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Legion of Mary, History and Overview

Legion of Mary, History and Overview

MARY’S LEGION: A Bird's Eye View of the Legion of Mary

– Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.


The Legion of Mary was born on the first vespers of the Nativity of Mary, September 7, 1921, in Dublin, Ireland.

At the invitation of Frank Duff (1889-1980) several people had arranged to meet in a building named Myra House. The group was comprised of a priest, Father Michael Toher; an employee at the ministry of finances; some fifteen women, almost all office workers or store employees; and Frank Duff. They wished to devote themselves to an active spiritual apostolate, similar to that of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society. They met around a table on which had been placed a statue of the most Blessed Virgin.

After the recitation of the Veni Sancte Spiritus and the rosary, Duff spoke of the discovery he had just made of the Treatise on True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin by St. Louis Grignion de Montfort (1673-1716). His first reading of it had repelled him. The language of holy slavery was strange. But the doctrine of the universal mediation of Mary had struck him and he was convinced that that doctrine is the source of life. He was determined to draw out of the Marian mediation its apostolic consequences. With contagious ardor he explained to the members assembled there that a sincere devotion toward Mary must be active: it obliges us to work for Mary, to help her save the souls for whom she had suffered so much. A century after St. Louis de Montfort, Blessed William Joseph Chaminade (1761-1850) would present this doctrine in the more appealing language of filial commitment to Mary. In the twentieth century Mary’s apostolic mission and our participation in it would be popularized by Marianist Father Emile Neubert S.M., with whom Frank Duff had extensive correspondence.

It was decided that they would go, two by two, to visit the United Hospital of Dublin to give spiritual encouragement to the patients and that, on the following week, they would return to the Myra House to give a report on the results and to receive new tasks. Gradually the group grew and organized itself. It took the name of Legion of Mary because it was efficiently organized like a Roman legion. In this way, it avoided giving the group an Irish or local identity, since it meant to extend itself to all the countries of the world.

A lay apostolic organization under Church guidance, the Legion's twofold purpose is the spiritual development of its members and advancing the reign of Christ in cooperation with Our Lady.


The Legion has a central council called the concilium legionis, governing the Legion around the world through subordinate regional councils called a regia or senatus, district councils called a curia, and local groups, each called a praesidium. The praesidium is the strategic unit of the Legion, its center of apostolic influence. It is composed of the Legionaries of the parish and directed by a president, a vice-president, a treasurer, and a secretary. Whenever possible, a priest, deacon, religious brother or sister serves as spiritual director.

The praesidium meets every week and all active Legionaries consider regular attendance at the meeting as the first of their duties. It is there that they absorb the apostolic and Marian spirit of the Legion. It is there that they gather to give a report on the work accomplished and to receive assignments for the apostolate of the following week. In addition to active members, the Legion has auxiliaries who assist by the daily recitation of the rosary and other prayers contained in the tessera.


The Handbook states that “the spirit of the Legion is the spirit of Mary herself.” Three qualities of Mary, above all, should capture the attention of the Legionary:

1) Her role of mediatrix of all graces –
“The Legion has a boundless trust in Mary, for it knows that, by a decree of God, the power of Mary is unlimited.”
(Handbook, p. 19)

2) Her Immaculate Conception –
God already made allusion [to this privilege] in the words with which, from the beginning, Mary was promised to us: “I will put enmity between you and the Woman, between your offspring and hers. She shall crush your head and you will lie in wait for her heel” (Gn 3:15). It is from these words addressed to Satan by the all-powerful God that the Legion draws the ardor of its confidence, the secret of its strength to carry on the battle against sin. It hopes with all its soul to become the offspring of Mary, for the pledge of victory is found only there. The more we become the children of the Immaculate, the more will our hostility against the powers of evil be enlivened, the more will our victory be complete.
(Handbook, p. 20)

3) Her spiritual maternity in our regard –
Since we are her children, we should behave as such -- yes, like her very little children completely dependent on her. We must ask her to nourish us, to guide us, to instruct us, to counsel us in our doubts, to draw us back from our wanderings, so that, confided entirely to her care, we may grow into the likeness of our elder brother, Jesus, and share in his mission of combating and vanquishing sin.
(Handbook, p. 21)

The Handbook concludes:
The devotion of the Legion is the foundation of its apostolate. One of the duties the Legion has especially at heart is to manifest this ardent devotion toward the Mother of God. (Handbook, p. 22) … True devotion to Mary achieves its full development only in union with her. Union necessarily signifies community of life. Now, Mary’s life does not consist chiefly in receiving admiration, but in communicating grace (Handbook, p. 32) … Our Lady could declare: “I am the Apostleship,” just as truly as she said: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” (Handbook, p. 32)

It is to the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the apostolate, to whom the Legionaries make their promises. But the Holy Spirit never acts without Mary and always acts for Mary. Here is part of the text of the promise:

Most Holy Spirit, I, … ,
Desiring to enroll myself on this day as a Legionary of Mary,
Yet knowing that of myself I cannot render worthy service,
Do ask of you to come upon me and to fill me with yourself
So that my poor acts may be sustained by your power,
And become an instrument of your mighty purposes.
But I know that you, who have come to regenerate the world in Jesus Christ,
Have willed to do it only through Mary;
That, without her, we cannot know you or love you;
That it is through her, and to whom she pleases, when she pleases, and in the quantity and manner she pleases, that all your gifts and virtues and graces are administered;
And I realize that the secret of a perfect legionary service
Consists in a complete union with her who is so completely united to you.
So, taking into my hand the Legionary Standard which seeks to set before our eyes all her virtues,
I stand before you as her soldier and her child.
And so, I declare my entire dependence on her.
She is the mother of my soul.
Her heart and mine are one;
And from that single heart she speaks again those words of old:
“Behold the servant of the Lord.”
And once again you come by her to do great things. (Handbook, pp. 90-91)


Growth came slowly for the Legion. Five years after its foundation, it was still confined to the limits of the Archdiocese of Dublin. But, then, declared Cardinal Leon Suenens in a report about the Legion in 1950, “behold, a tempest blast arose: in 1927, the Legion began to move into all the dioceses of Ireland; in 1928, it crossed the seas and took root in Scotland.” Then, in 1929, England opened its gates to it. In 1931, it entered America; in 1932, Australia; in 1933, Africa; in 1937, Asia, through China; in 1940, the Philippines; in 1948, Japan.

There are now millions of active and auxiliary members of the Legion. It is, in fact, difficult to give exact figures, for what is valid today may be too small tomorrow. At the end of 1953, the tessera was being prayed in some seventy languages. A report from Dublin at the end of February 1956, noted:

The Legion is working in more than nine hundred dioceses, with an increase of about two per week. On the average, a new praesidium is formed every day in the Belgian Congo, in the Philippines, in Central America. Last year, 150 praesidia were founded in 150 days. Other places also show numbers just as elevated.

The only part of the world where the Legion did not exist in the mid and latter twentieth century is the “Russian part,” that is, Russia itself and the adjacent countries behind the iron curtain. Of course, it is possible that the Legion existed in secret in those countries, but there was no information verifiable at that time.

All the Vatican apostolic nuncios and delegates then and now are in favor of having the Legion in the countries where they serve.

Today the Legion of Mary is found in about 170 countries, and numbers more than three million members and many more auxiliary members. It is believed to be the largest lay apostolate organization in the Church.

The Servant of God Frank Duff, whose cause for canonization was introduced in 1996, guided the worldwide extension of the Legion until his death in 1980. At the invitation of Pope Paul VI, he served as a lay observer at the Second Vatican Council.

Apostolic vigor

The Legion’s apostolate is universal. It is obedient to Mary’s word to the servants at Cana: “Do whatever he tells you,” He, that is, Christ, through the voice of his representatives. Visits to the elderly, to the sick, to lepers, to the poor, to the imprisoned; catechetical work; taking parish census; recruitment to the sodalities and other apostolic works; moral rescue of children and adults, of prostitutes; preparation for First Communion; re-validation of marriages; care of immigrants; retreats for military personnel, for Protestants; apostolate to assist itinerants; classes for North Africans; conversions of non-Catholics: Protestants (in great numbers), schismatics (work has begun), Muslims (with success on some points), Buddhists (numerous conversions), communists (many have become dedicated apostles of Christ).

In the name of Mary, the Legion has accomplished marvels from its beginning, and continues to do so every day. This can easily be seen by reading the Bulletins and other Legion periodicals. The Chinese communists have learned, to their chagrin, and have taught the entire world the temper of the apostolic courage with which Mary is able to arm her Legionaries.

Presently the Legion of Mary is the most spectacular proof of the apostolic mission of the Immaculate Virgin and of the effectiveness of an apostolate carried out in her name.

What is the secret of this great fruitfulness of the Legion of Mary? It is the result of both natural and supernatural causes.

Suppleness in its works: A specialized work, as are almost all apostolic works (preaching, teaching, movements of Catholic Action, etc.), may not appeal to some parishes or dioceses. But a work which adapts itself to multiple and changing needs always finds a field of opportunity in any place and at any moment.

Besides, the abilities required in other works generally demand prolonged formation, studies, and a practical apprenticeship over many years. The Legionaries of Mary begin their apostolic work immediately upon their entry into Mary’s army. And, since they always go with a companion, they always have the support of another. At the weekly reunion, they recount their successes and difficulties, and all the others may profit from this.

Rigidity in its method: The Handbook insists on “the immutability of the Legionary system.” This immutability, which might appear to some to be a narrowness of spirit, is the condition for the very existence of the Legion. For, if each praesidium or curia could modify or suppress some bothersome item, the Legion would soon cease to be what it is, and would quickly cease to exist at all.

Supernatural causes

Much more, even, than these natural causes of success, it is the supernatural factors which account for it. In most other works, the perfection of natural means has an important role. The preacher, the educator, the conference presenter, the monitor of works, the missionary -- all take care to use all the natural means of assuring success. They run the risk of preoccupying themselves with them at the expense of supernatural means. And, when they do succeed, the temptation is great to attribute the success to their talents, their eloquence, their knowledge.

The Legion of Mary can count only on help from on high. It asks for two hours of external work each week, but special prayers every day, in particular the rosary, which is the apostolic prayer par excellence according to the experience of all the great converters of souls. At the weekly meeting, the report of work accomplished and the distribution of new tasks takes but a short period of time, and they are preceded by and followed by the recitation of various prayers and a short spiritual presentation. Besides this, the active members are helped by the millions of auxiliary members, generally religious men and women and other pious persons, who are all happy to contribute to the success of Mary’s army by their prayers and their sacrifices.

Totally with, for, and by Mary

But it is, above all else, a very special confidence in Mary that confers on the Legion’s activity effectiveness that often borders on the miraculous. This was already mentioned with reference to the Legion’s devotion to the Immaculate Conception. But we must say more about it, for it is the most important facet. The Handbook comes back to it repeatedly.

Under the inspiration of this love and this faith in Mary, her Legion undertakes no matter what kind of work, without ever saying that it is impossible, for it believes that everything is possible and acceptable to it. (Handbook, p. 13)

The Legion bears, with inexpressible pride, the name of Mary. A Marian organization, it is based on the unlimited confidence of a child toward this good Mother, a confidence which it believes she will fortify by implanting it deeply into the heart of each one. In this way, it has members who work together with the greatest possible harmony of loyalty and discipline. That is why it does not think it presumptuous to consider its system as a kind of powerful machine which, in order to embrace the whole world, needs only to be responsive to the directives of authority. Mary, then, will be willing to use her institution to accomplish in souls her work of Mother and to continue her unending task: to crush victoriously the head of the infernal serpent. Would we be wrong to trust in her? (Handbook, p. 24)

These exhortations to absolute confidence in Mary, because the Legion is doing Mary’s work, are present in one form or another throughout the entire Handbook, which is the code and the gospel of the Legionaries. They find the nourishment of their trust in the daily prayers, in the weekly meeting, in the report on their confreres’ successes, in the items of the Bulletin and other Legion periodicals. They try, they succeed, their trust is strengthened.

If the contemporaries of Jesus had enough faith to obtain miracles -- and they were not saints! -- it was because they saw through all the miracles that it sufficed to ask with faith in order to obtain. The sight of the apostolic marvels produced in the name of Mary by the Legionaries’ confreres throughout the world convinces them that she will do for them as she does for others, provided they act in her name. One fights with confidence when seeing that one is a soldier in an army that is always victorious because an invincible leader directs it.

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