Legion of Mary Celebrates 100 Years of Evangelization

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PROVIDENCE — While churches throughout the world celebrated the Solemnity of Christ the King on Sunday, November 21, a very special afternoon Mass at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul honored a Queen as well.
The Legion of Mary, a lay association boasting as many as 14 million members worldwide, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, and the organization’s Providence Comitium marked the occasion with a Mass celebrated by Bishop Thomas J. Tobin. The service was followed by the praying of the rosary, a Holy Hour, and a reception in the cathedral hall.
“We approached Bishop Tobin to ask him to join us for this Mass, and he immediately said ‘Yes,’” said Edward Gallagher, the president of the Providence Comitium. “He’s been a huge supporter of the Legion’s work and really understands our mission of evangelization.”
In his homily, the bishop said that the diocese is so grateful and proud of the Legion’s ministry, including its works of prayer, charity and evangelization.
“By your commitment, by your service and apostolic work, you are helping the Kingdom of God become a reality in our midst,” Bishop Tobin said.
Evangelization is the primary mission of the organization, which it carries out through public prayer, consolation visits to hospitals and prisons, and even door-to-door dialogue.
“The Legion is founded on the idea that when the priest says ‘Go forth’ at the end of Mass, he really means just that,” said Gallagher. “Go forth to the prisons, go forth to the hospitals, go forth to the homebound — go everywhere that people need encouragement or instruction in the faith.”
The Providence Comitium includes 42 praesidia at parishes throughout the Dioceses of Providence and Fall River.
“The Praesidium is the smallest unit of the Legion, made up of members from a given parish,” explained David Counts, the president of the St. Mary’s, Broadway, Praesidium.
Each praesidium typically includes five to 25 active members, together with a larger number of auxiliaries; a single parish may host multiple praesidia, such as a Spanish or Portuguese language group, or a Junior Praesidium consisting of Catholics between the ages of 7 and 17.
“Praesidia can organize themselves into Curia, or groups of multiple parishes,” said Counts. “The next largest local level is the Comitum, which includes a diocese or region.”
Each Comitium is incorporated into a Senatus (the Boston Senatus being the local council for the Providence Comitium), which are governed by the worldwide Councilium Legionis, headquartered in Dublin, Ireland.
Counts is relatively new to the Legion, having only joined the organization a year ago.
“Last fall, Ed [Gallagher] was speaking to a group of us and asked ‘So, who wants to start evangelizing?’” he recalled. “I said ‘Of course I do,’ so Ed replied ‘Great! Here’s how.’”
Like other praesidia, the St. Mary’s group engages in acts of public witness and prayer, including statue processions, rosaries prayed outside of the State House and Planned Parenthood, and informational tables at locations like Dexter Park and the diocese’s St. Martin de Porres Senior Center.
“It’s not just about preaching, though,” said Counts. “There’s a lot of listening involved, whether we’re visiting the homebound, going to nursing homes, or just hearing the concerns of people who have drifted away from the faith. Evangelization begins with dialogue.”
This is the same essential formula that the Legion has been following for the past century, beginning with the ministry of Servant of God Frank Duff in Dublin’s Monto neighborhood in the 1920s.
“The Monto had the largest red light district in Europe at the time,” Gallagher explained. “It was also a hotbed of IRA activity, and the police refused to get involved. So Frank Duff and his early companions would go out on the streets themselves, praying, serving the poor, and working to bring the ‘unfortunate girls’ back into the Church.”
Their efforts were remarkably successful: within four years, most of the brothels in the neighborhood had closed, and membership in the organization (then known as the Association of Our Lady of Mercy) had swelled to include 13 praesidia throughout Dublin.
This early success inspired Duff to expand the organization on an international scale, changing its name to the Legion of Mary in 1925 and authoring a “Formula for Conquest” designed to conquer the world for Christ through the supernatural aid of his Blessed Mother.
The Legion of Mary invokes the Blessed Mother’s support in what Duff described as a “simple formula which says: confront seeming impossibility with a praesidium… Entrust the ordinary legionaries with tasks which are beyond the ordinary capacity, and it will be found that they are carried through with competence.”
The Legion was officially approved by Pope Pius XI in 1931, and the following decades saw the organization spread from Ireland to every corner of the globe. The organization has attracted a particular following in South America, Central Africa, the Philippines, and especially in South Korea, where Legionaries account for nearly 10% of the nation’s Catholic population.
“We’re just ordinary lay people, but the Legion provides us with a vehicle to pursue holiness and work on behalf of the global Church,” said Gallagher. “We strive to be the right arm of the pastor at every parish we’re invited to.”
One priest with a special appreciation for this “right arm” is Father Stephen Dandeneau, the pastor of St. Eugene Parish in Chepachet and administrator of St. Joseph Parish in Pascoag. Father Dandeneau currently serves as the spiritual director of the Providence Comitium, and he concelebrated the Centenary Mass with Bishop Tobin.
“I had been interested in joining the Legion as a lay person, but was never able to due to other commitments,” Father Dandeneau explained. “When I was installed at St. Eugene, I was asked to bless the praesidium, and as I learned more about the great work that they perform, I started looking for opportunities to get more involved, which was how I got to know Ed Gallagher. After the death of Father Raymond Luft in April, Ed recommended me to the bishop for the position of spiritual director, so I’ve been helping guide the Comitium since then.”
Mary Doherty, a member of the St. Eugene Praesidium, says that Father Dandeneau’s leadership has been an invaluable contribution to parish life.
“He has such an incredible charism,” she said. “He led us on a five day retreat at the Immaculate Conception Center in Connecticut, and it was such a special moment for everyone in the Legion,” Doherty said.
After the Mass, Father Dandeneau joined the Legionaries in a trilingual rosary (praying in English, Spanish, and Portuguese) and presided over the Holy Hour and recitation of the Tessera, the official prayer of the Legion.
The service concluded with a reception in the basement of the cathedral, including a dinner complete with a special cake designed after the vexillum of the Legion. The vexillum, modelled after the military standard of the ancient Roman legions, is the emblem of the organization, and bears a special symbolic significance for the group.
“The vexillum represents the ability of the Church to absorb alien elements and symbols from other cultures and dedicate them to Christ,” Gallagher explained. “It’s a military standard because our mission is to conquer the world for Christ through Mary, but the militaristic Roman eagle has been replaced with a dove because our mission is one of peace and the Holy Spirit.”
For Gallagher, taking up that banner was not immediately an easy decision: he and his wife, Helen, grew up in Dublin while Duff was still active in his ministry, but did not become involved with the organization until much later.
“We constantly heard about the Legion, but we convinced ourselves that evangelization was a task for other people — that it was good enough for us to just go to Mass every week,” he explained. “We moved to Warwick in 1988, and when our pastor announced that our parish was organizing a praesidium, we knew that we couldn’t keep avoiding the call. My wife turned to me and asked ‘How far can we go, Ed? The Legion has followed from Ireland all the way here. It’s time for us to join.’”
Although the pandemic interrupted the work of the Legion at many parishes, Gallagher reports that praesidia are gradually reopening and redoubling their efforts at evangelization in order to encourage Catholics to return to Mass. The organization recently hosted a “Rosary in the Public Square” at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Warwick, and is in the process of introducing praesidia at 10 new parishes in the diocese.

A list of active praesidia can be found online at www.thelegionofmaryri.com.

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