Helen Hull Hitchcock: A Light in the Darkness

I met the founder of Women for Faith & Family thirty years ago, and my life was changed forever

Editor’s note: On October 20th, Helen Hull Hitchcock, founding director of Women for Faith and Family and editor of Adoremus Bulletin (and a contributor to CWR), died in St. Louis after a short and sudden illness. She was 75 years old. Helen was the wife of James Hitchcock, Catholic author and emeritus professor of history at Saint Louis University, and mother of four daughters and grandmother of six grandchildren. CWR asked Sherry Tyree, longtime friend of the Hitchcocks and a fellow worker at Women for Faith and Family, to write about Helen’s life, work, and witness.

Autumn, 1984.

The phone rang.

It was a Dr. Anne Bannon—I didn’t know her—who had read my recent letter to the editor in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Dr. Bannon said a new Catholic women’s group was springing up in St. Louis and she thought I’d like to be part of it. Here’s the meeting date—could I come?

I couldn’t—thank goodness. That was that.

I figured these women were probably a bunch of nuts. I’d worked in the Catholic end of the civil rights movement in the 60s and had had enough of the kind of fringe element that seems attracted to WHATEVER’S HAPPENING NOW—loosely-knit folks who glom on to a current worthy cause and then excuse their own questionable behavior because, after all, their hearts are in the right place.

That was the 60s; this was the 80s. Liberalism, which held the moral high ground back in the day, had become cocky, then nasty, and traditional religion, which had once been vital to the civil rights cause, was now shown the door. In the 80s, religion was the enemy of liberalism, most especially Roman Catholicism.

A month later—uh, oh—Dr. Bannon phoned again with the date of the next meeting. In a weak moment, I said I’d attend.

So my husband dropped me off, and I walked into a room full of women who seemed, well, perfectly normal.

Like me, they were concerned about this neo-anti-Catholicism that had emerged, and were determined to do something about it. I felt very much at home.

All too soon—midnight!—time to leave. Anne Connell offered to drive me.

My husband Donald was pacing the floor: just as I had forgotten the time, he had forgotten where he had dropped me off! Where had I been? A half-hour more and he was ready to phone the police….

I told him something important had happened that night, something good. It was much the way a woman feels when she knows she is pregnant and no one else yet knows.

And that’s how I met Helen Hull Hitchcock.

Back then, in ’84, radical feminism was in full flower, support for the killing of unborn children was confident, pervasive, and public—and anyone who disagreed was treated with derision and vilification.

No surprise, then, that the Catholic Church was under strong attack on many fronts: the media, the universities, the theatre, foundations, the courts—Roe v. Wade was 11 years old, just becoming entrenched in US culture.

Worse yet, traditional Catholic teaching was all too often being undermined by persons claiming to speak on behalf of the Church, this subversion often wearing the clothing of so-called “reform” and often accompanied by vague references to “the spirit of Vatican II.”

Women professing to be both Catholic and supporters of abortion were in public view—Geraldine Ferraro, for instance, was running as a potential vice president on the Democratic ticket that year. We were told this was the “new, improved Catholic woman”—the old Catholic woman was passé. In the end, we were confidently informed, we would all fall in line with the feminists.

Signs of condescension towards the Church and in-your-face abortion support were everywhere. In that charged atmosphere, a committee of the American bishops started holding what they called “listening sessions” for Catholic women in preparation for a proposed pastoral letter on women’s concerns. The original idea for the pastoral had been suggested by radical feminists, and feminist women were among those on the bishops’ committee. Surely the committee would receive a false picture of Catholic women, and could very well issue a harmful document.

The first clue we were right to be concerned appeared in the very wording of the formal questions being asked at the listening sessions. That wording told us immediately which particular reactions were being encouraged: there were three questions, the third of which was a request to summarize our answers from Questions #1 and #2.

Question #1 asked what contributed most to the alienation of women, the abuse of women, the divisiveness and dehumanization of women in the Church and in society.

Question #2, ostensibly meant to draw a positive response, was this: “What contributes most to the reconciliation of women—the harmony, affirmation, dignity, and healing of women?” The assumption underlying both questions was that the Church had harmed us, an assumption we strenuously rejected.

Where was the opportunity to say how much we loved the Church, and why?

More to the point, where was the opportunity to say how the Church’s wisdom and teachings aided us Catholic women as we confronted a rapidly decaying, increasingly chaotic, anti-religious, anti-Christian society?

The voices of faithful, believing Catholic women were not wanted.

Enter Helen Hull Hitchcock.

Helen was born and raised a Methodist. As a young woman, she became an Episcopalian but gradually, seeing serious, unresolvable problems developing within the Episcopalian Church, she turned to Catholicism. She was received into the Church in 1984.

Helen wrote a statement affirming the Church, affirming what the Church teaches—particularly those teachings that affect women. We offered the statement, called The Affirmation for Catholic Women, to anyone interested.

At that point, we did not consider ourselves an organization. We were just a small group of women who wanted to make a public statement about our beliefs and our faith. We invited other Catholic women to join us, with the goal of sending a sizable amount of signed Affirmations to the then-Holy Father, Pope John Paul II.

Within four weeks our P.O. box was bulging with signed Affirmations from every state in the country.

Signatures came tumbling in, and along with them many, many letters from women who were grateful someone was speaking for them. If there was one theme to those letters, it was: “I thought I was alone.” We were to read that sentence in many letters over many years.

These same women began reproducing the Affirmation and sending it to their friends and relatives—who in turn, copied the Affirmation and sent it to still more like-minded women. There was no Google back then, no Internet searching as we know it now. The women who did find us did so through their friends and families.

A grass-roots movement had begun. After that first deluge of letters—12,000 in the first one-and-a-half years—it was all we could do to answer our mail.

We were no longer just that first handful of women sitting around Helen’s dining room table. Other local Catholic women quickly joined us and generously volunteered their time, talent, and money.

Helen opened a Women for Faith & Family office in her home; a local Sister of Mercy volunteered to enter the signatures on her new computer; I organized a mailroom in our home to answer letters.

The Affirmation for Catholic Women, which was eventually translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Polish, German, Dutch, and Chinese, has been signed by more than 50,000 women, including, early on, Mother Teresa and all her sisters.

Next, Helen contacted the bishops’ committee that was planning the women’s pastoral—and she asked for a meeting. The two of us went to Chicago and testified on behalf of the signers of the Affirmation. The committee was not happy to see us.

(Sr. Sara Butler, a scholarly proponent of women’s ordination was on the committee. Some years later, so the story goes, in response to a request from an Episcopalian woman colleague, she researched the reasons behind Catholic theology supportive of a male-only priesthood. The more she dug into the matter, the more she understood. She eventually came to change her position, and some years later was one of our Women for Faith & Family conference speakers. In 2007 Sr. Sara published The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church.)

Helen contacted the media. The media weren’t too pleased to see us, either. They seemed to see us as rather quaint, a bit harmless, but they needed to be seen as balanced, so they interviewed us at every opportunity, in print, on radio, and on television.

Helen started publishing VOICES, Women for Faith & Family’s quarterly journal, which continues to be sent to Affirmation signers, to US bishops, and others who request it.

Helen started going to the US bishops’ national meetings. The publication of VOICES gave us press credentials. There would be two of us there, at first Helen and me, then Helen and Susan Benofy. During these public meetings we recorded and transcribed everything the bishops said—and then published the proceedings in the next issue of VOICES.

Now that’s transparency.

Helen started organizing Women for Faith & Family annual conferences. These three-day autumn conferences attracted Catholic lay women, leaders in their own right. Orthodox Catholic speakers were not in big demand back then—and there were not as many as there are today—and those we invited came and spoke and dined with us. Ideas and information were batted back and forth—great conversations! All of us were energized and the attendees—mostly but not all women—went back home and kept the momentum going.

Helen published scores of articles and essays in a wide range of Catholic journals, and was the editor of The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God (Ignatius Press 1992), a collection of essays on issues involved in translation. She also contributed essays to several books, including Spiritual Journeys, a book of conversion stories published by the Daughters of St. Paul.

The first draft of the US bishops’ Pastoral on Women’s Concerns was published in 1988, full of internal inconsistencies. WFF asked for the draft to be rejected and the entire project be abandoned.

Three drafts later, the pastoral was improved, but still problematic.

In 1992, after extended debates, the bishops’ conference voted not to issue the draft pastoral letter as an official document of the entire conference, but only as a statement of the Bishops’ Committee on Women in Society and the Church.

As drafts on the pastoral were written and rewritten, controversy grew along with media attention. Women for Faith & Family was featured in Time magazine, and on the MacNeil/Lehrer Report, Good Morning America, and more. Even NPR gave a grudging interview.

Helen kept in touch with bishops, both here and abroad. All the US bishops were sent current copies of VOICES and certain bishops elsewhere also heard from her. In a recent National Catholic Register article about Helen, Charlotte Hays recounts a favorite story from Donna Bethell, chair of the board of directors of Christendom College:

Hitchcock, who sent memos about the Church in the United States to officials in Rome on which her distinctive initials, HHH, figured, was invited to speak at Christendom. Cardinal Francis Arinze, then-prefect for the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, was also on the program.

When Bethell was in the process of introducing Hitchcock to the cardinal, she had barely uttered Hitchcock’s name when the delighted prelate stopped her. ‘He threw out his arms and said, “HHH!”’ Helen was on cloud nine because that meant that he was reading her memos. She had an impact, and people listened to her.

Here’s my story: Helen and I were at a Washington, DC evening event at Catholic University of America, an event we were able to attend because we were in town for the bishops’ meeting. Many hundreds of people were present, and during a break, Helen went up to introduce herself to Cardinal Christoph Maria Michael Hugo Damian Peter Adalbert Graf von Schönborn, OP, archbishop of Vienna. I saw the two in profile, tall Cardinal Schönborn looking down at all 5’2” of Helen. Mouth and eyes wide open, an astonished Cardinal Schönborn said, “YOU are Helen Hull Hitchcock?!!”

Thirty years on, Helen was routinely warmly received at the bishops’ meetings. Her orthodox, kind, faithful voice had been heard over the years.

VOICES is still published, in print and online.

The Most Reverend Robert J. Hermann, the auxiliary bishop of St. Louis who presided at Helen’s funeral, told us privately at her wake and then publicly at the end of the funeral Mass that he hopes Women for Faith & Family keeps going. He particularly likes the website because of the way in which Church documents are organized.  Of all the sources Bishop Hermann can go to, he comes to ours.

If WFF is to continue, as Helen surely would want it to, it will be due to concrete support: donations, feedback, encouragement, and action as we ready for 2015. Threats to the family multiply.

This year, for the 30th anniversary of the founding of Women for Faith & Family, just before her death last month at the age of 75, Helen received high praise from bishops around the country.

To the bishops accolades I add my own: at a dark time in my life, when my only prayer was for the return of the Holy Spirit, I was led back to joy and hope.

May He support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in His mercy may He give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest and peace at the last. – Blessed John Henry Newman

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About Sherry Tyree 0 Articles
Sherry Tyree is vice president of Women for Faith & Family.