How many social or professional organizations precede their monthly dinner with confessions, the rosary and Mass? Probably not many, but Legatus does.

In 1988 when Thomas Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza, established Legatus as an organization for Catholic business leaders and their spouses, he modeled it somewhat after Young Presidents, a similar organization that has no religious affiliation, according to Deacon Alvin Clay, who is the president of the Philadelphia chapter of Legatus.

“Somewhat” is the operative word, because Young Presidents is strictly secular, while Legatus is unabashedly Catholic, founded to help business leaders maintain their Catholic values in a milieu where profit is too often the most valued goal.

“We are Catholic Christian men and women who choose to live our faith not just in church but in our lives,” said Deacon Clay, who is the CEO of Davidson Trust Company in addition to being a permanent deacon at Immaculate Conception Parish in Jenkintown. “We give each other the strength, courage and conviction to do that. Living your faith in the workplace can be a challenge.”

Legatus was just a year old when at the request of Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, it was brought to Philadelphia with Elmer “Bud” Hanson, the president and CEO of the Hansen Group, as the first chapter president. The Philadelphia chapter has flourished from the beginning and is now one of the largest, if not the largest of the Legatus councils throughout the country.

Legatus comes from the Latin for ambassador, and its members and their spouses are literally ambassadors for the faith wherever they are. As an organization, Legatus does not do charitable outreach directly, other than a portion of the dues going directly to the Holy Father, although the individual members do. “They tend to be active, generous people,” Deacon Clay said.

Barbara Henkels and her late husband Paul, who was CEO of Henkels and McCoy, were a founding couple and he later served as the chapter president. “I’ve just seen the organization grow,” Barbara said. “It’s been wonderful; the people in it are dedicated and directed Catholics.”

Typically, the monthly dinner includes a Catholic speaker of note, for example in January it was Archbishop Chaput; others might be as diversified as sportscaster Lou Tilley or Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The most recent meeting on April 10 was typical: first there was the liturgical celebration at St. Katharine of Siena Church in Wayne.

Then there was dinner at the Overbrook Country Club with Carolyn Woo, the recently appointed president of Catholic Relief Services, as guest speaker. Food for the body and food for the soul.

The Catholic Relief Services message Carolyn Woo brought to the men and women of Legatus was straightforward.

First of all, she said, “we want people to be aware that CRS is your CRS. It is part of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Part of the U.S. Catholic Church. When you think about CRS, think about an agency that is working in your name to bring hope to the world.”

Woo reminded her audience of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’s favorite quote from Matthew 25: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

CRS exists, she said, “because God says when you help these people you are helping me.”

Also, although CRS represents the American Catholic Church, “we serve on the basis of need, not the basis of creed. We don’t go just to places where there are Catholic churches.”

With that said, “It is not enough to want to do good; we have to serve with uncommon expertise. We strive to be good stewards with no more than six or seven percent of what we take in going to expenses.”

The latter point addresses the reason that Woo, who became president of CRS in January, was selected to head the agency. Although she is a former board member of CRS, she freely admits her background is not in international development, it is in business management.

Born in Hong Kong and educated by Maryknoll Mission Sisters, she came to the United States in 1972 at age 18 to enroll at Purdue University, where she earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees and served on the faculty. In 1997 she was named dean of Notre Dame University’s business college, and under her leadership it became one of the best in the nation with the undergraduate college rated the very best.

CRS, which was originally founded during World War II for European relief, is now working in more than 100 countries mostly in the Southern Hemisphere. It has shown growth over the long term, although it fluctuates depending on the crisis. In years when there is a dramatic earthquake, tsunami, drought or hurricane donations increase to meet the need.

However, there are always needs in addition to emergency services, whether it is combating HIV/AIDS, agricultural programs, health, education, welfare, peace and justice or fostering small enterprises to promote self-sufficiency. Woo sees her role as making CRS flexible enough to adapt to needs as they arise.

Although a good portion of funding for CRS comes through the U.S. government, funding through collections, individual donations and Operation Rice Bowl are the backbone of the ministry.

“Our work is not possible without the U.S. Catholics, we work in their name,” she said. “We can’t do this alone. We need the people in the pews to help us, and pray for us.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.