An Army for Our Lady: the Legion of Mary

Army? Why, one may ask, do we use military terms for anything associated with our gentle Queen, like army and legion? Military terms are not new in the Church. Indeed, as children in Catholic school, did we not learn to call the Church on earth “The Church Militant” to distinguish living Catholics still struggling to earn salvation from the “Church Suffering” in Purgatory and the “Church Triumphant” in Heaven? So, when the saintly gentleman of Ireland, Frank Duff, began his voluntary group of laymen to assist the work of the Church Militant, the term “Legion of Mary” was a natural choice.

The word legion has its beginnings with the Roman Army, a legion being a group of Roman fighting men numbering from three to six thousand, with ten legions forming a cohort, the main fighting unit of the Army of both the Republic and later the Empire. The word itself derives from the Latin legere,meaning to gather. At that time, in 1921, it was almost unheard of for lay Catholics to be gathered into a cohesive group to assist the work of the Church. Frank Duff thus began a great and important work that still attracts millions around the world today.

The Legion’s founder came into the world in Dublin, Ireland in 1889. His family was Catholic and wealthy. As a young man, he entered public service as his profession. At his parish church, Saint Nicholas of Myra, he joined the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, dedicated to assisting the poor. It was here that he came to see the terrible destitution of Dublin’s poorest, many of whom had no choice but to find their daily sustenance in the soup kitchens of the city. Some of these soup kitchens were Protestant and those in charge of them used the occasion of feeding the Catholic poor as a time to evangelize. Duff — a very devout and proud Catholic — began Catholic soup kitchens and went so far as to picket the Protestant establishments so that the Catholics would not lose their Faith. He began to see a great opportunity for average lay Catholics to do some good for the poor and needy all the while strengthening their own Faith and that of those they helped. Theirs became both a corporal and a spiritual work of mercy. Frank Duff had abiding faith that all Christians were called to be saints. In 1917 Duff read and took to heart Saint Louis Marie de Montfort’s True Devotion to Mary and, thereafter, adopted the Monfortian spirituality as his own. It was this total devotion to Our Lady that led him to dedicate his Legion to her. So it was that on September 7, 1921, the first Praesidium of the Legion of Mary was formed in Dublin. Duff guided the growth of the Legion for almost sixty years, until his death in 1980 at the age of ninety-one.

Almost ten years after its founding, Pope Pius XI spoke public words of praise for the work of the Legion, and it was due to his encouragement that membership in the group grew by leaps and bounds so that soon it became a worldwide organization. It remains so today, with headquarters in Dublin, Ireland, and active Praesidia in more than one hundred and seventy countries around the world.

Structure of the Legion

The structure of the Legion would be formal with the lowest group, usually at the parish level, being called the Praesidium. This parish group, from four to twenty or more people, meets on a weekly basis. Their main work is as a kind of outreach to those in need within the local church parish, usually the elderly, the hospitalized, the homebound. While it is not primarily to offer material assistance, but spiritual comfort and friendship to these needy, many times food and other necessities accompany the visits. Legionnaires always work in pairs and receive their assignments from the pastor or parish priest who is their spiritual advisor. Prayer is an important part of their work, as their founder directed.

Above the Praesidium is the Curia, which supervises several Praesidia. Over the Curia is the Comitum, supervising several Curiae — such as in a town or city. The Regia is in charge of a larger area still, such as a state or large province. The highest level consists of the Senatus which controls several Regiae in a country or very large territory. The entire structure has its headquarters, called the Consilium, in Dublin. Each of the levels has its individual officers and spiritual director, always a priest or religious. All other offices are held by laymen or women.

Prayer is Important

As it was to its founder, prayer is an important part of every meeting of the Legion at all levels. Based on the spirituality of Saint Louis Marie de Montfort, devotion to Jesus through His Mother is its basis. A small altar is set up at the meeting place with a statue of Our Lady of Grace as its centerpiece. There are two candles on each side in the front and two vases of flowers, usually roses, at the rear. The vexillium Legionis (the Legion’s standard), made of metal and onyx, showing the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove and the Miraculous Medal of Our Lady above a globe of the earth, stands at her right hand. Members begin with introductory prayers to Our Lady and the Holy Ghost — to whom Frank Duff was particularly devoted — and a Rosary. There are spiritual readings and administrative discussions, with each member telling briefly what Legion work they accomplished during the week. They then read a chapter of the Legion’s Handbook and pray the Catena Legionis, the daily prayer of the Legion; there is a short spiritual talk and new tasks are assigned for the upcoming week. The meeting ends with the completion of the prayers contained in the Tessera, the official prayer book of the Legion of Mary — and lately, a special prayer is recited for the beatification of Frank Duff.

Edel Quinn in Africa

A young, beautiful, vivacious woman named Edel Quinn came into the Legion of Mary in the early 1930’s. She was the oldest of five children and a very devout Catholic who loved Mass and Holy Communion and whose greatest desire was to become a Poor Clare nun. Just as she was about to enter the convent, she was laid low by tuberculosis. Never a very robust person, Edel was ordered to spend time at a sanitorium in County Wicklow where she rested and recuperated for eighteen months. Her dream of the religious life was over, but her fellow Legionaires recognized her leadership ability and her zeal. As the Legion was now growing by leaps and bounds, even to faraway America and Africa, Edel’s name was mentioned to lead the Legion on the latter continent. Despite her frailty, she tackled the job with gusto, entering Africa through Mombasa and then into Nairobi, Kenya, which would be her first home base. She purchased a car and within a few months had established a number of Praesidia in the area. Her biggest hurdle was overcoming the ethnic suspicions of the many groups in Africa. Catholics were a distinct minority, with most of the Catholics coming from Portuguese Goa, in the Far East. It was indeed an accomplishment that Goans, Africans, and Europeans — all Catholics — were willing to pray and perform spiritual work together as a unit.

One of her biggest crosses was the opposition of the local “witch doctors” and promoters of the animist religions who threatened to put curses on her followers. They resented the intrusion of foreigners, especially a white, Catholic woman! Edel was indomitable, however, and was able, despite her frail health, to travel over much of Africa, even to far Uganda, Tanganyika, and the island of Mauritius, establishing Praesidia wherever she went. Always at her side, in addition to her Rosary and other religious articles, was her trusty pistol for protection against wild animals.

In 1938, Edel was stricken with malaria, one of Africa’s many tropical diseases. This experience only added to the frailty of her health, but after recovering, she continued her health-breaking work. While war raged in Europe, Edel conducted her own war for the spread of the Faith and the salvation of souls in her beloved Africa. In 1940, bicycling up and down the tropical country of Nyasaland, Edel founded more Praesidia of the Legion, weakening all the while from the spread of her tuberculosis. Finally, she collapsed. She was found to weigh only seventy-five pounds at this point and was sent to the cooler climate of South Africa to rest and recover. Somewhat better, but still very weak, Edel returned to Nairobi. On a mission to Tanganyika, she caught a cold. She was able to return to Kenya and spent the last months of her life there. On May 12, 1944, she kissed the Crucifix and asked “Is Jesus coming?” Finally, saying only “Jesus” once more, she breathed her last. She was only thirty-six years old.

Edel Quinn’s cause for beatification has also been introduced. She was declared Venerable by Pope John Paul II in 1994.

Alfie Lambe in South America

Almost ten years after the death of Edel Quinn, a young and zealous young Irishman named Alphonsus Lambe, known as Alfie, was sent to South America to begin the work of the Legion there. South America was different from Africa religiously, having been made Catholic in the 1500s by the Portuguese and the Spanish. Lately, however, in the mid-twentieth century, Catholicism faced two rivals. One was the spread of Communism, the other was Protestant sects that claimed many fallen-away Catholics through their missionary endeavors. It was Alfie’s job to reclaim these souls for the Church and for Our Lady.

Alfie Lambe was very young when he left the Emerald Isle never to return, only twenty-one. He was a devout and dedicated Catholic who had sought out a vocation with the Irish Christian Brothers, only to be forced to abandon it because of ill health. Now he would embark upon an even greater mission — to found Praesidia of the Legion so very far from home. In 1953, Alfie and a companion, Seamus Grace, another young man zealous for the Faith, left Ireland for South America with their first destination being Bogota, Colombia. Alfie had a talent for languages, and quickly learned Spanish and Portuguese, those tongues being the prominent ones of the South American continent.

Traveling all over the continent, Alfie Lambe established Legion of Mary Praesidia in Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. He had a charming and loving personality which attracted all classes and ages to him, and through him, to Our Lord and Our Lady. After six years of constant toil and travel, Alfie contacted a serious illness in Buenos Aries and died in that city in 1958, only twenty-six years old. He is buried in the cemetery of the Christian Brothers in Buenos Aires. Alphonsus Lambe is the third Legion of Mary leader whose cause has been accepted by Rome; he now a Servant of God.

Father Aedan McGrath in China

No story of the Legionaires is more compelling than that of Father Aedan McGrath (pronounced McGraw). Father McGrath — of Irish birth — had been working with the Missionary Society of Saint Columban priests in Shanghai, China. He was also a member of the Legion of Mary, and as such, had brought many young Chinese into the Faith. It was for this that he came to the attention of the Communist authorities. On the evening of September 6, 1951, the Chinese police knocked at the door of his order’s residence and demanded to see the priest McGrath. After ransacking his room and finding only religious books and other religious items to implicate him, he was arrested “under suspicion.” What was it that he was suspected of? He was never accused of any crime, nor was he allowed to see an attorney or speak to his superiors.

Father McGrath was held in solitary confinement for two years and eight months, his only “companion” was a bird who visited his cell window. The prisoners were never allowed to sleep during the day even if they had been interrogated all night. They were watched at all times by guards whom they could not see. But Father knew when his guard was watching because his “friend,” the bird, would fly away when the guard approached. Father was in the habit of sharing his meager rice portion with his friend, and he saw this as God’s way of protecting him from the cruel guards. Even when he was moved from cell to cell, his friend followed him and stayed near. Finally, on April 28, 1954 (the Feast of Saint Louis de Montfort!), he was brought before a tribunal. He expected to be sentenced to a firing squad, but was released, and told never to return to China again. The Communists hated him because he was so effective in spreading the Faith. (You can see a charming two-minute video of Father telling the story of the bird near his prison cell window on Youtube.)

One would think that this was enough of an exciting and dangerous experience for one man, but not for Father McGrath. After he was expelled from China, he returned briefly to Dublin and subsequently worked tirelessly for the Legion in Europe, the Americas, and Asia, finally winding up in the Philippines where he was successful in establishing many Praesidia. He returned late in life to his native Dublin where he died in 2000 at age ninety-four — a life well-lived for God and for the Catholic Faith.

The Legion in North America

The Legion has many active groups in the vast area of North America. There are several in Mexico and in Canada. In our own United States one can find them all over the country. There are nine Senati and two large Regiae encompassing every single state, including Alaska and Hawaii. Here in New Hampshire, we are part of the Boston Senatus. The only local active Praesidium in the state, as far as I have been able to discover, is located in Manchester, the diocesan seat. It meets at Saint Catherine’s Church in that city. The nine active members are under the spiritual direction of the pastor of that parish; they are tasked with assisting the pastor with his work in outreach to nursing homes and hospitals and to Catholics who are unable to leave their homes and need some friendly visits from fellow Catholics who will pray with them and offer them solace. I spoke with the President of the Praesidium who was very kind and helpful in giving me this information. The New Hampshire Praesidium belongs to the Curia of Lawrence, Massachusetts, and to the Boston Senatus, which encompasses all six New England states. A local friend here at Saint Benedict Center, a dear and delightful Irish lady, belonged to the Legion many years ago when she lived and worked in New York City. Her duties were similar — visiting Catholics who were lonely, needed some spiritual contact, and possibly some material assistance as well.

Let us conclude with the closing prayers of the Catena Legionis, the prayers of the Legion of Mary said by all Legion members throughout those one hundred seventy countries every time they meet. After the recitation of Our Lady’s beautiful hymn, The Magnificat, here is the final recitation:

Confer on us, O, Lord, who serve beneath the standard of Mary, that fullness of Faith in Thee and trust in Her, to which is given to conquer the world. Grant us a lively faith, animated by charity, which will enable us to perform all our actions from the motive of pure love of Thee, and ever to see Thee and serve Thee in our neighbor; a faith firm and immovable as a rock, through which we shall rest tranquil and steadfast amid the crosses, toils and disappointments of life; a courageous faith which will inspire us and carry out without hesitation great things for God and for the salvation of souls; a Faith which will be our Legion’s Pillar of Fire — to lead us forth united — to kindle everywhere the fires of divine love — to enlighten those who are in darkness and the shadow of death — to inflame those who are lukewarm — to bring back life to those who are dead in sin; and which will guide our own feet in the way of peace; so that — the battle of Life over — our Legion may reassemble, without the loss of anyone, in the Kingdom of Thy Love and glory. AMEN.