By Annette Alleva
The North Star Catholic
If you have ever attended an archdiocesan liturgical celebration at the cathedrals in Anchorage over the years, you have hopefully indulged in the reception offerings provided, for many years, by the women of the Catholic Daughters of the Americas. However, this local chapter, or court, of the larger organization—which boasts 63,000 members in 45 states and several countries—does far more than serve meals.
CDA, as it is also known, was begun in 1903 and has, as its foundation, “Spirituality and Service,” according to its website. With a motto of “Unity and Charity,” members have taken on large and small projects from building houses with Habitat for Humanity to offering scholarships, support for pregnant women, and, in Alaska, furnishing a mission priest with a snowmachine for travel to villages in the winter months. Its charitable activities are as diverse and numerous as its members.
Unlike the membership in other states, which are generally parish based, the Court Saint Pius X #1866, as it is known, is made up of women from most of the parishes within Anchorage. Fairbanks and North Pole each have their own courts.
This year marks 60 years of service to the people of Anchorage and Alaska, according to one of its charter members, Linda Fleener, from Saint Benedict parish. A member of Holy Family’s choir at the time, she was asked to join the fledgling organization. She said, “I was new to Alaska and was single and saw this as a good way to meet others.” After decades of service, Fleener is still active, continually attracted by the “prayer days, the renewing and refreshing of her faith through the guidance of the chaplain,” she said.
Helen Vick, from Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral, has been a member since the early days, more than 56 years. When she became a member, she was joined by a group of young married women who didn’t work outside the home, she said. “We were young mothers with young children. We had a lot in common.” At the time, Turnagain housing development consisted of many young, Catholic residents. Holy Family, which hosted the group, was one of the few Catholic churches in the city.
“We are all people who like to serve,” Vick said of CDA, noting that friendship, spiritual development through retreats and faith sharing are part of why she continues her involvement in the organization. “Our glue is the faith we have as Catholics,” she added.
Being invited was how many of the current 85 members of the local court became involved. Current Regent Debbie Vea was invited by fellow Saint Anthony parishioner, Arlene Romer.
Romer, who publishes the award-winning newsletter for the local Court, was inspired by her mother, also a Catholic Daughter, and joined in 1992. As a working, single mother at the time, with her children mostly raised, she had more time to dedicate to the work of the group. “There is a lot of spiritual connection, friendship and community,” Romer said. She especially likes the annual Baby Shower, which the group holds to provide clothing and other necessities for new moms who are supported by the Community Pregnancy Center. Mixing fellowship and fun with service, spirituality, and outreach is a hallmark of CDA.
Romer, who has served as Vice Regent, said, “I am a follower, not a leader,” and works to support those who take on such roles. Since urging Vea—a woman she only knew as another parishioner with whom she attended Sunday mass—to join, an enduring friendship has developed. “Arlene and I have become close, especially with the pandemic. We talk all the time,” Vea said.
Soon after joining, Vea took on the task of Regent, which involves running monthly meetings and keeping track of local membership. She is the contact person for both the national organization and the archdiocese. “Anything to do with the court comes to me first,” she said. A busy grandmother of nine, Vea oversees the many projects the group undertakes: archdiocesan receptions, the annual baby shower, a Christmas project to support Clare House, and other charities—both Catholic and community—such as Covenant House, Kids’ Kitchen, Beans Café, Alaska Right to Life, and many others too numerous to list.
“We don’t have a lot of money,” Vea said, and added, “These women are amazing, they are great role models. It gives them purpose to help others.”
As a CDA officer, Vea has also noted both spiritual and personal growth through shared service. Initially daunted by some of her responsibilities, Vea has found help from the Holy Spirit in decision-making, writing her monthly column for the newsletter, and speaking to groups of people. “It doesn’t come naturally,” she quipped. Vea also praised the assistance of Father Dan Hebert, chaplain of the local CDA, for 30 years. When she wavered in confidence, Father Dan would say, “You’re right where God wants you to be.” Vea added, “He helped me develop spiritually.” The current Court Chaplain is Father Robert Whitney.
Edna Resari, Financial Secretary, echoed Vea’s sentiments about the spirituality of the group. She noted that Father Hebert conducted retreats for the members. “He presented different talks as a way to bring us closer,” she said. “We don’t always have opportunities to elaborate our own understandings and learnings as adults.” She appreciates the chance to gather regularly with folks who have similar thinking about life, Catholic moral teaching, and the challenges of passing faith on to our children.
Now in her second term as Regent, Vea has seen a decline in membership in the local court. “When I started 12 years ago, we had 125-126 members, she said, and added, “Over 60 years members have died, moved away or are no longer able to participate.” Regardless of their ability to participate to the degree they once did, older members are encouraged to continue attending social gatherings and other events as they are able.
“We are always trying to recruit new members, but it is not something people are into,” Vea said of the reality that many women now work outside the home and often do not have time to participate. Efforts to involve younger women have met with some success, and those who have recently joined note the opportunity to serve, share faith, and friendship as the most attractive components.
Danna Hoellering, a six-year member who joined with three others from her RCIA group at Saint Benedict parish, inspired her daughter, Abigail Andrews, to join as well. “Catholic Daughters bring different people from different parishes together,” she said. Of her daughter—the youngest member of the court—Hoellering said, “It gives her connection to the older ladies in the church.”
This connection is the lifeblood of CDA, the reason why so many of its members continue to live out their spirituality in a lifestyle of service to God, their church, and their communities. As one of the three surviving charter members of the Anchorage court, Linda Fleener said, “It’s been a wonderful journey. The women are such holy women.”
For more information about the Catholic Daughters, or to join, please contact Debbie Vea, 952-0181.