They visit nursing homes and bring comfort to those who are ill. They provide scholarships and help fund parish projects. Whether someone needs a hand or a prayer, the Columbiettes are ready to serve.
“It’s doing God’s work,” says Burnette Bowker, state president. “We serve the Church, the community, and the Knights of Columbus.”
“We make a difference by touching hearts and changing lives,” says Lucille Castonguay, state secretary and financial secretary of Van Buren Council 1635. “The spiritual part is very important. That is really what we’re organized for.”
The Columbiettes are an organization of Catholic women affiliated with the Knights of Columbus. First established by a New York chapter of the Knights in 1938, there are now more than 13,000 Columbiettes in the United States and Canada, with most auxiliaries located along the east coast.
There are two auxiliaries in Maine: Fort Kent Council 1934 and Van Buren Council 1635. The first was established in 1978, and some of the women who remain active today have been Columbiettes since that time.
“We were a group of young ladies whose husbands were very active K.C.’s, and we thought we were sort of being left behind,” says Patricia Charette, former state president. “That’s how we got started, but as it went on, we got more involved with the K.C.’s activities, and we got more involved in the Church activities and in the community.”
“I came from Saint Agatha, which isn’t that far, but I just wanted to get active in some type of club, and I heard about the Columbiettes from other members of the parish and the community,” says Cecile Voisine, state vice president and president of the Fort Kent Council, who has been a member for 37 years. “I wanted to get involved because I knew they did a lot of stuff for the community.”
One of the greatest gifts the Columbiettes bring to the Saint John River Valley is the ministry of presence. For years, members have visited the residents of nursing homes and residential care facilities in Fort Kent, Frenchville, Van Buren, and Eagle Lake. They play Bingo, help out at Mass, and just chat.
“It’s very rewarding, the joy that you bring the residents. You walk in, especially in Frenchville, I get so many hugs,” says Ruth Thibeault, past state and Fort Kent council president. “I just spend time, just talking.”
“We try to tell the jokes and make them laugh. Sometimes, the jokes are corny, but they laugh anyway,” says Venette King, state advocate.
“I am a musician, and I started playing music for the elderly people. I play the keyboard, and my husband plays the guitar,” says Joan Harvey, financial secretary of Council 1934 and a member for 37 years.
Their visits and performances include Christmas parties, which the Columbiettes organize each year.
“I love the Christmas parties. A lot of times, they have Santa or Mrs. Santa,” says Norma Deschaine, secretary of Council 1934. “It’s nice that these ladies do so much for the nursing home residents.”
“We buy each person an individual gift at the nursing home, and we also buy a Christmas decoration for their rooms,” says Venette. “It’s not a big thing, but it means a lot to them.”
It’s not only seniors who benefit from the generosity of the Columbiettes.
“I am the coordinator for the junior youth ministry for the church (Saint Peter Chanel Parish), and whenever I need anything, I look to the Columbiettes to help me out, and they have helped me out a lot,” says Patricia. “We also donate hats and mittens and scarves, etc., to kids at the elementary school because a lot of them come there with nothing on their heads.”
Their list of activities is a long one. The Columbiettes volunteer and donate items to the “People Helping People” thrift store in Van Buren and to the food pantry. They participate in a Red Cross blood drive. And they work side by side with the Knights of Columbus at Bingo, dinners, dances, and other events.
“I dare say that my wife does as much work for the Knights as she does for the Columbiettes,” says Warren Harvey, grand knight of Fort Kent Council 1934.
Each Monday, Columbiettes lead the rosary before Mass at Saint Bruno-Saint Remi Church in Van Buren, and once a year, they hold a beautiful living rosary at the church.
Each ‘Hail Mary’ is represented by a Columbiette, and the Knights do the ‘Our Father’ and the ‘Glory Be,’ and we have members of the Columbiettes read the mysteries,” says Beatrice Daigle, state treasurer. “And the cross for the rosary is formed by the officers with their white gowns.”
They also organized a Year of Mercy pilgrimage to Saint Luce Church in Frenchville, which was the location of one of the holy doors, and they organized a teaching Mass led by Father Dave Cote.
“When it started out, it was for the Columbiettes. Then, we added the children. Then, we added the families, and then, we said this is for the whole parish. The learning Mass is one of the best activities we had,” says Lucille.
Throughout the year, the Columbiettes hold fundraisers, which allow them to contribute financially both to community members and to their parishes. For instance, the women donate to the Edgar Paradis Cancer Fund, named for the brother of Columbiette Terry St. Pierre, which helps families pay medical expenses. They support walks benefiting the Alzheimer’s Association and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. They bought altar server albs, contributed towards church heating bills, and donated $3,000 towards the repair of the bell tower of Saint Louis Church in Fort Kent.
They also support one another, offering scholarships for children and grandchildren, attending funerals, and sending cards when someone is ill.
“If we hear that someone is going through a rough time, we’ll send them a card. We offer a lot of encouragement to them,” says Lucille.
The Columbiettes would like to expand to other parts of the state and are trying to spread the word about the gifts of being a member, in hopes of establishing additional auxiliaries.
“There is a togetherness with the Columbiettes,” says Joan. “What I get out of it is making people happy.”
“There is good camaraderie, friendship,” says Rachel Levesque, state sentinel and president of the Van Buren council.
“We are a close-knit group,” says Lucille. “We truly are sisters, not just members of an organization.”