as deputy. Now she is the media officer, writing a monthly Catholic Pic column. ‘In January I did something very silly. I went to the loo in the middle of a committee meeting and when I came back I was told I was study officer again!’ she laughs.
The Liverpool UCM holds bi-monthly Masses in different parishes and has built up relationships with the C of E Mothers’ Union, Jewish Ladies and the Salvation Army, attending each other’s events. It should be added that the UCM is something of a misnomer as not all members are mothers; indeed some are neither married nor Catholic in an organisation open to any women who uphold UCM ideals. The organisation believes in having fun – be it talks or demonstrations, social outings or bingo – but also meets regularly for prayer, and seeks to help families and others in difficulty.
They are having a year of celebrations and this month Liverpool mothers will hold a Mass of Thanksgiving in the Metropolitan Cathedral on Saturday 15 June. Liverpool was one of the original foundations and so has a full hundred years to celebrate. Their work, devotion and dedication are an incredible, if often silent, manifestation of the Church in the world. The Childrens Chapel in the Cathedral is where their memorial to babies and the unborn victims of abortion is situated. A place of quiet prayer and reflection and a source of comfort to many.
After the Mass of Thanksgiving there is a reception at Liverpool's Adelphi Hotel with buffet and entertainment (tickets £17.50 each). There will also be a national celebration at Westminster Cathedral on 21 September. For further details, contact Margaret McDonald on 0151 228 8228.