The History of the Legion of Mary - Now On Its Centenary Year

Founded by Frank Duff, an Irishman, on September 7, 1921. the Legion of Mary is a fully recognized Church organization whose  main object "is the glory of God through the holiness of its members developed by prayer and active cooperation, under ecclesiastical guidance, in Mary's and the Church's work of crushing the head of the serpent and advancing the reign of Christ." (HB page 11). Thus, the members of the Legion of Mary are called to lead edifying and sanctified lives of prayer and the practice of the sacraments, so that they may, in the simplest and most humble manner, in imitation of Our Lady, lead others to Christ and His bride, the most Holy Catholic Church. To accomplish the latter task, active members are required to perform apostolic works, engaging themselves in evangelizing activities in imitation to Christ's apostles, and in response to our Lord's call for bringing the Gospel message to the world. These are multi-faceted activities - but with these goals in mind: crush the head of the serpent, create a new man in each one we meet, so that as Saint Paul wrote to the Galatians:  "... yet I live, no longer I, but Christ who lives in me." (Gal: 2:20) and above all, journey with others towards salvation. Therefore, the Legion of Mary is a vocation for the ordinary Catholic men and women under the guidance and protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

History of the Legion of Mary

In his book, Miracles on Tap, Frank Duff provided us a glimpse on how the Legion of Mary was founded through the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit and with the guidance and protection of Our Blessed Lady. Contrary to the more popular notion that Frank Duff and his band of friends and soldiers of Mary, founded the Legion ‘over a course of a single meeting’ or a’ Eureka’ kind of moment similar to the discovery of electricity or lightning, the Legion of Mary came into existence through a series of events brought about by the desire of ordinary Catholic men and women with a common interest in helping others particularly in bringing comfort to those in need.  Its formation can also be traced back to the yearning of these men and women for an understanding of Mary’s role in their Christian lives as proposed by Saint Louis Marie de Montfort in his book, “True Devotion to Mary.”  Though its official founding date was September 7, 1921, the beginnings of the Legion of Mary might as well have been many years before its first official meeting, having found its roots around 1913, in the Saint Vincent de Paul Society and in the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association. Without any formal or deliberate thought, the eventual formation of the Legion of Mary can only be attributed through the miraculous events authored by the Blessed Virgin Mary herself. Frank Duff was simply playing his part, scripted by Our Lady!

The Legion of Mary originated in Myra House, Francis Street Dublin, the property of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society. Myra House was formerly the Lord Iveagh Play Center which became vacant upon the building of a new and larger center at Bull Road. The Myra House, gifted to a fine gentleman, Frank Sweeney, had been a neglected place and was in very poor condition upon the occupation of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society. However, in spite of its derelict condition, there were many wonderful things happening there. These events and activities made possible by the generosity of the members of Saint Vincent de Paul, were to become the precursor to what would be the beginning of the largest Catholic lay apostolic organization in the world. Thanks to these men and in their initiative in helping the poor of Ireland, Myra House was bursting with an abundance of God’s graces. On Sundays, free breakfasts to children were provided by the Saint Vincent de Paul members. These charitable works and many others were not only made possible by these men but also from help coming from some women volunteers. They also wanted to share their part in giving. Some of these women would prove pivotal in the formation of the Legion of Mary, as they would later join the Pioneer Association and eventually form the core membership of the first Legion of Mary Praesidium.  In 1917, the Saint Vincent de Paul Conference of Saint Nicolas of Myra had grown in membership so that it was necessary to split it. The new Saint Patrick’s Conference was to have as its president, Frank Duff.  

There were other activities undertaken by Saint Vincent de Paul such as teaching catechism classes, Enthronement of the Sacred Heart and organizing a branch of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Center. It was from the members of the Pioneers that the beginnings of the Legion took shape. Father Toher, a holy priest was spiritual director of both the Saint Vincent De Paul and the Pioneer Association.  Frank Duff was a member of both organizations. 

Frank Duff had always acknowledged the significance of the role of Saint Vincent de Paul Society in the formation of the Legion of Mary. However, the Pioneer Association played an important part in the foundation of the Legion and in developing its apostolic and prayer systems. The Pioneer’s meeting and its manner of reporting their members’ work were adopted by the Legion of Mary. It should be noted that the Pioneer Association became a means of introducing women into the works of Myra House (as only men were members of Saint Vincent de Paul). Among the early recruits of the Pioneer Association was an exemplary woman of faith, Elizabeth Kirwan who would later would become the president of the first praesidium of the Legion of Mary and later would be the president of the Concilium Legionis. Mrs. Kirwan was a very diligent volunteer and it did not take long for one of the Saint Vincent de Paul members to invite her to be a member of the Pioneer Association. She would then become the president of the Pioneer Association in Myra House and then would assume the position of the first president of the Legion of Mary.     

How the Legion of Mary System Developed - (The Legion System - Prayers, Length of the Weekly Meeting, Agenda and Spiritual Directors) The agenda of the Legion of Mary Weekly Meeting uses a very similar format used by the Pioneer Association which was as follows:  opening prayer (using the Saint Vincent de Paul Society Prayer Card), followed by the recitation of the Holy Rosary, Spiritual Reading, minutes of the prior meeting and reports of the work done by members. Thus, the Weekly Meeting of the praesidium developed organically taking its shape and form from another source, the Pioneer Association. It all seemed to happen and come together through the hands of Mary. “It is now amazing to see the way in which Providence was shaping put the whole groundwork and laying the foundations of the Legion of Mary. The prayers foreshadowed the future Legion prayers.” (Frank Duff, “Miracles on Tap”). He reiterates this thought as follows: “The Legion of Mary had always declared that it was an unpremeditated organization. Nobody sat down at the beginning and put on paper what the Legion was intended to be. The history of the Legion has that character of one step leading to another step.”

Consider another foreshadowing that came out of the Pioneer meetings – the time allotment for each meeting which as prescribed in the Handbook to strictly one and a half hours from the Legion Opening Prayers up to the Concluding Prayers. Frank Duff explained how this happened as follows: The Pioneer Council meeting opened at 4:30 p.m. At 6 o’clock, as the Angelus rang out in the church across the road, everybody immediately rose, irrespective of the state of the business, and the Angelus was recited, and with that the meeting itself ended.”  (Frank Duff, “Miracles on Tap”).

Many projects were undertaken by this group of Pioneer women. Time simply went very fast - 1917, 1918, 1919, 1920…1921. The Legion of Mary was still to be born in 1921, but the framework and foundation of its prayer life, its structure, its corporal and spiritual works of mercy for the common good and the discipline by which it would operate, had already been laid out years ahead before it even held its first official meeting Unbeknownst to its founding members and certainly not to Frank Duff, God’s Providence was mysteriously at work in the formation of the Legion. From these seemingly unrelated events, the greatness of the Legion of Mary would manifest itself in the next hundred years, orchestrated by the Blessed Mother to play a symphony called “the salvation of souls.” WE ARE MERE INSTRUMENTS of her opus.

Legion’s Devotion to Our Lady (True Devotion to Mary by Saint Louis Marie de Montfort - “The Catalyst” - It was sometime in 1918 that Frank Duff was first introduced to the True Devotion book by a fellow Blackrock College alumnus and Saint Vincent de Paul Society member Vincent Kelly.  Frank Duff was not particularly keen about this book, however, other members seemed to have a keen interest on it as he noticed that they were intently discussing De Montfort’s book after one of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society’s regular meetings. As if once again through the hands of Mary, after a few days of having heard these discussions, Frank Duff saw a copy of the True Devotion to Mary in a bookstore along River Liffey. He decided to purchase it for around four pence.

Not completely convinced on the proposal of Saint Louis Marie de Montfort, it took another member of Saint Vincent de Paul Society, Tom Fallon, to convince and urge Frank Duff to re-read the book again. As a result, of what Frank Duff had called a “forced reading,” this time around, finally made an immense impact on the spiritual life of the future Servant of God. The book and its treatise on slavery to Mary finally came all together in Frank Duff’s heart and mind. It was going to be the beginning of his consecration and his complete devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

He described his re-reading of the True Devotion in this way: “I was engaged on a final forced reading, when a sort of phenomenon occurred. Without any process of thought, leading up to it, something which I could only regard as a divine favour, was granted to me that the book was true, a complete conviction that what I had been regarding as exaggerated and unreal was fully justified. The excesses which I thought I found in the book were really deficiencies in myself, wide gaps of knowledge and comprehension. That moment has remained in my mind with absolute clarity.” (“Frank Duff” by Fr. Robert Bradshaw)

This “wide gap of knowledge and comprehension” that were as it seemed, the cause of Frank Duff’s reservation, were finally resolved when he encountered another book on Mary, “The Knowledge of Mary” written by Father Januarius De Concilio.  He was handed this book by Guest Master Fr.  Brendan while in a retreat at the Cistercian Monastery at Mount Melleray, Co, Waterford. He was there to accompany his good friend, Joseph Gabbett who needed to overcome his bouts with alcoholism. The book, “The Knowledge of Mary” proved to be a vital point in Frank Duff’s understanding and appreciation of the work of De Montfort. It was the key that opened wide Frank Duff’s understanding of “True Devotion to Mary.” Frank Duff explained: “As a total transaction in my Marian philosophy an equal rating on those two books, De Montfort and De Concilio. It took the second one to open the first one, so that I have always thought of them as interdependent halves in this teaching operation which turned my life upside down.” (Dr. Finola Kennedy “Frank Duff: A Life Story”)

Special Meeting on True Devotion to Mary For the next four years at the Myra House, the Pioneer meetings were held.   It was inevitable that the book “True Devotion to Mary” would be a subject of conversation from among its members.  “One of the frequent topics of discussions at that time was Grignion de Montfort’s True Devotion to Mary. The idea was very unusual then – almost unknown in fact – and not clearly grasped even by those of the group who were prominent in proposing the Devotion. It is said that Frank Duff was not completely content with what he thought was a bit exaggerated.” (From the article written by Enda Dunleavy, Mariae Legionis Magazine, Centenary Issue on Frank Duff).

In order to understand De Montfort’s treatise, following a regular Pioneer Meeting, members of the Council and Frank Duff agreed to hold a special meeting to discuss it. That special meeting took place sometime in August 1921 and within a month after that, the first meeting of the Legion of Mary was held at Myra House. “Later Frank Duff was to write: “It is impossible to believe the connection between the ‘True Devotion’ meeting and the immediate emergence of the Legion from the next monthly meeting was a mere coincidence. There was too much supernatural design and too little human contriving. Nearly four years had gone by without incident until the ‘True Devotion’ meeting was held. The moment it established in minds the true stature of Our Lady in the Christian system things, were ready for the Legion.” (Robert Bradshaw: “Frank Duff”)  

Frank Duff further explained this rather miraculous event in his book “Miracles on Tap”: “I have often’ said one of those concerned, ‘tried to place this particular event, it must have been almost immediately before the start of the Legion, a matter of month or so. It was just like making an electric connection and something happens. We spent the evening talking about the Devotion. I do not say that even so we understood it fully, but at least we were in ardent sympathy with it. We desired to practice it. Then at once the Legion happened.” (From “Miracles on Tap” by Frank Duff)

 The First Meeting of the Legion of Mary – Within a span of seventeen days from that special meeting on “True Devotion”, certain events, as if arranged by God Himself began to unravel. A member of the Pioneers asked a question that would transform the history of the entire Christian world: “Couldn’t something be done to enable us to undertake the sort of work which the Saint Vincent de Paul Society Brothers are doing every Sunday morning in visiting the Union.” This was a question inspired by a report given by Matt Murray of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, about their hospital visitation work at the Dublin Union Hospital. (As we all know, at the Legion of Mary meeting, one of the purposes of making a verbal report was not only to account for the events and transactions that occurred while on assignment, but also to inspire others. This was the perfect example of inspiration).  These Pioneer women wanted to take part in the action as well. A meeting was set to discuss possible ways on how they could participate in these works of mercy. The meeting was going to be on a Wednesday night…thus, the stage had been set for what would be a life changing moment for these men and women and for millions more like us, for that fateful evening the greatest army of Mary Immaculate began its conquest of evil and sin.

(This group was going to be named the Association of Our Lady of Mercy which became later the Legion of Mary. From that initial meeting on September 1921, it took another four years before the name of the Legion of Mary was decided by Frank Duff and the members of the Association of Our Lady of Mercy. The nomenclature that we use now in the Legion (councils, praesidium curiae, etc.) only came at a later stage of our history.)   

When the thirteen women of the Pioneer Association along with Father Toher and Frank Duff arrived at the meeting place, there before their eyes, was decked out the statue of the Immaculate Conception, on a white piece of cloth with two candle holders with candle sticks lighted and two vases of flowers. The altar was set up by Alice Keogh who later on would become Sister Brendan Mary of the Little Sisters of the Assumption. Already, the Legion was to become an instrument for instilling religious vocations among its members.

(Note the standard of the Legion was not yet determined at this point, but nevertheless, this altar would become the standard altar to be used in all the future Legion of Mary meetings). That was September 7, 1921, yet Frank Duff would later recall that no one in the group could even remember the exact date of the first actual meeting of the Legion of Mary. They needed their old Secretary’s Minutes book to ascertain this date in our history.