There are nearly 350,000 Catholics on active duty in the U.S. military, comprising around 25 percent of the U.S. military forces. However, Catholic priests account for less than 10 percent of the Chaplain Corps. The ratio of parishioners to priests is even starker when one takes into account military family members and the priority given to deployed units. This is why, for 60 years, the Military Council of Catholic Women (MCCW) has helped priests expand their outreach to military-connected women — whether active duty, retired or a military spouse. The all-volunteer organization operates within the armed services, where Catholics often share worship space with other faith communities and pastors are on loan from geographical dioceses or religious orders.
Faith and leadership
Best known for locally hosted Bible studies and annual conferences, MCCW seeks to encourage personal ministry to women at chapels and open opportunities for regional and worldwide involvement.
It started as a ministry of Army chaplains to soldier’s wives in 1955. When budget cuts in 2012 threatened to eliminate the program, Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio invited MCCW to become a subsidiary under the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA. The change forced the women’s ministry to become a nonprofit. However, the transition to the archdiocese allowed its ministry to expand to include all military-connected women across the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.
For many women whose lives are linked to the military, MCCW is a constant when few other things are static. Brenda Nonnweiler, a retired Air Force wife, depended on chapel groups to help her settle after each active duty move. When consecutive overseas moves took her from England to Hawaii, she sought out MCCW for Bible study and companionship. “I was yearning for women’s Bible study,” she said. “CWOC [Catholic Women of the Chapel, the MCCW groups in the Army] nurtured women and fed us well. I wanted that back.”
She ended up helping to start a new group at Prince of Peace Catholic Community aboard Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Honolulu, where Father Joseph Deichert, spiritual moderator of the group and an active-duty priest chaplain in the Air Force, was the base chaplain.
Women’s ministry can seem daunting to pastors, but MCCW insists it can have real implications on the family. “When a woman joins a chapel Bible study, she takes responsibility for her own faith,” said Michelle Nash, current president of MCCW. “The seed of her faith goes back to her family. They attend Mass more faithfully. The children are in religious education. They develop a family relationship with their priest.”
A friend invited Sarah Alvarado to the CWOC group at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Chapel at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, just as she transitioned from active-duty Marine to graduate-school student and stay-at-home mom. “I wanted to connect to good moms,” she said. “Those women tend to gravitate to CWOC anyway. I wanted to learn from them how to raise my children and teach them about God.”
“As military families, we move so much. The challenge can be to find a church community and then find other women,” Alvarado said. The chapel group provided Bible study and social opportunities.
“The genius of MCCW is predicated on the genius of the military,” Father Deichert said. “There is strength in numbers. We train and equip warriors for the sake of our nation. If the warriors are to be healthy, we must do the same for families.”
Service for MCCW focuses on military chaplains — supporting current chaplains in their ministry and encouraging seminarians to prepare for service. Chapel groups work closely with priests in their communities. Some pastors depend on working groups to care for altar cloths, provide a nursery ministry or make meals for families in need.
MCCW’s sole charity is the Bishop John J. Kaising Scholarship Fund for Co-Sponsored Seminarians. The scholarship shares cost to prepare men called to military chaplaincy. Once ordained, priests complete preparation in their home dioceses before embarking on a term of military service. About 30 seminarians are in the program, and two priests were recently ordained. While in seminary, they receive monthly letters and quarterly care packages from local chapel groups.
Jessica Drake writes from North Carolina.