The Catholic Association was founded in 1891 with the approval and blessing of Cardinal Manning; a contemporary of Blessed John Henry Newman and formerly an Anglican clergyman who became a Catholic priest following the death of his wife.
England at that time had recently restored the hierarchy (1850) just eight years before the first apparition at Lourdes in 1858. It is in this context that the Catholic Association had at its beginning two objects:
to provide unity and good fellowship amongst Catholics by organising concerts, lectures, dances and other gatherings of a social nature
to assist wherever possible in the Catholic organisations and in the protection and advancement of Catholic interests.
The prime movers were Edward Lucas (Chairman) and Charles Munich (Secretary), while the committee of management included among others Lord Archibald Douglas, Monsignor Nugent, Lord Godolphin Osborne and James Britten.
The First Pilgrimage
In those days the CA had some political significance, and its main object was “to organise Catholics into a compact body for the protection and advancement of Catholic interests” with a view to securing the return of Catholics as poor law guardians, members of the then existing vestries, school boards, and other non-party local-governing bodies. Over time, the CA’s work was modified, as some of the former official bodies ceased to function, and by growth of various Catholic societies with more specialist targets. By 1894, its principal object was to promote unity and good fellowship among Catholics by means of pilgrimages, social gatherings and lectures. Lord Denbigh was elected president that year and continued until 1929.
In March 1896, the idea of organising a pilgrimage was put forward, but it was not until October 1898 that the Association’s first pilgrimage took place – to Rome with 100 pilgrims.
During the Holy Year 1900, the association organised what was at that date the largest pilgrimage to leave England for Rome, with over 1000 pilgrims taking part. Since 1900, pilgrimages were organised in increasing numbers to Antwerp, Bruges, the Holy Land, Lourdes, Spain, Rome and other places of special Catholic interest in Europe, as well as to many of the homeland shrines.
The Journey to Lourdes
The first pilgrimage to Lourdes took place in September 1901 and became the forerunner of what nowadays is known as the CA Annual. In 1911 the Catholic Association formed the Society of Our Lady of Lourdes from whose members a company of helpers provided men and women to act as medical attendants, stretcher-bearers and nurses to look after the sick. Soon after the First World War, the Society parted company with the Catholic Association to organise its own annual pilgrimage in May each year.
During the Jubilee year, 1925, seven different pilgrimages were conducted to Rome with 3,500 pilgrims travelling with the CA. As many as 5,000 pilgrims yearly were taken to Lourdes since the end of hostilities after the First World War. At that time, the Catholic Association was directed by an honorary board and charges were kept as low as was consistent with efficiency. All their profits were distributed among Catholic charities. The CA published a monthly organ, “The Pilgrim’s Scrip”.
The Next Hundred Years
The Second World War brought the activities of the Association to a halt. However in 1947 the organisation of pilgrimages resumed with the first to Lourdes held in that year. The Catholic Association was responsible for organising the HCPT pilgrimage at Easter until that pilgrimage separated to make its own arrangements. A similar situation arose when the pilgrimage of the burgeoning diocese of Arundel and Brighton was removed from the Catholic Association by the later Archbishop of Southwark, Michael Bowen who at that time was the bishop of the diocese. That Diocese now has a very successful pilgrimage to Lourdes in July each year.
The sole activity of the Catholic Association today is the organisation of the annual pilgrimage to Lourdes. In 1991 the Catholic Association celebrated its centenary. In 2001 the CA celebrated its centenary pilgrimage to Lourdes.