More than 2,300 bishops gave a five-minute standing ovation to a layperson. The year was 1965, the place a General Council meeting of Vatican II. The occasion: A cardinal announced the presence of Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary.
On the eve of Our Lady’s Nativity 1921, the Legion of Mary began from one meeting with 15 girls and a priest in Dublin, Ireland. Duff wanted an apostolate with and for Mary according to St. Louis de Montfort’s True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin.
The Legion soon spread around the world; it came to America by 1932.
Today, the Legion of Mary is the largest apostolic organization of laypeople in the Church, with more than 3 million “active” members plus 10 million auxiliary members in almost every country. Three members, including Duff, have their causes for canonization open.
“The Legion of Mary presents the true face of the Catholic Church,” said Pope John XXIII, among the last six Popes approving of the Legion of Mary.
“You are the only organization in the world today that ever anticipated the Vatican Council,” said Bishop Fulton Sheen.
“The Legion played a major part in the Vatican Council,” says Father Francis Peffley, pastor of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Gainesville, Va. His parents, who have been active members for more than 50 years, were at a meeting with Duff when a telegram arrived from Vatican II officials who were composing the Decree on the Laity. The telegram asked for two copies of the Legion’s handbook in every language available.
Today, Holy Trinity Church can qualify as the model of what the Legion of Mary does.
Father Peffley joined the Legion as a youngster. Later as a student, he helped launch the Legion of Mary at Christendom College, in 1982, and did the same at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary. Now Arlington’s diocesan director of the Legion of Mary, he’s also the spiritual director of a Legion district covering four states and Washington, D.C.
Nine years ago at Holy Trinity he started one praesidium, the basic unit of six to 20 members. Duff organized the Legion based on the Roman army, using its terminology, because the “Legion is the army of the Virgin Most Humble,” as the handbook states.
Today, Holy Trinity has 75 active Legion of Mary members in eight praesidia, including a mom’s praesidium that meets the same time as junior (8- to 12-year-olds) and intermediate (13- to 17-year-olds) groups.
“Ours is a twofold purpose: sanctification and evangelization,” says Father Peffley. The primary purpose is to help members grow in holiness, closer to God through prayer, apostolic works, and devotion to Our Lady and love of Christ. The second is evangelization and apostolic works.
“It becomes a family activity,” says Father Peffley. Active Legion members meet for one hour a week for the Rosary and spiritual formation, then do two hours of apostolic work each week. Legion of Mary members pray the Magnificat daily. Auxiliary members don’t do the weekly apostolate work but pray the Rosary and a Legion prayer. That’s 13 million praying daily.
A priority for adults is door-to-door evangelization. “The Legion,” he concludes, “is a wonderful means to sanctify and evangelize the parish.”
There are more than 10,000 homes in the parish boundaries, and the Legion of Mary parishioners have knocked on every door every two to three years. The results?
“We’ve had hundreds of people come back to the Catholic faith and convert to the Catholic faith,” reports Father Peffley. “We average 30 to 40 converts a year. A good portion of these converts have come through the efforts of the Legion of Mary door-to-door.”
Interested non-Catholics usually receive author and theology professor Scott Hahn’s conversion story on CD, while fallen-away Catholics receive EWTN regular Father John Corapi’s conversion story.
“Many are waiting for an invitation to become Catholic,” says Father Peffley. “One man said he was waiting 50 years for someone to invite him.”
Each year 100 people attend the parish’s Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults — half non-Catholics and half Catholics who are brushing up on the faith.
That’s not all. Through Legion efforts, hundreds of parents have had their babies baptized, and hundreds of children have been enrolled in religious education.
“Entire families have come back to the faith by one visit from the Legion,” says Father Peffley.
Members visit and encourage new parishioners and assist with the enthronement of the Sacred Heart in homes and Pilgrim Virgin statue home visitations to encourage families to pray the Rosary together.
Children and teen members do this work with senior members and also visit nursing homes, the homebound and newly baptized.
“We don’t go empty-handed,” says Theresa Lyon, a mother who is president of the junior praesidium. “We make rosaries for them. Children make spiritual bouquet cards and pour their hearts and souls into them. The artwork is precious.” Children hand-deliver or mail the cards.
Lyon’s praesidium spiritually adopted a fallen-away Catholic and sent him cards, and now he is turning his life around.
“There are a lot of folks who just need to see Christ in action and the spirit of Mary alive and working through us,” Lyon says.
Her 14-year-old daughter Catherine remembers one visit to a woman who had recently lost her husband.
“We gave her a spiritual bouquet card and said we’ll say three Hail Marys or a Rosary for you,” says Catherine, “and she got choked up and was really touched by the card. It meant more to her than I could really know, and I was moved to tears.”
Catherine says of the Legion of Mary, “I really love it because I feel so close to Mary by becoming a spiritual soldier for Mary.”
Her 12-year-old sister Josephine enjoys visiting newly baptized babies, giving rosaries and spiritual bouquets to the elderly, and taking the Pilgrim Virgin statue to families. “It’s a blessing to be there,” she says. “You feel so close to Mary.”
Bridget McCardell’s five oldest children are in the Legion. She is president of the intermediate praesidium and three years ago was instrumental in forming the moms’ group.
“Oftentimes parents say our kids have so many activities, but instead of seeing this as another activity, they see it as a family apostolate,” she explains. “Moms do their work with the kids. If kids see their parents involved in the Church’s work — and do it with their children — it becomes part of their life.”
Moms and children do a variety of apostolate work, from Christmas caroling to visiting shut-ins. McCardell’s 13-year-old son Sean enjoys the nursing home visits.
“We pray with everybody,” says Sean, who has become “more devoted to Mary, and I say the Rosary more.”
“The priest can’t evangelize everybody by himself,” explains Father Peffley. “Jesus sent out his 72 disciples. As alter Christus, I have roughly my 72 that I send out two-by-two.”
Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.