When the St. Charles Women’s Club got its start in 1965, St. Charles Parish had become a hub for industrial investment. Lion Oil Company (Monsanto) construction had begun in 1952 in Luling on the old Ellington Plantation. In 1955, Shell Chemical had opened a plant in Norco on the site of the old Diamond Plantation. Large industrial corporations opened facilities in the ’60s, including Union Carbide (Dow), Hooker Chemical in Taft and Waterford I and II on plantation land formerly used primarily for sugar cane farming. Plans for the Waterford III nuclear power plant surfaced in 1970 and commercial operation began in 1985.
The rapid development brought in thousands of workers from out of state. Some came alone, returning home to visit when they could. But others brought along their families, who faced the challenge of building social ties in an area short on recreational facilities.
Carolyn Olson, the club’s first vice president, says the St. Charles Women’s Club began as a small, home-based group of these transplants, including Muffet Leaber and Wanda McClung. Frances Greenfield, now living in Texas, was another charter member, according to club historian Teresa Miller.
Within the year, Olson said, the club had grown to 60 members. Private homes could no longer accommodate the meetings, which moved to a Luling church. The club continues to meet on the third Thursday of every month at New Life Community Church, 134 Lakewood Drive, which houses the combined ministry of Luling United Methodist and First Union Presbyterian churches. The most recent membership tally was 179.
The club’s president is Judy Wilchek, who moved to St. Charles Parish in 1975 to take an administrative job with a chemical plant.
Olson has been a member of the group for five years, moving from Kenner after Hurricane Katrina. She said the club was an important part of helping her re-establish a sense of community after the storm frayed so many of her long-standing ties to Jefferson Parish.
Miller was president of the St. Charles Women’s Club during Hurricane Katrina. Despite the social upheaval of those frazzled days, the club met as usual on the third Thursday of September 2005, albeit in a temporary location.
“The club gave everyone that sense of normalcy,” Miller said. “We were all so glad to see each other and that everyone was OK.”
One factor in the longevity of the St. Charles Women’s Club is its interest groups, a dozen or more, which have changed with the times and the tastes of its members. The club’s sewing circle is no longer active, for example, but a movie group has begun.
“We like to go see the chick flicks, the movies that our husbands don’t want to see,” Wilchek said.
Interest groups focusing on Louisiana history and cooking were of special interest to the newcomers who populated the club in its early days; now, the history and gourmet interest groups have been combined. One recent outing for this group was to Woodland Plantation in West Pointe à la Hache, where they dined in Spirits Hall, formerly St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, circa 1883.
“It comes and goes through stages in my life, and I just thoroughly enjoy it,” Wilchek said.
Community service is another important factor in the longevity of the St. Charles Women’s Club. The group’s largest annual fundraiser is the spring Teacup Auction, regularly drawing about 300 people, including Women’s Club alumnae Theresa Loving, now living in Texas, and Christine Iwancio, now living in Hawaii. “They spend a week and we have a great time,” Miller said.
In all, Wilchek said, the club donates about $20,000 a year to the community in the form of scholarships (40 percent) and grants. “Everything we make stays in St. Charles Parish,” Wilchek said.
(The deadline for graduating high school seniors living in St. Charles Parish to apply for a 2016 scholarship is Feb. 16; for information, email Pam Shepard at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
One of the presenters at the Christmas party will be St. Charles Women’s Club member Rita Carlson, who had been working as a special-education teacher in West Virginia when her husband was transferred to St. Charles Parish for work with Union Carbide in the 1960s.
Carlson saw a need for better special-education services in St. Charles Parish and inspired club members, including Pepper Brown, Ann Sellers and Ann Maroney, to organize a project to help people with disabilities, especially those who were too young or too old for public school programs. Community support for the project snowballed, giving rise in 1971 to the ARC of St. Charles, with Carlson as president for two years and many St. Charles Women’s Club members on the board of directors.
The ARC project was a turning point in the club’s evolution. “It brought the community together,” Carlson said. “It brought the newcomers together with the people who had lived here for years. People really accepted us. They were so happy to have this happen.”
Presentations highlighting the club’s history were featured during the club’s Christmas luncheon Dec. 17 at Cedar Grove Tchoupitoulas Plantation in Waggaman. Members at the luncheon will leave with a lapel pin bearing a club logo developed by Carolyn Olson and her son Camus, with the slogan “We are a piece of the puzzle.”