History of the Grail
The Grail began in Holland in 1921 as a Catholic lay organization, called The Women of Nazareth.
It was founded by a Jesuit priest, Jacques van Ginneken (1877-1949), but from its beginning, women directed the Grail. They staged massive, colorful rallies and enacted religious dramas, working with young women in Holland, England, and Germany.
In May 1940, two Dutch Grail women, Lydwine van Kersbergen (1904-1998) and Joan Overboss (1910-1969), came to the United States at the invitation of Chicago’s archbishop.
They began their work as the Grail at Doddridge Farm, a summer camp in Libertyville, Illinois. In 1944, the Grail, which had grown to sixteen women, moved to a farm in Loveland, Ohio (near Cincinnati). This farm is now Grailville.
In 2014—after 70 years in the U.S.—the women of the Grail in the U.S. made the decision to once again transform to meet the needs of the world, beginning a time of transition from what was to what will be next.
The Grail in the US Timeline
Lydwine van Kersbergen and Joan Overboss, came to the U.S. in 1940 before moving to Loveland, OH in 1944 where they—along with Janet Kalven—created The Year School which came out of the Catholic Rural Life Conference and Back to the Land Movement.
By 1962 an estimated 14,000 women had participated in Grail programs in the U.S. following the expansion to 12 city centers which conducted programs on the family, education for world community, service careers for women, Christian culture (with a special emphasis on music and the arts), and the formation of religious educators for Catholic schools and parishes.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, the Grail, influenced by changes in the Catholic Church and by the growth of the women’s and civil rights movements, become more inclusive of other religious traditions, and Grail members became pioneers in Catholic feminist theology. These watershed events shifted the activities and structure of the Grail in the U.S.
From 1968-78 The Grail continued a focus on education through many programs including Semester at Grailville and Seminary Quarter at Grailville. Through these programs, hundreds of college women from around the U.S. came to Grailville for an off-campus semester of intensive study, group living and work experience. Many students worked in local social service and educational institutions as interns as part of their course of study. The seminary program provided training in feminist theology, ethics, and worship to women seminary students before such subjects were available at most seminaries and divinity schools. It was co-sponsored by the Grail and a division of the National Council of Churches.
Three Grail Task Forces focused on liberation, women and the religious dimension sponsored programs for local and national audiences in their fields of particular concern. A collaboration of the task forces culminated in the national “Women Breaking Boundaries” program.
From the outset the Grail placed women’s work on the land at the center of its vision. In the 1990s, it continued and ramped up this commitment with activities like “New Women, New Earth,” a four month program exploring ecofeminism in theological perspective, summer garden internships, permaculture, wetlands, and other forms of environmental education and action.
As a founding member of UFER (The International Movement for Fraternal Union among Races and Peoples) The Grail has been a registered non-governmental organization (NGO) at the United Nations since 1951, and has had Special Consultative Status in its own right under ECOSOC since 1998, continuing active participation with the Commission on the Status of Women, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and The Working Group on Girls.
In this first quarter of the 21st Century the International Grail celebrated its 100 years of transformative work in 21 countries. In the U.S., The Grail reaffirmed commitments to the land, social justice, artistic expression, and spiritual search while making firmer commitments to be an anti-racist organization, to collaborate locally and internationally on action to address climate change, and to continue its efforts to develop leadership skills of young women.