By LOU PONSI     6/25/2024

A benevolent gesture from three women of faith occurring nearly 140 years ago led to the formation of a Catholic women’s organization that supports the Church and takes up causes, always guided by Christian virtues of selfless service and charity.


Today, the Young Ladies’ Grand Institute has a membership of a bit over 4,800 with institutes in 67 parishes in California, Oregon, Hawaii and Washington.

In Orange County, St. Juliana Falconieri Catholic Church in Fullerton, St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Irvine and Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in San Clemente host Institutes.

Believed to be the oldest Catholic women’s organization in the country, the Young Ladies’ Grand Institute raises money to fund seminarian education, supports pro-life efforts, and provides scholarships to young women to help further their education, to name a few of their selfless works of service and charity.


The Grand Institute also takes on new service projects annually and in recent years, has raised funds to help the homeless, support the military and combat ALS and other medical conditions.

Debbie Shimaoka, Grand Director and a member of Institute #188 Corpus Christi at St. Juliana Falconieri Catholic Church, had belonged to other women’s organizations in the past but could never find one where she felt at home.

Then she found out about the Institute #188 Corpus Christi at St. Juliana’s.

“My faith, my spirituality, my trust in women went higher and I never looked back,” Shimaoka said. “It’s just been a beautiful 19 years. I found my Institute first, which is part of the district with five institutes, loved the support I received and ended up going to a convention and I was hooked.”

As is the case with many nonprofits and ministries, membership has been declining and the Grand Institute’s current leadership is looking to Catholic women of all ages, 14 years and above, to answer the call.

“Since we’ve been organized for so long, we are now getting to a particular age where we’re losing members faster than we can receive members,” said Debra Ramirez Cruz, the institute’s grand first vice president, who will step into the role of grand president in July. “And so, we need to influence these younger generations to come and be with us because the benefits that are available provide promise for their future and for their faith that are tremendous.”

Shimaoka’s 19-year-old daughter, Lauryn Shimaoka, has been a member since age 15 and is among the youngest members in Orange County.

Lauryn Shimaoka belongs to another nonprofit but said involvement in the Grand Institute has helped her to develop a sense of purpose.

“Since I’ve have grown up around them, it’s basically like roots for me,” said Lauryn, a student at Fullerton College. “It’s basically like I can’t really get away from these ladies because every time I’m far, I have to go back. You always have to go back to your family, and I would say it’s like that.”

The Young Ladies’ Grand Institute was established in September 1887 in San Francisco when Emily Coogan and Mary Richardson visited the home of their friend, Annie Sweeny, who had been caring for a young woman in her home who was in poor health due to tuberculosis.

Unable to work, the infirmed woman’s finances were depleted.

It was then that Sweeny, Richardson, and Coogan were inspired to start an organization through the Catholic Church designed to help women in similar circumstances who needed financial support.

With the blessing of then Archbishop Patrick Riordan of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, the women enlisted the help of Fr. John J. Prendergast, then Vicar General of the Archdiocese, and formed the first branch of what later became the Young Ladies’ Grand Institute.

Getting approval of the archbishop or bishop of a diocese is still followed today.

No new institute can form without the blessing at the diocesan level.

Permission is also obtained from the pastor before an institute can form at the parish level.

Institutes typically have meetings once per month and there are opportunities to get involved at all levels.

The Grand Institute also holds an annual convention along with social events.

“We have all professions that we cover,” Ramirez Cruz said. “Our professions consist of medical fields, doctors and nurses, lawyers, well-educated women and females that have been in various areas of the workforce. They’re quite smart and savvy women.”

Each year, the incoming grand president chooses a cause for all institutes to take up during her year-long tenure.

Esther Vasquez, the current grand president, chose to support libraries through a program called “Libraries are not just for Books”.

At St. Juliana, the Corpus Christi Institute donated money to reopen a branch of the Fullerton Library system, donated books and helped with a school parish library, Shimaoka said.

Julie Kersting, grand second vice president and member of #247 Holy Angels Institute, based at St. Thomas More, shared that their members have been dropping off books and providing snacks for a small library located behind the church.

“And what’s really nice about some of these programs, like my institute in St. Juliana’s, we supported Salute to the Military 10 years ago and we still do it,” Shimaoka said. “We give to Camp Pendleton Wounded Warriors Naval Hospital. So, some of the programs resonate with us and we just keep them.”

For other young women of faith who are looking for a way to serve the Church and the community, Lauryn Shimaoka would encourage them to consider the Young Ladies’ Grand Institute.

“I guess I would say it will give you more of a reason to believe in the faith of this group, the Catholic faith, the Christian faith,” she said. “And especially for either young women or Catholic women in general, it basically gives you this understanding of why we believe and why we do certain things and it’s important to do these things. It will bring you closer to God, and it will bring you closer to your goal in life and will help you in what you want to do or who you want to be.”

Young Ladies’ Grand Institute is open to catholic women 14 years and above. These women welcome you to join them and become a member who is guided by the virtues of selfless service and charity.

For information on the Young Ladies’ Grand Institute and to find a local institute, go to www.ylionline.org