With the holidays now just a happy memory, the time was right to debrief with Mary Swift, president of the Illinois Club for Catholic Women (ICCW), and Lake Forest’s Deborah Lanigan, chair of the ICCW’s 56th Annual Presentation Ball, over lunch at Market House. This amazing duo, with the help of countless other ICCW members, ushered in the Christmas holiday with a breathtaking evening celebrating 18 local young debutantes at the Presentation Ball.
“It’s really a celebration of family,” explains Mary, once a debutante herself who joined the ICCW when her own daughters came of age and could experience the Presentation Ball. “The evening provides such a magical moment for the family when they see their daughter on stage for the first time as she is presented—it’s like no other,” says Mary.
The ICCW is a not-for-profit organization that offers service and relief to the poor, the distressed, and the underprivileged in the Chicago metropolitan area. Its primary fundraiser is the annual Presentation Ball.
The young women who are invited to become debutantes commit to a year of preparation and service. “What I love about our service projects is that they are hands on,” explains Deborah, whose daughter Maureen—once a debutante herself, is now the Junior Board president of ICCW and mentors many of the girls who make their debut. “At the House of the Good Shepherd [serves women and children affected by domestic violence]—our girls are there holding their hands, learning what it means to be there for someone else,” she adds. “As I said at the ball, we expect them to learn that if they live a life of service and charity, their grace and spirituality will grow.”
The House of the Good Shepherd is only one of the charitable organizations that ICCW supports. Others include Aid for Women, the Archdiocese of Chicago, Big Shoulders Fund, Catholic Charities, Franciscan Outreach Association, Maryville Academy, St. Mary’s Home, and Solidarity Bridge.
“This year when the ball was over, we were out taking pictures,” says Mary. “When I returned to the ballroom, His Eminence Cardinal George was waiting for me to thank us for the work ICCW is doing. I was so touched and I know this had to make an impression on our girls.”
The Presentation Ball draws from a time that some may call old fashioned—the long white dresses, the mantillas covering their shoulders, the lace fans, or the ballroom dancing may give some reason to question the relevance of such an event in today’s world. Mary and Deborah beg to disagree.
“There’s still such incredible excitement to be a debutante. For many of our girls, they’re getting to experience something their grandmothers, mothers, or sisters may have. It’s a year for them to embrace what we do and get to know people outside of their immediate circle of friends,” says Mary.
Deborah fondly recalls what the evening means to the relationships between fathers and their daughters. “As much as we mothers love this event, it’s not our night. It’s not about us. It’s really a special time for fathers and their girls,” Deborah says.
A little known fact about the Presentation Ball is that the mothers aren’t involved in the dressing process. Mary explains that the girls are dropped off at the Chicago Hilton, with dress in hand and hair and makeup complete. They then change into cocktail attire and meet select club members for dinner in one of the hotel’s grand suites at 3 p.m. “It’s incredible to walk into room and see the girls there, just hours away from their big night,” Mary says. “This year we even had girls receiving news of their college acceptances at the dinner table.” It’s truly an awe-inspiring moment for both mother and father when they see their daughter for the first time, fully dressed, lining the stairs leading to the Grand Ballroom in the receiving line with Cardinal George and Monsignor Boland of Catholic Charities.
Before this year’s ball even took place, the planning for next year’s event began. “It’s really a 15-month process,” says Mary, who is beginning the second year of her two-year term as the club president. With 18 girls in this year’s debutante class, Mary looks forward to more girls participating, recalling the 50th Presentation Ball in 2007 with a class size of 33. “No matter what the number is, we always think we have the perfect group.”
Looking ahead, Mary and Deborah predict that the tradition of debutantes is here to stay. “There such an element of magic for our families, I can’t imagine this event ever going away,” Mary says.
-Ann Marie Scheidler