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Fifty years ago, Anne Nelson, then 9, joined the youth version of Catholic Daughters of the Americas.

This week, she finishes her two-year tenure as regent, or leader, of the 70,000-member national women’s group. Nelson and about 650 other women are in Billings at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center for the organization’s 55th biennial national convention, a first for Montana.

The meetings started Wednesday afternoon and will conclude Sunday morning with a Eucharistic liturgy. Some of the larger meetings are taking place at the nearby Montana Grand Holiday Inn ballroom.

A Mass of Installation for the newly elected national leaders will be held Saturday at St. Pius X Catholic Church.

The organization started in 1903 in Utica, N.Y., and its headquarters remain there today. It quickly expanded across the United States, Nelson said.

The group has a presence in 45 states, in northern Mexico and in several U.S. territories. Nelson, who lives in Linthicun, Md., describes Catholic Daughters of the Americas as “a Catholic women’s organization that builds up.”

“We build up our faith first — our spirituality is a strong component of the program,” she said. “And then we can go out and do service, which is multifaceted.”

The women raise money and build one Habitat for Humanity house a year. It supports Smile Train, which provides surgery to impoverished children with cleft palates.

It supports a Catholic organization called Support our Aging Religious, which provides stipends for wheelchair lifts, soaking tubs and other aids for sisters, brothers and priests.

One of its longest-standing ministries is Holy Cross Family Ministries, which focuses on developing family and personal faith. The group also has a disaster relief fund, which sends money to dioceses in times of crisis.

“What comes to that fund comes from the hearts and hands of our membership,” Nelson said. “I see cupcakes, bake sales, all those things our ladies do to support these charities.”

During the past two years, Nelson has worked with 14 women on the board to strengthen the organization, teach leadership and work on new ideas.

“We don’t do it alone, we do it in unity,” she said.

Olga Samaniego, second vice national regent and convention chairwoman, said in addition to electing new officers, amending bylaws and adopting resolutions at the conventions, the five-day event is a time for the women to attend workshops and listen to speakers.

The convention includes spiritual gatherings. An element of fun also is woven into it. On Friday night, the Montana contingent will host a taste of Wild West Montana, where all the women are invited to dress up cowboy-style.

“It’s a time of renewal, a time for them to go back and be really prepared to go back and do God’s work,” Samaniego said. “This is a time to get them motivated to keep going.”

Assembling all together is a way for the women to experience solidarity.

“There are few of us and there’s a lot to do, and convention is a time when they can feel like they’re part of a bigger group and they’re all doing God’s work together,” she said.

Executive Director Mary Impellizeri, who has been part of the organization for 38 years, said that since the membership boom in the 1960s, the number of women in Catholic Daughters of the Americas has slowly decreased, and the members’ ages tend to skew older.

“A lot of younger women find they don’t have time to join, which is sad,” she said.

The organization is focused on recruiting new members, and how to do that is one focus of the convention. For the women who are part of the group, working together can make a big difference in the world.

“I can go to my school, my church and say, ‘We should do this, we should stop that,’ ” Impellizeri said. “But to have 70,000 women saying that in one voice is powerful.”

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General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.