By ERIKA ANDERSON REDDING, Special to the Bulletin | Published August 5, 2020
CUMMING—Jennifer and Greg Willits were busy celebrating an anniversary—marking nearly 20 years of their ministry, and 15 years of their podcast.
And then the world changed.
It was 17 years ago when Greg and Jennifer first founded Rosary Army, not long after Greg made his first all-twine, knotted rosary. A modest ministry at first, the buzz quickly grew of the apostolate with the mission to “Make them, pray them and give them away.” Visitors to RosaryArmy.com flocked to the website to request rosaries and learn how to make them.
Greg made his first rosary after going to confession and seeing a priest with a knotted rosary. Intrigued, he went in search of how to make his own. His pursuit for detailed instructions ended without much luck.
“I ended up cobbling together with macramé cord the ugliest rosary ever seen by man,” he said. “It’s hard for me to put into words what it did to me, seeing that rosary come into formation in my own hands, and seeing a finished rosary in my hands. Realizing that here’s this thing that I grew up seeing as a magic talisman … seeing this knotted rosary from my own fingers, that was really kind of cool.”
Greg was hooked. He started making rosaries regularly and giving them away to family and friends. He said, at first, there was a strong temptation to focus on himself and what he had made.
“That’s why the idea of Rosary Army is so beautiful. I started to have this realization, after John Paul II declared the Year of the Rosary and added the Luminous Mysteries, that it’s not about me, and that I’m not alone. I’m in an army and there are other people around the world that are propagating the rosary,” he said. “But this was a unique take on that. It wasn’t just about huge buckets of mission rosaries going to third-world countries, this was affecting people one at a time—one on one. You can give a rosary to someone. It impacts them because they just received a very personal gift from your hands. And then when they make one and experience the joy of giving one away themselves, there’s sort of an a-ha moment that happens. It takes you out of your individual prayer, out of your parish, and makes you feel like you’re a part of the universal Church.”
When Greg realized that he was being called to do more with his newfound prayerful craft, he created the Rosary Army website. When people requested a rosary through the site, the Willitses also sent a scrap piece of twine, along with instructions for how to make them.
Jennifer recalls watching her husband become a “man driven,” but at first thought his rosary making was just a hobby.
“I begin to see that this was not something that was going to go away. It was growing into something,” she said. “I am a person who is administrative by nature. I was identifying that this is something that needs to be organized and formed into a nonprofit.”
“It has been nothing short of miraculous. It has been constant loaves and fishes for 17 years. The amount of rosaries that we’ve had—we’ve never run out,” Greg said. “We’ve always had just what we needed to cover our expenses. And while we would like to grow more and grow faster, again, that’s not our call. God has made it grow every time it was supposed to grow.”
Jennifer believes strongly that they have had a guiding hand all along.
“Unbeknownst to Greg and me, we were becoming guardians of Mary’s army that we were trying to build. She knew she needed guardians on earth to manage it and I think that’s who we are and what we have been humbled to be able to do for her,” Jennifer said. “I see myself as a guardian of the ministry. And for whatever reason, even as imperfect as we are, we want to do this.”
Bringing peace during chaos
Fifteen years ago, the Willitses began their successful podcast, which continues today. They moved from Conyers to Colorado, then to Indiana and, most recently, back to Georgia. Their ministry has included a video web series, speaking engagements and even a stint on the Catholic Channel on Sirius XM. Listeners can still access their podcast through the Sirius XM app. But at their core, Rosary Army is a ministry to make, pray and give away rosaries.
“Nothing was as personal as when someone made a rosary from their own hands and gave them away,” Greg said. “It made us realize that Rosary Army is at the heart of what we do.”
Greg recently revamped the website, and already hundreds have requested rosaries, or downloaded instructions for praying or making their own. The most frequently visited page on their website is the audio rosary.
“We’ve had over 12 million downloads of the audio rosaries over the years, and with new prayers like the Divine Mercy chaplet and Angelus (on the site), every time I look at stats, there’s someone on the site currently praying the Rosary with those audio files,” Greg said. “It just amazes us.”
But in March, as Greg was working on the website, things around the world were changing rapidly. As fear of COVID-19 began to take hold, the Willitses knew they had to do something. Through their YouTube channel, Greg and Jennifer started to pray the Rosary live nightly.
“We felt a great urgency to encourage more people to be praying the Rosary at that time and the initial response was overwhelming,” Greg said. “In fact, there were times when the numbers of people and the prayer intentions they were asking us to offer up in the rosary literally brought us to tears in the middle of a rosary.”
The preparation to pray and film a live rosary was sometimes tedious—setting up the lights and cameras and taking them down each night. But it was worth it.
“In the middle of the earliest weeks of the quarantine, when we—like everyone else—were trying to find meaning in all the suffering, the live rosaries brought us together with a significant community from around the world who found such incredible peace in the midst of chaos, all through praying the rosary,” Greg said. “Given that at the same time we were scrambling to finish up the new website we’ve spent the last couple years designing, it was motivational to see the non-stop emails and comments from the community letting us know what a difference Rosary Army was making in their lives.”
One listener from Canada wrote to them to tell them how much their live prayers have impacted her.
“I want to thank you for creating Rosary Army, the nightly Rosary during the pandemic, the pictures for the mysteries and the twine rosary,” she told them. “You have been instrumental in my life as I have been listening to your podcasts since October of 2019 … For that I am eternally grateful. God has used both of you as a vessel to have me closer to himself.”
A radical point of pivot
Since Rosary Army began in 2003, Greg and Jennifer estimate that the ministry has allowed for the distribution of more than a million rosaries, either directly from the website, or by the people who have learned to make them and give them away. It’s not something they take lightly. The new website, Greg says, is “deceptively simple,” but will help them minister to a greater audience.
“It is a radical pivoting point for our ministry as it is designed to help us more actively assist people where they are in their faith journey,” he said. “Whether someone is brand new to the rosary or they’re a long-term Rosary Army soldier ready for more, the website has launching points that will allow us to identify where they are and provide resources specific to their place on their journey.”
The Willitses also hope that Rosary Army will be sustained for generations to come.
“Right now, we need lots of prayers,” Greg said. “Though this ministry has been around for going on 18 years now, we’ve begun to realize the need to start planning on a long-term plan for Rosary Army to continue after we’re dead and gone. The fact that we haven’t been able to run it into the ground tells us Jesus and Mary want this to keep going.”
Visit RosaryArmy.com to learn more.