1986 –

Theme: Religion

This essay written by Christine Cheyne was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Margaret Connor in 2018.

1986 – 1993

The origins of Sophia, a network of Catholic feminist women, lay in the increasing interest among Catholic women in feminist theology and spirituality, and in the promotion of more inclusive liturgy, theology and decision making in the Catholic Church.

The formation of Sophia was strongly influenced by contact between individual New Zealand Catholic women and the Grail, an international Catholic lay women's organisation which was established in Australia in 1936. [1] In the 1940s there had been interest in establishing the Grail in New Zealand, and groups had formed, but these had gone into recess. In August 1985 a group of women met in Hawera at the initiative of Kathryn Ryan, a pastoral parish assist ant, to consider forming a branch of the Grail in New Zealand. The Hawera women decided to hold another meeting, inviting a member of the Grail to attend, to discuss further the formation of a Catholic women's group to promote equity for women in the Church and to foster feminist theology. There had been similar initiatives in the late 1970s, though on a more limited basis. [2]

In February 1986 women came from all over New Zealand to a meeting in Palmerston North, where they decided not to establish the Grail, but to form a network of Catholic women, for which they chose the name Sophia. [3] However, a close relationship with the Grail continued. Sophia consciously set out to avoid becoming too bureaucratic. Regional groupings were formed in each of the six dioceses. There was no overall co-ordinator; each group was autonomous. Sophia was thus a loose-knit organisation. From the beginning, the main link between these regional groupings was provided by a newsletter compiled by one of the groups. Another connection was through national or inter-regional meetings, held at least once a year.

Sophia's members, who were predominantly Pākehā, included both lay women and women who belonged to religious orders. Many were active in mainstream parish and diocesan life, while others considered themselves to be no longer practising Catholics. There was a wide range of ages, from under 20 to over 70, and informal observations of the membership suggested that the average level of educational attainment was higher than in other Catholic women's voluntary organisations.

The network had two main purposes: to offer support to members and provide opportunities for inclusive liturgy, faith-sharing and education; and to promote awareness about women's concerns, from a feminist perspective, in the wider Church. It made submissions to the New Zealand Catholic Bishops' Conference and other bodies on a number of matters, including family violence, abuse of women and children by churchmen, the papal visit, the role of the laity, and women's ministry. Sophia provided opportunities for non-members to experience inclusive liturgies by supplying these for parish communities. Sophia also strongly supported a study of sexism in the Catholic Church. [4]

Sophia was a fledgling organisation with limited resources and no formal structures. As a result, links between members in different parts of the country were tenuous, and in 1993 the future of the organisation was therefore rather fragile. Nevertheless, Sophia can be seen as a microcosm of a much greater challenge to the Catholic Church, coming from feminists both within the Church and beyond. In 1993 it seemed that the increasing awareness of women's right to participate on equitable terms in other areas of their lives would undoubtedly have an impact on women's contributions and aspirations in the Catholic Church.

Christine Cheyne

1994 – 2018

Sophia was still surviving in 2018, although it had not thrived. As noted in 1993, without a formal structure and direct linkages to the institution of the Catholic Church, its existence was tenuous.

The Hamilton group, with about twenty members, was active for many years after 1993, meeting regularly to celebrate particular ecclesiastical seasons with feminist liturgies, and offering each other support. Later on it had connections with men who were interested in its remit, and the group concluded that claiming a space as women was no longer a top priority; inclusiveness was a central value, and it therefore wanted to include men. This decision resulted in the group becoming known as the Tui Motu group. In 2018 it was meeting regularly and using articles and commentary from Tui Motu, a social justice oriented, Catholic, ecumenical and interfaith magazine launched in 1997. The Christchurch Sophia, which had been active in challenging church structures in the 1990s, was banned by the then bishop. Following the ban, a number of members joined up with a different group ironically naming themselves ‘Women Knowing Their Place’. 

Twenty-five years on, the Wellington Sophia group was still functioning. It maintained connections to the Hamilton and Christchurch groups, for as long as those existed, through person-to-person contact, newsletters and exchange of liturgies; over time, however, contact dwindled. In addition, connections were established with ecumenical women’s groups, and liturgies were shared, although this did not flourish. In Palmerston North, some Sophia members joined the Athena Women’s Collective, which continued in 2018.

In the early 1990s, Wellington Sophia members were actively involved in commenting on church documents and bishops’ proclamations. Issues taken up included sexism and sexist language, Treaty of Waitangi education and bicultural awareness, and homophobia. One episode of successful protest related to a Wellington synod measure about the ordination of deacons; if it had passed, would have meant the exclusion of women from active participation in the Eucharistic liturgy. The group also continued to nourish their spirituality with liturgies from feminist theology, and later from eco-theology, developed by the members. The theologians they read included Rosemary Radford Ruther, Mary Daly and Carter Heyward. The group also studied contemporary Catholic feminist theologians, such as Elizabeth Johnson, Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University,New York, who critiqued the use of all-male imagery of God; and Ilia Delio, a Franciscan Sister of Washington DC, who sought to integrate science and spirituality. In 2017 some members attended a seminar taken by Gail Worcelo, an American Passionist sister committed to care of the planet.

The appointment of certain popes who held firm to the past, rather than moving to a more inclusive, open and just church, hindered change and dampened energy. Although new members were attracted to Sophia, membership declined as others withdrew due to advancing age or illness, and some passed away. In 2018 there was a core of seven women out of ten who had consistently remained in Sophia after 1993.

Margaret Connor


[1] For a description of the Grail, see Kennedy, 1985.

[2] For example, a group called Women in the Church, set up within the Catholic Commission for Evangelisation, Justice and Development, first met in 1979. Its aims were to promote discussion of and responses to women's issues within the commission.

[3] 'Sophia' translates a Hebrew word which is feminine and personifies Wisdom, and is thus of special significance to women. For further discussion of the term, see Susan Cady, Maria Ronan, and Hal Taussig, Sophia: The Future of Feminist Spirituality, Harper and Row,San Francisco, 1986.

[4] Cheyne, 1990.

Unpublished sources

Cheyne, Christine, interviews with Sophia members P. Matheson and B. Cowan, 1992

Reymer, Christine, Hamilton, personal communication, September 2018

Sophia records, 1986–92, held in Palmerston North

Wellington Sophia members, personal communications, 20 September 2018

Published sources

Cheyne, Christine, Made in God's Image: A Project Researching Sexism in the Catholic Church in Aotearoa–New Zealand, Catholic Commission for Justice, Peace and Development, Wellington, 1990

Kennedy, Sally, Faith and Feminism: Catholic Women's Struggles for Self-Expression, St Patrick's College, Manly, Sydney, 1985

Moynihan, Caroline, 'Sophia Women Look for Change in the Church', Accent, November 1986, p. 15

Tui Motu InterIslands Magazine, April 2018,

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