‘Our love for the Blessed Mother’

Legion of Mary organization now active in 6 parishes and growing

By Gabrielle Nolan

Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.

These prayerful words are recited during the rosary at every Legion of Mary meeting, to which members unite under the banner of the Blessed Mother.

The Legion is having a resurgence within the Diocese of Knoxville, with praesidia active at six parishes. Two of those praesidia were started this fall.

John Hitt, Elissa Edwards, and Ron Kopp lead a Legion of Mary rosary at Holy Ghost Church.

Centered on prayer and spiritual works, the Legion is a “lay apostolic association of Catholics who, with the sanction of the Church and under the powerful leadership of Mary Immaculate, Mediatrix of All Graces, serve the Church and their neighbors on a voluntary basis in about 170 countries,” according to its website.

Jean Trudel is a parishioner at St. Jude Church in Chattanooga and currently serves as president of the curia, the governing body for the Legion of Mary within the Diocese of Knoxville.

“If [the praesidium] is in the individual parish, it’s like a family extending the hands and the feet of the priest, of the pastor,” she said. “He helps you and gives direction in what would be most helpful to him in reaching out to the parishioners and to the Catholic community he serves.”

Ms. Trudel noted the Legion covers three categories of works:

  • Conversion works, such as evangelizing non-Catholics and distributing Catholic literature;
  • Conservation works, such as teaching catechism or parish religious education classes;
  • Consolation works, such as visiting nursing homes, comforting the sick or bereaved, and reciting rosaries at funerals.

Elissa Edwards, a parishioner at St. Albert the Great in Knoxville, is president of her parish’s praesidium.

Members of the Legion of Mary at Holy Ghost Church pray the rosary before a statue of the Virgin Mary in the Marian garden on Palm Sunday.

“We’ll visit the sick and the homebound and pray with them. We assist with the homeless outreach, so we give out Miraculous Medals and prayer cards, and we’ll pray with them,” she said. “We visit nursing homes; we’ll do prison ministry where you go and visit those who are incarcerated. So, everything that we do is surrounded by prayer, but they’re all active works.”

John Hitt, a parishioner at Holy Ghost, often teams with Ms. Edwards in Legion of Mary outreach.

“My favorite spiritual works include providing clothing and food and prayer for our underserved community,” Mr. Hitt said. “I also feel inspired when doing public rosaries.”

Father John O’Neill, a former priest of the Diocese of Knoxville who served as the associate pastor at St. Jude Parish from 1999-2002, noted that “the two first principles are a journey to holiness and a journey to apostleship.”

“The four rules are confidentiality about whomever you meet, reciting the Magnificat every night, coming to the meeting as a first priority, and doing substantial apostolic work, the spiritual works of mercy, every week,” he explained.

An international organization

Servant of God Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary, was influenced by St. Louis de Montfort and his book, True Devotion to Mary. The first Legion of Mary meeting took place in Dublin, Ireland, in September 1921. The organization marked its 100th anniversary in 2021.

Mr. Duff, who died at the age of 91 in 1980, was a lay observer at the Second Vatican Council.

“He was introduced to the council Fathers by the archbishop of Dublin, and the council Fathers gave Frank Duff, the founder of Legion of Mary, a standing ovation. … There were about 3,000 bishops there… so that’s a big deal,” said Father John Orr, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Athens.

“So, why is it a big deal?” he continued. “Because of the 16 documents of the Vatican Council, one is on the apostolate of the laity. So, the word apostle means one who is sent, and the apostolate of the laity is that the laity are sent, like at the end of every Mass, go in peace to spread the peace we received from Christ, the Prince of Peace.”

Father O’Neill, a native of Ireland, had the privilege of meeting Mr. Duff several times.

“He was a terribly interesting man,” Father O’Neill said. “He was a very holy man, but very understated, very quiet. … The whole city really admired him, admired his work.”

The organization still stems from the headquarters in Dublin to numerous praesidia around the world.

As a legionary, Charlotte Norris teaches summer catechesis of the Good Shepherd to children at St. Jude Church in Chattanooga.

“In the Legion of Mary there are different groupings of the legionaries, and so the highest grouping is the Concilium Legionis, so that’s in Dublin… that oversees the whole Legion of Mary,” Father Orr explained. “Then, in our case, we’re going to be under the regia of the Virginia regia.”

Under the regia comes the curia, of which Father Orr is currently the chaplain.

“The curia oversees, like in our case, the whole Diocese of Knoxville,” he said. “Then under the curia are various praesidia, and so a praesidia is normally like a parish-based grouping of the Legion. That’s really where the rubber hits the road.”

Each praesidia, of which membership is free, holds a mandatory weekly meeting for members and includes a president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer.

There are currently six praesidia within the Diocese of Knoxville:

  • Our Loving Mother at Holy Family, Seymour;
  • Our Lady Spouse of the Holy Ghost at Holy Ghost, Knoxville;
  • Our Lady of Good Counsel at St. Henry, Rogersville;
  • Our Lady Mother of the Church at St. Jude, Chattanooga;
  • Our Lady of Victory at St. Mary, Johnson City;
  • Our Lady Mother of the Rosary at St. Mary, Oak Ridge.

There are 46 active members across the praesidia, and 109 auxiliary members support them in prayer.

Auxiliary members are “people who at one point were active and then for whatever reason they chose to step back, and they pray for us every day,” Ms. Edwards said.

The Legion’s spirituality

Father Orr described the work of the Legion as “the work of the Church, which is the spread of the Gospel and the praise of God.”

John Hitt speaks to members about the Legion of Mary at an outdoor meeting of a Catholic group.

He noted that “you can’t talk about the spirituality of the Legion without either the tessera or the handbook.”

Part of every praesidium’s meeting includes a reading from the handbook, which Mr. Duff largely wrote. Over a period of time the entire handbook is read, and then the group starts again from the beginning.

The Legion’s handbook contains several categories, such as the Legionary and the Mystical Body of Christ; The Patrons of the Legion; Suggestions as to Works; Duties of Officers of Praesidia; Membership; and much more.

Father O’Neill explained that the word praesidium comes from the Latin word for the Roman army, meaning platoon or military unit. The tessera, which was a Roman version of a dog tag, identified someone in the Roman Legion.

The Legion of Mary’s tessera is a prayer card that the members recite at every Legion meeting: opening prayers, the holy rosary, the Magnificat, and the Legion prayer.

The Legion of Mary’s tessera image replaces the Roman eagle with the dove, and instead of the emperor’s medal, the Miraculous Medal is in the center, with Our Lady crushing the head of the serpent. The Legion’s name is to the left and a staff to the right.

Shaping the faith of children

Parish praesidia may also have a junior praesidium, where senior legionaries work with children to actively live out the spiritual works of mercy.

When Father O’Neill was at St. Jude Parish in the early 2000s, he was the spiritual director for the parish praesidium.

He commented that the legionaries’ spiritual works primarily revolved around gathering “the children to visit the people in nursing homes,” and that it was a “huge success.”

“It was very exciting because it was a gaggle of young people coming into the nursing homes every week, and that was a huge burst of energy for them,” he shared. “It was always a rule to shake their hands, give them a hug or a kiss, make sure you said an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be.”

One memory in particular sticks out to Father O’Neill.

“I remember one place, it was a very quiet evening, maybe a little lonely for the people, and I told the girls, walk down the corridor and greet everybody. And it was like sunflowers for people sitting in their chairs as these young people greeted them each individually,” said Father O’Neill, who is pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Hohenwald, Christ the Redeemer Parish in Centerville, and St. Cecilia Parish in Waynesboro, all in the Diocese of Nashville.

“It was a huge formation for the children. I think there were several vocations through it, at least in Chattanooga. The children loved the organization, they loved the meeting, they had to give their reports, say their prayers, read from the handbook,” he said.

It also was one of Father O’Neill’s goals to ensure that no person in the parish died without receiving the sacraments.

More than once, an elderly person would die soon after being visited by the Legion of Mary and the children. Some of the children caught on to this, to which Father O’Neill told them, “These people have been waiting to be loved personally by you and the other children and to receive the sacraments and see that they are loved by God, and then they can let go.”

‘An extended family’

John Orr, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Athens, leads a diocesan-wide Legion of Mary conference at St. Mary.

Paul and Marieta Dunn, longtime Holy Ghost parishioners, are Legion of Mary members who regularly take the mission out into the community.

“The Legion of Mary gives us the opportunity to pray the holy rosary with other members of Holy Ghost. Of the many possible works within the Legion, Marieta and I participate in outreach by leaving literature at stores and restaurants in which we shop,” Mr. Dunn said.

“About every six weeks, a table is set up at Market Square in downtown Knoxville with an assortment of rosaries and literature about the Legion of Mary. We enjoy spending time talking to the people that stop by the table,” Mrs. Dunn added.

Ms. Edwards said the Legion is special because of “our love for the Blessed Mother,” while also noting that the Legion has “especially deepened” her own devotion to Mary.

“It’s allowed us the ability to make friends with people we might not normally have been introduced to. It has expanded our faith,” she said. “I know it takes me out of my comfort zone when I’m standing in the midst of a group of homeless people, and I’m talking with them and giving them Miraculous Medals and praying with them. It’s not something that I thought that I would be doing, but I look forward to it. Sometimes I think I get greater joy.”

Mr. Hitt acknowledged that one of the reasons he converted to Catholicism was the Church’s devotion to the Blessed Mother.

“I saw the Legion as another source for me to increase my knowledge and love for Mary,” he said. “The depth and variety of the members’ love for Mary has deepened my faith.”

“If anyone is interested (in the Legion), I suggest that they come to a couple of meetings, see what we’re about, ask questions, join us at some events, and then make a decision that way,” Ms. Edwards said.

Father Orr said that if anyone is interested in starting a praesidium at their own parish, they should talk to their pastor.

The Legion of Mary is represented in a eucharistic procession along the streets of the Diocese of Knoxville.

“The spiritual director for the praesidia is normally a priest and normally the pastor,” he explained.

Father Charlie Burton, who is pastor of St. Jude Parish, remarked on the importance of the Legion of Mary.

“The Legion of Mary is a vibrant and essential ministry within our parish. Their ministry of devotion to Jesus and His Blessed Mother, prayer, and spiritual care of the sick and homebound is a true blessing to our parish and myself as a pastor. They have an open willingness to serve the needs of others whenever they are called upon, as well as volunteering to search for ways in which they can serve their fellow parishioners and those in need,” he said.

However, if a parish does not currently have a praesidium, individuals could find a neighboring parish that does and contact those legionaries about joining with them.

“I think it’s wonderful. I’ve been in the Legion now about 20 years,” Ms. Trudel said. “It’s like having a family; honestly, it’s like having an extended family.”

To learn more about the Legion of Mary, visit its website at www.legionofmary.ie.

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