In Search of Daughters
Though the Daughters of Isabella have their national headquarters in New Haven, they struggle to establish a local Circle as membership declines nationally.
The Daughters of Isabella’s International Board meets every two years at 375 Whitney. In the daytime, the board members sit around a linoleum-topped table on the third floor, under bright fluorescent lights. At night, they move to the second floor, where they sleep between chintz sheets, heads resting on flowered pillows. On Sundays, they walk down Whitney Avenue towards Yale’s campus and attend mass at St. Mary’s Church.
On a Friday morning in December, the office manager, Sharon Carlo, gives me a tour of the house, just a few blocks beyond the School of Management, where campus peters out and gives way to calm residential streets.
These are the national headquarters of the Daughters of Isabella, a Catholic service organization for women.
The place is spotless — white walls, wood details, original stained glass. And the vacuumed plush carpets have a particular sheen. The fibers all point the same way, like a sea of tiny compass needles: while the day is bleak and the curtains drawn, the ground glows a foamy green. Since the doors have been (mysteriously) taken off their hinges, nothing obstructs the pale and pretty hue. It stretches from room to room and up the staircase.
Though the house was built in 1897 or ’98, just as the Daughters of Isabella was being formed, the organization didn’t buy it until 1926. And today, it’s more reminiscent of the 1970s and ’80s than any other era, with its floral fabrics and old filing cabinets.
“If it’s not broken, we don’t fix it,” Carlo tells me.
But that’s not the first thing Carlo tells me. The first is this: “I am a third-generation Daughter of Isabella. I’ve known Daughters since I was in the womb.”
“It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
Any Catholic woman aged 16 or older can become a Daughter of Isabella. She simply needs to find her nearest “Circle,” where members will welcome her with open arms. According to their pamphlet, any woman — from young women “full of enthusiasm and new ideas” to “women who have grown families or have retired” — will find “understanding, affection and encouragement” in her fellow Daughters. Their motto: Unity, Friendship, Charity.
The Daughters of Isabella has been an independent group since 1904, having originally emerged in 1897 as an auxiliary to the Knights of Columbus, the largest Catholic fraternal service organization in the world with 1.9 million members. Unlike the Daughters, the Knights of Columbus is one of the nation’s most important life insurance providers: on Nov. 9, 2015, the group reached $100 billion in life insurance in force. “It’s a business,” says Carlo. (She adds that the Daughters also provide life insurance, but it doesn’t “draw” new members in the same way.)
In New Haven, the architectural contrast between the Knights’ and the Daughters’ buildings reflect their underlying differences. The Knights’ headquarters (at 1 Columbus Plaza) are massive, looming over the New Haven skyline. Their museum, too, is a Brutalist monster, squatting at the corner of State and George streets.
One-and-a-half miles away, the Daughters’ house at 375 Whitney has only three stories. It sleeps 13 people.
Elaine Leger, who once led the Daughters as their international regent, the organization’s senior-most position, explains that they “don’t have costumes or outfits like the Knights of Columbus, with the capes and the plumes.”
In some ways, the Daughters of Isabella has a hierarchical structure, operating on three different levels. When 30 or more women come together they form a local “Circle,” the smallest possible unit. At a local Circle’s monthly meetings, members discuss spiritual, social and business matters. Then, when a state has four or more local Circles, a state Circle emerges, meeting every two years. Finally, the “main governing body” is the international Circle, composed of state Circle representatives and eight international officers.
But in other ways, the structure is at least more democratic than their royal namesake, Queen Isabella I of Castile, might suggest. According to the Daughters’ pamphlet, the 15th-century patroness of Columbus was a “brave and virtuous woman” who “unified her beloved country under the holy sign of Christianity.” I count eight portraits of Isabella in 375 Whitney: she is reedy and pretty in some, and quite dowdy in others. She always looks pious.
The international officers do not wield much power on the local level. They don’t control their Circles; rather, they encourage each to engage with its immediate community as members see fit. Circles pick their own causes, charities, methods and schedules; their interests have ranged from war-support efforts to community gardening.
Carlo has worked at headquarters for 30 years, in various capacities. These days she’s the office manager, handling administrative tasks like phone calls and membership records. She has an encouraging smile and black, feathered hair that matches her sweater and shirt. Next to her coffee cup, there’s a glossy book, a history of the Daughters. Later, she gives it to me as a parting gift.
“To everything there is a season”
Carlo shares a vivid childhood memory of the Daughters’ history: in the 1970s, she attended a Daughters’ convention in Boston with her family. The convention took place in an elegant old hotel, with an impressive grand staircase. (These kinds of hotels, she tells me, they don’t exist anymore.) The Daughters put on a “Parade of States,” with costumes and songs and banners and skits, a beautiful procession that unfurled down the staircase. Nonmembers, including Carlo at the time, watched from a balcony.
She’s not sure, but Carlo thinks the Daughters gave up their parades in 1982. The reasons were multiple, from the age of the members to hotel and travel regulations.
In 1959, 133,000 women were official Daughters of Isabella. By June 2000, 70,000 remained. Today, there are only about 30,000 members and 400 local Circles, split between America and Canada. The Daughters live all over America, but particularly in New England and the Midwest (though California does have five or six Circles).
Leger, who moved from Massachusetts to Florida, no longer has a local Circle. The Catholic Council of Catholic Women is very popular in her area, she says, and though she has tried to found a Circle in her community, she has not had much success. “Some people feel that they put all their time and effort into one organization and can’t belong to another,” she says. She has transferred her membership to an active Circle in Massachussetts.
The Daughters of Isabella is only one of several Catholic service organizations for women in the United States. The Catholic Daughters of America, founded in Utica, New York, was also once a female auxiliary of the Knights of Columbus. Today the Columbiettes, another organization founded in 1939, is the Knights’ only official female auxiliary. The groups don’t interact much with each other, despite similar and overlapping histories.
It seems that the women’s organizations are all coping with one problem: attrition. Like the Daughters of Isabella, the Catholic Daughters of America has been losing members steadily since the 1950s and 1960s, when over 200,000 women belonged to the group. As of 2012, 70,000 members remain.
The Knights of Columbus, on the other hand, has no such worries. According to the 2015 “Annual Report of the Supreme Knight,” membership has been growing steadily for the past 42 years. The Supreme Knight, Carl Anderson, announced at the 133rd Supreme Convention in Philadelphia that “the Knights of Columbus has never been stronger and more relevant.”
Not only does Leger have no local circle in Florida, but her old Massachusetts circle disbanded a few years ago. She makes no attempt to skirt the issue in our conversation: Yes, she tells me, the Daughters of Isabella has suffered a decline in membership, like many similar organizations. This comes as no surprise, as a Pew Research Center survey tells me that, from 2007 to 2014, the number of self-identifying American Catholics dropped by 3 million.
At one point, the group’s influence even crossed an ocean, and Circles cropped up in the Philippines and Japan. But in neither country did the blossoming Circles find the perfect environment, and they wilted, in part because of governmental restrictions. Today, the Daughters of Isabella is an international organization only insofar as half of the members live in Canada.
“If [the local Circles] haven’t continued to recruit new members over the years, they find that they are down to a certain number and they end up disbanding,” Leger explains.
Of course, all is not lost. In November, Leger visited Atlanta, where she welcomed a brand-new Circle to the community and attended the Conferral of Degrees ceremony. (This traditional ceremony, marking a Circle’s beginning, is secret, but both Leger and Carlo assure me that it’s meaningful and beautiful, an essential ritual.)
“And we’re big in Indiana,” Leger tells me.
“Cast thy bread upon the waters”
Forty-three percent of Connecticut’s religious population identifies as Catholic, and yet there is no New Haven Circle. Carlo isn’t sure if the nearest Circle is in Litchfield or Waterford; both towns are about an hour away. When Leger was International Regent, in the mid-2000s, she hoped to set one up at St. Mary’s Church, but didn’t have much success. “We haven’t looked at it lately,” she says.
I speak to Father John Paul Walker from St. Mary’s about the Daughters. He has just joined the congregation, so he doesn’t know much, but he asks around. No one can remember any recent interactions with the Daughters of Isabella.
On the other hand, Katie Byrnes, the assistant chaplain at Saint Thomas More — Yale’s Catholic center — does recall some conversations with the Daughters. They gave a presentation to Catholic undergraduates at some point during her past 12 years at Saint Thomas More. However, she says students didn’t show much interest in a collegiate Circle. According to Byrnes, the focus of Saint Thomas More is global, not local, and it is not technically a parish church.
Both Carlo and Leger tell me that Circles for undergraduates are a tricky business. Several have appeared in the Daughters’ history, but only two exist today, at Loras College, in Iowa, and at Harvard. They tell me that college students are just too busy: the paperwork and phone calls can seem like a hassle. (Or else, the college itself can get in the way, refusing to recognize the student group or forbidding fundraising events.)
Irene Chung ’17, who attends weekly Sunday mass at Saint Thomas More, has a similar take. Yale students are busy; they usually prioritize their academics; even if someone is a practicing Catholic, she will usually only attend mass.
“If we don’t see material results coming out of the time that we’re putting into something, oftentimes we’ll discount it and put it on the backburner,” she says of her classmates. She recalls that last year, she had trouble making time for her weekly Bible study.
But the Harvard Circle has had no such problems. The Daughters aren’t technically affiliated with Harvard, but the regent, vice regent, chancellor and financial secretary of the group are all undergraduates. The Circle emerged a few years ago, and seems to have matured into a stable, steady organization. Diana Gerberich, a sophomore and the vice regent, tells me that the Daughters are becoming a powerful force among the Catholics on campus, thanks to some good leaders.
She doesn’t think that her peers are too busy for faith. In fact, she says: “Because the academics of Harvard are so intense, people rely on religion to get that hope, to get the power and strength they need to get through.”
Every year, Gerberich explains, the Harvard Daughters organize two formals. They put on music and then swing dance through St. Paul Church, in Harvard Square. Last Mother’s Day, they bought a bunch of roses and distributed them to all the mothers they could find.
But the Harvard Daughters seem to be an exception to the rule. Carlo tells me that she’s worried about millennials, about how we relate to each other and (ab)use social media. She thinks these new platforms might explain why collegiate Circles usually collapse.
“Technology is a wonderful thing, but very honestly people don’t know how to talk to each other anymore,” says Carlo. She tells me that some college-aged Daughters have had trouble responding to her emails and phone calls, relying on social media instead. She wonders if some collegiate Circles disappear because Daughters do not tend to their Circle’s logistics.
Still, she thinks that eventually, the younger Catholic generation will return to religion. For one thing, she tells me, the Church is changing: men and women of the cloth have become more approachable in recent years. A priest doesn’t go by Father Murphy anymore, he goes by Father Bob. And Carlo recognizes that young people sometimes need to rebel before they give the Church a second chance. Chung, too, believes that college is a very particular time, a chance for many students to explore new options. An undergraduate’s commitment to organized religious activities does not always her match her faith.
“It’ll turn around,” Carlo says.
I don’t mean to mislead her or Leger, but both assume that I’m Catholic. I could spearhead the push for a New Haven Circle, Leger jokes. I don’t correct her mistake.
And then it’s too late. I’m already leaving 375 Whitney and Carlo is telling me to have a great day, happy holidays, thank you so much! The green carpet is glowing all around her and I hope that someone vacuums it again soon, erasing my footsteps, realigning the fibers, restoring the house to its prior state of peace.