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A ‘school for saints’ celebrates 100 years

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The members escaped the falling rain and stepped into the empty church, heading down the darkened stairwell to the basement classroom. At the front of the room, a vexillum, a Roman military standard, and a statue of the Virgin Mary was flanked by glowing white candles and bouquets of colorful flowers, atop a cloth with red lettering that read “Legio Mariae.” As the members settled in, the tables filled with prayer cards and dog-eared handbooks. They grabbed their rosaries, knelt on the floor and began to pray. The Legion of Mary meeting had begun. 

One hundred years ago — Sept. 7, 1921 — an Irishman named Frank Duff gathered with friends in a house on Francis Street in Dublin for the first Legion of Mary meeting. Today the Legion of Mary has more than 10 million members and Duff has been named a Servant of God, a step on the road to canonization. According to the Legion of Mary website, the group is “a lay apostolic association of Catholics who, with the sanction of the Church and under the powerful leadership of Mary Immaculate, serve the church and their neighbor on a voluntary basis in about 170 countries.” The Arlington diocese is home to 7,175 legionaries and 60 parishes with a Legion of Mary presence. Each group is called a praesidium.  

The organization draws from the Latin names used by the Roman legion and its meetings are run with a soldierly level of orderliness, too. At the evening meeting at St. John Neumann Church in Reston, roll call is taken, minutes are read, prayers are recited and pencils are poised to jot down information or spiritual insights. Each member gives an account of the mandatory two hours of Legion work they were assigned to do the week before. One woman officially joins the Legion by placing her hand on the vexillum and promising loyalty to the Holy Spirit and Mary. 

Father Francis J. Peffley, parochial vicar of St. Mary of Sorrows Church in Fairfax, joined the junior Legion of Mary when he was 10 years old. If it wasn’t for the Legion, he might not even be here, he said. In the 1950s, his mother, Mary, was asked by founder Frank Duff to move to Philadelphia to start up the Legion of Mary there. His dad, Bill, was involved with the Legion in Reading, Penn. “They met at some of the meetings and were married on Sept. 8, 1958, the Blessed Mother’s birthday,” said Father Peffley, who serves as spiritual director for the Arlington Regia, which comprises the legionaries of several nearby states. “For their honeymoon, they went to Ireland and spent three weeks with Frank Duff. Every morning they had breakfast with (him) and became close friends.”

Mary and Bill Peffley talk with Frank Duff, the founder of the Legion of Mary, while visiting New York City in 1956. COURTESY FATHER FRANCIS PEFFLEY

frank duff 4690823Father Peffley credits the Legion of Mary as one of the things that helped him discern his calling to the priesthood. “It's been such a blessing,” he said. “We’re either trying to influence the world or the world is influencing us and I think that for me it was very helpful throughout middle school and high school to be in the Legion to keep my Catholic faith active and strong.”

Seggy Acosta, a parishioner of St. Clare of Assisi Church in Clifton, also joined the Legion as a child. She continued through college and when she moved from the Philippines to the U.S. Now as president of the Arlington Regia, she oversees all the work of the members. And there’s a lot of work to be done.

Legionaries visit the sick, the elderly, the homebound, and the newly baptized and confirmed. It’s been difficult but even more important to stay in touch with people during the pandemic, said Acosta. “Particularly during COVID, a lot of people need a lot of uplifting,” she said. “Even though we had to do some social distancing, truly they were so delighted to see each one of us, talking to them through a window or through a door, happy because they’re so isolated and alone.” 

 Sometimes, members go door to door to everyone in the parish boundaries, asking if they need prayers or want Catholic literature. One day, Acosta and her husband Leo, who is also a legionary, were going door to door when they met a man who looked very sad. He told them he had been out of a job for a while and asked for their prayers. Acosta encouraged him to go to daily Mass to ask God for help finding a job. He came for many days and then one day he was no longer there. When they followed up, he told them he had found a job. “I said, ‘Blessed be God!’ We were just so excited for him,” she said.  

Often, legionaries do whatever their pastor asks them to do, whether it’s prison ministry, teaching the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults class or instructing religious education. They have booths at local events, such as the Arlington County Fair. They hold retreats for adults and teens. When requested, they bring a statue of Mary to people’s home to stay a week with them. 

That's how Margie Melquist, vice president of the Hispanic Curia of Fairfax and a parishioner of Holy Trinity Church in Gainesville, was introduced to the Legion of Mary. A woman at her church asked if she wanted to have the Mary statue in her home and later invited her to join the Legion. She was drawn to the structure of the group. “The Legion of Mary is very organized and that’s what I like. We are to be obedient to the system and to our Blessed Mother,” said Melquist. “The Legion of Mary is really a school for saints. We are all called to be saints.” 

Melquist says being part of the Legion during its centennial celebration has been her favorite part of her ten years as a member. “It’s amazing that this organization has been able to survive through so many things that the world has gone through,” she said. “It started very small in Ireland in a little house and look how it has been able to expand throughout the world.”

Find out more

The Arlington Regia of the Legion of Mary is commemorating the 100th anniversary with Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington at 2 p.m. Oct. 2. Go to arlingtonregia.com for more information. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021