By Karen Mahoney
Special to your Catholic Herald
MILWAUKEE – When an organization such as Catholic Family Life Insurance (CFLI) celebrates 140 years, rather than wait until its 150th, it must be for a good reason.
According to Joe Gadbois, vice president of corporate marketing at Catholic Family Life Insurance, the reason is simply excitement.
“We just couldn’t wait to tell the CFLI story at the 150th,” he said. “There was no real reason except that with all the difficulties going on and corporate failures that people needed a good story, one of success from an organization that never lost sight of its mission and vision.”
Founded in 1868, Catholic Family Life Insurance is the oldest Catholic fraternal benefit society in the United States; its origins are attributed to the late Bishop John Martin Henni, the first bishop of Milwaukee.
With immigration at its peak in Milwaukee, Bishop Henni built churches, secured priests, fought bigotry, and initiated works of charity. Not long after his arrival, he noticed ethnic division among several groups of Catholic immigrants. Concerned about their spiritual welfare, he raised funds and founded Saint Francis Seminary in 1856 to educate and provide more priests for the area.
For 37 years, Bishop Henni’s mission was to combine spiritual and earthly guidance to shape the Milwaukee Diocese. Among his many accomplishments was setting the foundations for CFLI.
Civil War brought hardships
While the Civil War ended in 1865, the suffering and financial hardships did not. Nationally, epidemics of small pox and cholera left millions dead. In Milwaukee, thousands of men died leaving helpless widows and orphans on their own.
Insurance was expensive for the average family. A $1,000 life insurance benefit cost nearly one third of a family’s annual income.
This was unacceptable to Bishop Henni who arranged a meeting of 21 men from Milwaukee’s seven benevolent societies, and formed the “Family Protective Association” – changed to Catholic Family Life in 1949 – on Aug. 16, 1868.
Society offered protection to men, 18 to 45
This group of men merged the philosophy of fraternalism with life insurance and formed CFLI on the principle of brotherhood and the belief that each individual has an obligation to assist his or her neighbors. Owned and operated by Catholics for Catholics, the society offered low-cost protection to men ages 18 to 45.
As first president, John Traudt established objectives for the society:
•Band Catholics together •Offer social and fraternal activities •Extend benevolent assistance to those in need •Educate and develop loyalty and love for the United States •Provide spiritual benefits for members •Establish a financially sound mutual benefit insurance society •For just $1.50 per quarter, the premium provided a $350 death benefit per member.
Similar to other fraternal organizations, CFLI is structured differently than traditional commercial insurance companies: •Members own the
not-for-profit organization •A board of directors is elected by the delegates and chosen from the membership, to represent Catholic Family Life •Members of local branches or councils share in group activities •It provides life insurance and other fraternal benefits. By 1890, a separate women’s Death Benefit Fund was established to include women as members of the fraternal society. Just $1 per quarter would provide women with a $300 death benefit.
Magazine introduced in 1905
Catholic Family Life grew steadily and by 1905 introduced the society’s magazine, “The Family Friend,” written in German until 1916.
With the onset of World War I, CFLI not only pledged to pray for their U.S Military forces, but also backed the government by investing $10,000 in Liberty Bonds.
After substantial increase in membership, officers moved the home office from First and Wisconsin to Third and State streets in 1926. The society’s assets by 1927 topped $638,565.
Despite nationwide financial hardship during the Great Depression, CFLI’s growth did not slow, thanks to the dedication toward its members. The juvenile department added a guaranteed convertible insurance program for children under 16, at which time they were transferred to the adult class without medical examination.
A July 1932 article written by CFLI president Otto Seifriz stated, “During this present depression almost everything has decreased in value, mercantile business, farms, etc., except life insurance. Everyone who owns property or business is poorer now than before the depression set in. But your possessions, as represented in life insurance, are still the same and you are as rich today as before.”
World War II overshadowed 75th anniversary
The era of World War II cast a dim light on CFLI’s 75th anniversary. While the society was still strong, members opted to forgo any celebration in lieu of a Pontifical High Mass celebrated at St. Joseph Church in Milwaukee.
In an effort to continue with industry trends, CFLI offered health and accident insurance in 1944, the first Catholic insurance organization to offer such a program. The plan featured a disability policy for the father, and a hospitalization and medical plan for the family.
Continued growth led to a third location, a three story office building at 726 N. Water St.
Camping, volunteering, tuition assistance added
In addition to introducing financial products, CFLI initiated programs such as family camping, children’s camping, tuition assistance, and volunteer programs. In 1980, members donated clothing, household goods, money and sweat to renovate a home for an 11-member Laotian refugee family.
Expanding CFLI’s mission facilitated a need for a larger home office, and the society moved to its current location in Shorewood where it could continue to grow in a unique environment of faith and work.
To further demonstrate its focus on building the Body of Christ, CFLI established a 501c3 education trust fun called the Catholic Family Life Education Foundation in 1999. The foundation provides aid for parish religious education programs as well as grants to seminarians and those studying for the diaconate and religious orders.
CFLI through wars, depression, recessions
With assets exceeding $276 million and $1.4 billion of life insurance in force, Catholic Family has withstood the test of time, Gadbois said.
“Catholic Family has been around through wars, depressions, recessions, changes in lifestyles and the like, but we are still here providing volunteer opportunities for Catholics and their families,” he said. “We offer wholesome, family-friendly events and activities that have withstood the test of time.”
President and CEO Daniel Lloyd acknowledged that while families have changed, the need for financial security and for helping others has not changed.
“CFLI has remained true to our founding mission to offer financial security to families while providing programs and benefits that enhance their Catholic faith and that respond to their Christian call to service through volunteer outreach,” he said. “Catholics need a place to be Catholic that complements their parish experience and we offer that at Catholic Family through our all-volunteer, member-led chapters that, in 2008 alone, raised for Catholic parishes and schools as well as communities nearly $1.2 million.”
While many corporations offer opportunities for volunteerism, the opportunities to share time, talent and treasure within the framework of a fraternal benefit society such as CFLI are unique, according to Lloyd.
“Fraternal benefit societies encourage and fund programs that encourage their members, in effect, their customers, to become the service arm and volunteer voice of the organization in the community,” he said. “As a Catholic-based organization, we are able to place God and our guiding Catholic principles at the very heart of our organization.”
7,000 members in Milwaukee Archdiocese
With 48,000 members nationwide, and 7,000 in the Milwaukee Archdiocese, CFLI members logged 135,000 volunteer hours in 2008. Those hours, Lloyd said, if compared to the independent sector current volunteer hourly rate of $19.51, would equal $2.63 million. Additionally, since 1994, member-led chapters raised in excess of $7.9 million for a variety of causes, including 60-65 percent solely Catholic causes. Of that amount, $3.2 million has gone to support Catholic education.
“In these difficult economic times, a 140-year old organization that has withstood the test of time and remained true to its founding becomes even more relevant for families seeking security that is guaranteed, as well as wholesome family activities that help bring generations closer together,” he said.
Since its inception, CFLI has had a unique place in the lives of Catholics and their families. The company continues its commitment to making sure families remain financially secure, while providing a variety of programs to meet the social, educational, and religious needs of its members.
“To answer the question, ‘Why Catholic Family?’ is to probe the very heart of what makes us different,” said Gadbois. “In other words, why satisfy only a person’s finances when you can enrich all of life’s needs.”
While the name changed over the years, Bishop Henni’s vision of “Catholics helping Catholics” will always remain.
“CFLI has made sure that we enrich all aspects of what makes life worth living,” said Gadbois. “With the gift of financial security as well as the gifts of fellowship, faith and family.”