This “shoppers drop-in” praesidium on Toronto’s Yonge Street in 1973 was just one of the initiatives that helped grow the Legion of Mary in Canada. Photo courtesy Leonita Masterton

Legion of Mary on frontlines of faith

  • September 5, 2021

Outside of its military overtones, the word “legion” most often describes a large group of people with a singular mission.

So, when you first come across the lay Catholic apostolate Legion of Mary, you would assume it is composed of men, women and children trying to become more fervent apostles of Christ by heeding the wisdom and example of His Blessed Mother Mary.    

There is a lot of truth to this definition of the global Marian devotional society, which celebrates its 100th anniversary on Sept. 7 with a presence in 170 countries and a worldwide membership of about 10 million people. Look a little closer, though, and you’ll see there is a great deal of soldierly character than you might expect.

Fr. Joseph Moncada, the spiritual director of the Toronto Senatus Council, says the 2,200 legionaries he oversees — including councils throughout southern Ontario, the Atlantic provinces and the City of Winnipeg — understand they are called to engage in spiritual warfare.

“We understand ourselves in the tradition of being Church militants. It’s the aspect of being spiritually ready to propagate the faith, defend the faith, preserve the faith, bring it to others and, above all, appropriate the Gospel into our life,” he said.

Moncada illuminated his point by espousing some of the initiatives he calls “heroic acts,” which he says “is the legion at its best.”

“It is face-to-face evangelization. We knock on doors and talk to people. One of the reasons is to help pastors with the parish census. The legionaries will very friendly identify themselves as Catholics from such-and-such a parish and if Catholics are there we tell them where the parish is and we offer bulletins with Mass times and other information.

“If there are Catholics who are not practising in terms of attending Mass, we do our best to encourage them. And you also have Catholics who now don’t fully believe, have lost the practice of the faith or abandoned it entirely, we have ways of approaching them — never with arguments — to be a witness of the faith.”

They do not shy away from evangelizing non-Catholics either. Moncada says Legion of Mary members speak about the power that comes from receiving the gift of salvation by accepting Jesus Christ.

Helping men, women and children become ambassadors of faith was a chief reason Irish civil servant Frank Duff was called to found the Legion of Mary in Dublin in 1921. Five years prior, he published the pamphlet “Can we be Saints?” His thesis was we all have the means necessary to be true saints.

He remained active, growing the Legion of Mary globally, until he died at 91 in November 1980. Duff looms large today as the handbook he authored for the league is still a bedrock of in-parish spiritual formation programs and community evangelization pursuits. This includes everything from weekly prayer meetings, visiting nursing homes and hospitals, conducting religion classes and in general serving the Church and parish needs.

Standing confidently for Christian teachings in a cultural landscape that is becoming ever more secular is one of the defining traits of the Legion of Mary that fills society veteran Leonita Masterson, 75, with joy.

The former president of the Toronto Senatus Council (1980-87) was at her most active as a leader of the movement from 1964 until the early 1990s. While not on the frontlines, she still serves as a counsellor for the Legion of Mary.

Masterson’s experienced her first seven years as a Legion member in her home country, the Philippines. She was empowered to play a key role within the Archdiocese of Toronto when she joined the Toronto Senatus Council in 1972.   

“I helped with building the membership of the Legion of Mary in the early 1970s as the Church was experiencing problems related to the effects of Vatican II. Many people left after Vatican II so I was involved in membership extension and recruitment.”

Masterson credits Fr. Joseph MacDonald for his leadership in helping establish meet-and-greet coffee houses that drew robust crowds.

In addition to drawing inspiration from the pastors and legionaries she worked alongside to germinate the Legion of Mary throughout Eastern Canada, she enthusiastically regaled The Catholic Register with stories about her experiences meeting some of the celebrated Legion of Mary apostles from around the world.

One of her most cherished encounters was in Dublin with Johanna Hsiao who, according to an article published by the Society of Pius X District of Asia, established over 362 presidia (legion committees) in the north of China during the years of the communist takeover, before her arrest. She was in her early 20s at the time.

“I was told that her jail mate, a Belgian lady who was Lutheran, noticed that Johanna was firm in her belief, devout in her prayer and calm. Her example helped put her cellmate at peace.”

Masterson is delighted that the Toronto Senatus membership remains vibrant and that there “are parishes now with the legion that didn’t have it before.” She marvels, in particular, that Korean councils continue to flourish.

“We need to keep growing the membership,” Masterson says about the second 100 years of the Legion of Mary. “The mission to propagate the faith is too important.”

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