About 5 years ago, Irene Engel began noticing a troubling theme in her conversations with other grandmothers. “We were hearing too many reports that CATHOLIC girls did not understand the need for chastity, [for] protecting their bodies, and we made the statement, ‘Somebody should say something.’”

Growing up in a “typical family” in the “typical Midwestern town” of Lacrosse, Wisconsin, Irene enjoyed close familial relationships and a good education. Less wholesome but perhaps equally typical were the instances of sexual harassment she faced, once by a store clerk, and once by a friend’s father. Irene described these experiences as “disturbing and offensive,” though by far nothing new historically in the treatment of women.

Irene knew of Notre Dame through a faculty member at her high school.

“We thought it was some kind of an athletic college, ‘cause we didn’t hear anything else except about the football,” she said.

“It wasn’t until the first time I visited ND after moving to New Carlisle, Indiana, that I realized that this was a special place,” she said. “We took a tour with some friends who were not Catholic, and the one man was so impressed, he made the statement that ‘this truly is hallowed ground.’”

Years later, her daughter enrolled at St. Mary’s College, and she began to develop close ties with the campus. Especially close to Irene today are the Holy Cross sisters, and various priests at Notre Dame, Holy Cross, and St. Mary’s. She attends daily Mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, St. Joseph Chapel at Holy Cross, and the Church of Our Lady of Loretto at St. Mary’s.

Irene also attends the occasional football game. A few weeks ago, she and a friend secured tickets for a mere $15 (“We scalped the scalpers!”) and enjoyed the festive stadium atmosphere.

“We saw a lot of fruits and vegetables, students dressed in costumes,” she said. “Specifically, I stood next to somebody who was [costumed as] a grape, he had all kinds of purple forms of grapes all over his body.”

The students Irene has befriended are another of her great loves at Notre Dame, and provide further motivation for addressing the grandmothers’ concerns about virtue.

From this determination grew Irene’s Society of Grandmothers. The mission statement contains the following objectives: “To make young women aware that they are being exploited, used, and abused­–an insult to womankind.”

“To enlighten young women at an early age that society in general and the media in particular have made human beings slaves to their own passions, emotions, desires, and cravings to such an extent that they are not in control of or even aware of what they could be and should be.”

The society is geared specifically towards grandparents who wish to learn to talk to the younger generations about these issues.

While the group drafted a manifesto several years ago, they have not published due to various obstacles. Society members know from their travels and conversations, however, that grandmothers agree almost to a person “that something is not right” with our culture’s current definition of chastity.

Why are grandmothers in a unique position to address the issue of chastity? According to Irene, they offer wisdom and love founded on decades of experience, and a non-judgmental attitude that invites confidence.

To begin the discussion of chastity, the society references C.S. Lewis’s description of a natural law guiding human behavior.  “Human beings all over the earth,” Lewis writes, “have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it.”

The manifesto continues to define modesty, an almost instinctive effort toward reserve, as one of these peculiar laws guiding mankind. “Christianity is almost the only one of the great religions,” it reads, again quoting Lewis, “which thoroughly approves of the body—which believes that matter is good, that God Himself once took on a human body, that some kind of body is going to be given to us even in Heaven and is going to be an essential part of our happiness, our beauty, and our energy.” Thus, modesty is foundational to proper treatment of the body.

Irene then refers to Wendy Shalit’s A RETURN TO MODESTY: DISCOVERING THE LAST VIRTUE. In the book, Wendy Shalit concludes that “the most compelling rationale for a return to modesty is our discovery that our culture of immodesty isn’t, finally, as sexy as we thought it was going to be.”

When you practice behavior destructive to modesty, the grandmothers’ manifesto continues, “you will crave it more and more. The partner or partners you interact with will have also become slaves to their own self-centered passions and desires.”

“The belief of grandmothers is that nurturing shared warm emotion, experience, likes and dislikes, family and personal beliefs, habits, and even culture can be life long supports for a stable, continuing relationship, and a great foundation for family life.”

“The sexual passion may fade but the fundamental structure on which a great relationship is based, with constant work, will continue. The sacrifice we make for another’s well-being is most important, whether for spouse or child.”

“I viewed a commercial the other day in which a young lady was begging and pleading with the man driving the new snazzy sports car to please not break up. How humiliating, how degrading! Why would she want someone who didn’t want her? She is destined to be his slave for the rest of their relationship.

“And yet, womanhood is the most exalted position in the world. Women are capable of producing a live human being, loving and nurturing this person to full adulthood. No man, pope, male president, or male star athlete can do this. This is power!

“Because we have this potential, we need to expect respectful treatment and imagery. But at the same time we need to deserve this respect by displaying high values, good common sense, virtuous behavior, and most of all, our own self-respect, showing we are in control of ourselves…Look to where you hang out….Is your choice of words intellectually useful or scandalous?”

How can young ladies resist societal pressures to dress immodestly? “When I was growing up,” Irene shared, “we idolized actresses because they were so dramatic, dressed so beautifully, were groomed, and had wonderful appearances. One thing we knew NOT to idolize was their BEHAVIOR, in any way.”

What final advice would Irene offer to young ladies? “Respect yourself. And respect others. Most of all, love your neighbor.”

To their mothers? “That’s very touchy. The reason that young people are so confused is because somewhere along the line, their mothers and fathers have been confused about society’s message and God’s message.”

The society’s manifesto closes with a number of pertinent Bible verses.

“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

“Proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage, through all patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2).

“Trust God and he will help you; make straight your ways and hope in him” (Sir 2:6).

“You have been purchased at a price. Do not become slaves to human beings” (1 Cor 7:23).

How can you help?  Irene would love to hear comments, especially from a different generation, and needs YOUR help in getting the word out.  Contact her via Katie at kpetrik@nd.edu.