A Living Tradition

Members of the advisory committee for the League of Catholic Women Foundation. Left to right: Rita Fox, Dar Gerber, Lisa Fitzgerald Miller, Julie Ann Schmidt, Mimi Palen-Clare, Marta Melin, and Jean Dunn.

For more than 100 years, the League of Catholic Women has empowered women by opening doors of opportunity to a hopeful future. Ever since its establishment in 1911, the League has run programs no one else would, helping women reach their fullest potential — even before women were granted the right to vote.

Charity work in the 1930s. From the League of Catholic Women Archival Collection held at the Basilica of Saint Mary Archives, Minneapolis.

Bold, welcoming, and unwavering, the League has always operated independently of any parish or diocese. It provided stable housing for immigrants, served meals for seniors longing for connections, organized outreach for women with AIDS, ran group homes for at-risk youth, and outfitted women entering the workforce with professional clothing — always rising to the occasion to meet the greatest needs of the time.

Recently, the League embarked on a monumental transformation to ensure its longstanding legacy endures amid a changing landscape. It partnered with the Catholic Community Foundation of Minnesota (CCF) to establish a foundation and become a perpetual grantmaker, carrying forth the tradition set by its foremothers.

Charting a New Path

Lisa Fitzgerald Miller originally joined the League in 1995. Her participation waned as she raised her four children. By the time she became more active again 15 years later, she recognized significant changes. The membership base was aging. Millennials entrenched in family life and careers had less interest in the membership model of volunteerism.

“Younger generations have their own way of giving back, and it’s different from what the League offered,” Lisa explains.

The members faced a crossroads. They saw the value of their expansive programs in the countless women and children impacted by their ministries. They held close to their deeply rooted relationships, strengthened by decades of serving side by side. No one wanted to walk away.

Rising League members knew that to effectively continue their charitable mission they needed to transform their model of impact and governance. The League sold its headquarters, a historic home in downtown Minneapolis, and began working out of The Woman’s Club nearby.

With funds from the sale, League members discussed how they could be the best stewards of their resources and carry out their mission in a different way.

Lisa, as newly elected board president, established a transition team and enlisted the help of Mimi Palen-Clare, president of Executive Growth Advisors, to navigate a pivotal discernment process. Together, they redefined the League’s vision and set a direction for a sustainable future.

“It was a difficult and painful, yet exciting, transition process,” says Mimi. “Members were grieving a part of the past that was changing while opening the door to an exciting future — and nobody anticipated how great the future could be.”

Opening Doors to a Great Future

Looking to connect with an organization that shares in its Catholic values, the League identified CCF as an ideal partner to execute its new vision. To fulfill the League’s intent to serve women in the community for years to come, CCF recommended establishing a foundation using an endowment to give grants to missionaligned organizations and projects. Through an endowment, the League could distribute nearly $100,000 to grantees — every single year in perpetuity.

Luncheon. From the League of Catholic Women Archival Collection held at the Basilica of Saint Mary Archives, Minneapolis.

League members were amazed at the possibilities for such an impactful legacy, but many were hesitant and emotional about dissolving a 100+-year-old membership organization.

Two members of CCF’s leadership team, Meg Payne Nelson and Christopher Nelson (no relation), met personally with League members to answer questions and address concerns. They reassured them that existing relationships and programs could — and should — continue.

“The second that somebody takes the time to do that, you know you’re in good hands,” Lisa says.

In 2020 an implementation group of League members and CCF representatives worked to create the new League of Catholic Women Foundation (LCWF). To keep League members involved and the mission entrenched in how funds were disbursed, CCF suggested establishing an advisory committee to identify annual grant recipients.

Through CCF’s broad network, the LCWF advisory committee has access to an even larger base of potential grantees whose work aligns with the League’s mission to empower women to build successful futures.

Carrying On the Spirit of Service

The partnership between CCF and the League ensures this mission is carried out indefinitely. Through CCF’s stewardship, compassionate service, and Catholic identity, League members feel assured that the spirit of service and compassion established by the League’s foremothers more than a century ago will be honored forever.

“At the end of the day, doing good never changes,” Lisa says. “The way we do it may change, but CCF will see to it that our legacy will carry on forever.”

Former co-president Julie Ann Schmidt joined the League as a college student in the 1990s. She was drawn to the dynamic group of faithful women leading meaningful work in the Twin Cities.

After seeing more than $98,000 awarded to 17 organizations in July 2021, she knows the League’s foremothers would be pleased.

“We’re a living foundation,” Julie Ann says. “We’re a living tradition of women doing great work.”


Click here to learn more about the League of Catholic Women Foundation and support its perpetual grantmaking.

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