The Legion of Mary’s legacy of love
For 100 years, members have been ‘soldiers for souls’
By Christina Gray
Lead writer, Catholic San Francisco
Ando Perlas was on his knees after Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish one Sunday in 1984 when he felt a tap on the shoulder. A stranger asked him if he wanted to join the Daly City parish’s Legion of Mary.
“I had gone to Catholic school all my life but had never heard of the Legion of Mary,” said Perlas.
When the woman approached him again some months later in the same spot, he was praying for his infant daughter, born with a serious heart defect. Her prognosis was not good.
Perlas said he made a silent covenant with the Blessed Mother that day, and with Virgilia “Bebs” de los Santos, the persistent legionary, now deceased.
“You heal my daughter, I will join your Legion,” he said.
Three months later, the astonished surgeon monitoring the baby’s heart told Perlas and his wife that surgery would not be necessary; the defect was simply gone.
Perlas’ story may not be typical of how or why people join the Legion of Mary, or of the personal graces guaranteed. What it does illustrate is how legionaries use prayer, personal encounter and trust in the Blessed Mother to change lives and save souls.
Now 37 years a member of the Legion of Mary and a two-time officer, Perlas says being a member of the Legion has helped him fulfill his “baptismal call.”
“It’s hard to convince some Catholics,” he said, “but we are baptized not just to be saved ourselves, but to help save others.”
A 100-year-old “hidden” treasure
The Legion of Mary is 100 years old this year, with some 3 million active members in 170 countries worldwide, according to legionofmary.ie, the organization’s official website.
It is considered the largest lay apostolate in the Catholic Church.
Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone honored that legacy by celebrating a centennial Mass for the Legion of Mary at St. Mary’s Cathedral Sept. 29.
Still, Catholics often can’t say what it is or does.
Raymond Frost, a legionary for 40 years, was once among them.
“I thought it was an organization for women,” said Frost, a San Francisco native who joined the Legion in his 20s.
The St. Veronica parishioner said his family prayed the rosary together often. He remembers walking with his parents and six of his seven siblings to the Golden Gate Park polo fields in 1961 to hear Father Patrick Peyton speak at the Family Rosary Crusade. Attended by more than half a million people, it inspired today’s annual Rosary Rally (see inset).
“Prayer is like eating,” said Frost. “If you don’t eat, you’re going to die, or get sick.”
“The Secret of the Rosary,” a book written by St. Louis de Montford on the spiritual power of the rosary, became a guiding force in Frost’s life as a young adult.
He decided to join the Legion of Mary after a priest he knew spoke of members with great admiration: “They don’t just talk, they work.”
Door-to-door home visitation and the street apostolate are hallmark works of the Legion of Mary and have been an invaluable asset to the growth of the church.
Frost worked the San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood when he first joined the Legion. He and a partner knocked on doors, visited drug treatment centers and talked to the sick and the lost.
“I was really impressed by the diversity of the membership,” he said, describing fellow legionaries as “ordinary Catholics” of many races and ages, working together under the gaze of Mary, mother of the church.
“It was an opportunity for me to live out what I already believed,” he said. “I hadn’t found that anywhere else.”
Yes, we can be saints
The Legion of Mary was founded on Sept. 7, 1921, by Servant of God Frank Duff. Born into a wealthy Dublin family, he joined the St. Vincent de Paul Society where he was exposed to the spiritually and materially deprived.
Duff’s idea was to help Catholic laypeople fulfill their baptismal promise in an organized structure supported by fraternity and prayer.
The Legion drew its inspiration from another St. Louis de Montfort book, “True Devotion to Mary,” written in 1712.
Duff was convinced that everyone is called to and capable of sainthood.
“Take it as most certain that you, no matter how unfitted your life may seem for holiness, are being given graces sufficient, if corresponded with, to bring you to sanctity,” he wrote in a 1916 pamphlet titled “Can we be saints?”
While the notion of a Catholic lay apostolate where the laity worked for their own sanctification and for the conversion of the world had been around for a long time, the formation of the Legion of Mary anticipated the renewed emphasis and promotion given to this apostolate at the Second Vatican Council. With the Council’s teaching, the idea now has wider acceptance throughout the Universal Church.
In an undated speech to Legion officers in Rochester, New York, Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979) praised the Legion of Mary as an “out-ministry.”
“We priests belong to the in-ministry,” he said. “You were from the beginning an out-ministry, commissioned to do the same sort of thing Our Blessed Lord did – walking up and down alleys.”
The Legion of Mary draws from Latin names used by the Roman legion, and it is structured and run with a soldierlike orderliness.
The basic unit of the Legion is called a “praesidium,” a word that translates loosely as “a protective force.” The Concilium is the global headquarters in Dublin. All legionaries are unpaid volunteers.
A praesidium is composed of three to 20 members, usually connected to a parish, who meet weekly for prayer, reports and discussion. Some parishes have more than one praesidium, each with a different apostolic interest.
“We work closely with the pastor to find out the needs of the parish,” said Perlas.
“The Legion is, in essence, an extension of the heart and hands of the pastor,” said Father Francis Peffley, a young priest from the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, who promotes the Legion of Mary online.
The local Legion
Two years after the first U.S. praesidium was formed in New Mexico in 1931 – composed of all men – the first praesidium in the Archdiocese of San Francisco was established in 1933 at St. Monica Parish – composed of all women.
The Legion leadership in the archdiocese falls into a geographically defined governing body akin to a diocese. The San Francisco “Senatus” includes Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Nevada and Northern California.
Frost is both the first president of the San Francisco Senatus, and the current president.
“About half of the parishes in the Archdiocese of San Francisco have at least one praesidium of the Legion of Mary,” he said, estimating active members at about 600 people.
Eighty-nine-year-old Mary Peterson, a parishioner of St. Cecilia Parish, has been at it longer than any of them – 77 years.
She joined the Legion in Ireland at the age of 11. Upon emigrating to San Francisco in 1959, she promptly joined the first praesidium at St. Monica Parish.
Peterson said she worked the street apostolate in the Tenderloin for many years, always with a partner. Along with pamphlets and Catholic prayer cards, she brought miraculous medals. The devotional medal shows Mary standing on a globe positioned between heaven and earth, crushing the head of the serpent.
Peterson and a partner always said the Legion prayers beforehand. “We were never, never afraid,” she said. “It was lovely.”
Peterson met people who had no faith, some who had lost their faith and some who shared their beliefs with her.
“They would have an effect on you too,” she said.
One night a shell of a young man shyly asked Peterson if she would give him a hug.
“I had the most extraordinary feeling of hugging Jesus himself,” said Peterson, who still chokes up at the memory.
Father Larry Goode, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in East Palo Alto, has been the San Francisco Senatus’ chaplain and spiritual director since 2004.
In a written documentary for the Legion of Mary’s 100th anniversary, Father Goode described how legionary prayer disarmed a man on the same rough streets.
“We had just finished saying the Legion prayers on the corner of Jones and Eddy,” Father Goode said. “This man was on his way to shoot someone when Our Lady touched his heart; I ended up with a pocketful of bullets.”
Learn more by visiting legionofmary.ie and sfsenatus.org.
The Rosary Rally
Venerable Father Patrick Peyton was an Irish priest who, on Oct. 7, 1961, drew over a half million people to the polo fields in Golden Gate Park with the message, “the family that prays together, stays together.” His local Family Rosary Crusade in San Francisco was one of many massive rallies he led in major cities around the world. He used radio, television and film to accomplish his mission to spread devotion to Mary and encourage family prayer. His cause for sainthood was officially opened in 2001.
The documentary “Pray” released in 2020 details the heroic life and legacy of Father Peyton.
On the 50th anniversary of that event, the local Legion of Mary, led by its spiritual director Father Larry Goode, commemorated the spirit of Father Peyton by organizing the first local Rosary Rally on Oct. 15, 2011. In its first year it drew a crowd of nearly 3,000. The Rosary Rally has been held every October since then. This year, the Rosary Rally celebrates the 60th anniversary of Father Peyton’s rally and the 10th anniversary of the archdiocesan rally.
- To reach Christina Gray, lead writer, Catholic San Francisco Magazine, firstname.lastname@example.org