The Legion of Mary was founded by Frank Duff on September 7, 1921 in Dublin. His idea was to help Catholic laypeople fulfill their baptismal promises and be able to live their dedication to Jesus Christ and the Church in an organized structure, supported by fellowship and prayer.
The Legion was first only open to women, the first men apart from Duff himself joined it in 1929. The legionaries first started out by visiting hospitals, but they were soon active among the most destitute, notably among Dublin prostitutes. Frank Duff subsequently laid down the system of the Legion in the Handbook of the Legion of Mary in 1928.
The Legion of Mary soon spread from Ireland to other counties and continents. At first, the Legion often met with mistrust due to its dedication to lay apostolate which was unusual for the time. Only after Pope Pius XI expressed praise for the Legion in 1931, could such mistrust be quelled.
Most prominent for spreading the legion was the Irish legionary Edel Mary Quinn for her activities in Africa during the 1930s and 40s. Her dedication to the mission of the legion even in the face of her ill health due to tuberculosis brought her great admiration — and outside of the Legion. A beatification process is currently under way for her, as also for Frank Duff himself.
1. First meeting
The historic first meeting of the Legion was held on the evening of September 7, 1921, the First Vespers of the feast of Our Lady’s Nativity. It was in a modest “upper-room” of an apartment on Francis St., in an old and poor quarter of the city of Dublin, Ireland. In the center of the room, on a table covered with a white cloth, flanked by two lighted candles and two vases of flowers, was enthroned a statue of the Immaculate Conception, of the Miraculous Medal type.
This simple arrangement was the idea of one of the early arrivals and expressed the spirit of the organization that was about to be born. As the Handbook of the Legion puts it: “The Queen was there before those assembled. She stood waiting to receive the enrollments of those, who, she knew, were coming to her. They did not adopt her. She adopted them.”
At the hour agreed upon, this little group — fifteen girls, most of them in their late teens or early twenties; one layman, Mr. Frank Duff; and one priest, Michael Toher — knelt on the floor around the improvised altar. They recited the invocation and prayer to the Holy Spirit and then recited the Rosary. Their prayers ended, they took and considered together “how they could best please God and make Him loved in His world.”
They proposed together a program of work. They would visit an almshouse of the city to console the poor. Their concern would center chiefly on the women patients, and their visitations would be undertaken in a friendly, simple devotional manner with a willingness to listen patiently to the concerns of these people.
Those gathered that night were unanimous that this work should be organized to insure the regularity of these visits. In other words, it would be done seriously, methodically, or not at all. They decided to follow the format of the St. Vincent de Paul Society to a certain extent: a weekly meeting, prayer, spiritual talk, reports from each member on the previous week’s work. They wanted an apostolate with and for Mary, in accordance with the teachings of St. Louis de Montfort.
2. Second meeting
There are accounts of the very first Legion visitations. A bedridden woman who had been away from the Sacraments for many years decided to “get right” again. Another woman, bedridden for five years, wrote on a scrap of paper a little note addressed to her daughter: “If I can see you once before death, then I shall die in peace”. Another woman who had been living with a married man and who had nowhere else to go, upon being discharged from the hospital pleaded with the Legionary, “If I could only find a job, then I could make him return to his own wife.” This woman asked if the kind visitor could perhaps help her in this difficult situation. These are just a few examples of their experiences.
Report after report authenticated the fruitfulness of this soul-to- soul Marian apostolate. The Legionaries understood their role as docile instruments in the hands of the Virgin Mary. Their intention was self- sanctification and the sanctification of others. Their message was to give Christ to the world through Mary.
A new organization was born a spiritual army that was soon to encircle the globe: The Legion of Mary. During the first four years of its existence, the organization was known as the Association of Our Lady of Mercy. Later, in November, 1925, it adopted the name Legion of Mary.