Longest running youth movement in Australia

The YCW was founded in the factory town of Laeken, Belgium in 1912 when a young priest, Joseph Cardijn, was assigned to work with the young people in the parish. Cardijn worked closely with teenage youth leaders, Madelaine De Roo and Victoire Cappe, to establish a girls action group to address the horrible working conditions the girls were experiencing at the time.

In the following year, 18 year old Fernand Tonnet approached Cardijn to help him set up a similar group for the young men in the parish and together with the girls established the Young Trade Unionists, which later changed its name to Young Christian Workers in 1925.

Fernand Tonnet was joined by Paul Garcet and Jacques Meert who commenced a campaign to establish the YCW in other countries too. In 1946, Cardijn started to visit other countries and by 1950 the YCW was established in 60 countries.

It is during this time that the YCW came to Australia. In 1941, the YCW was established by the Catholic Church for the boys and the National Catholic Girls Movement for the girls, who later merged under the name of the YCW in 1959. With its motto “a service for every need” the YCW had more than 38,000 members with 485 leaders groups around the country.

At the forefront of the massive social change that swept the world during the late 1960-70s, the YCW became engaged in the social and political issues of the time such as the Vietnam War, opposition to dictatorships, the unequal distribution of wealth, and the role of lay people in the church. True to the original vision of the founding leaders, many of the YCW leaders and activists at the time have continued to play an influential role in society today.

The activism of the YCW during these times did come at a personal cost for some leaders in countries outside of Australia who were imprisoned and even lost their lives. It was a time of great change and for the YCW and as an organisation, it lost a lot of the financial and material support it enjoyed in the 1950-60s. The 1980-90s was a period of rebuilding with the YCW re-starting in many countries and re-establishing its international structure with teams based in 4 continents and culminating with the opening of the International Council in South Africa by Nelson Mandela in 1995.