Legion of Mary marks centennial of evangelizing, prayer
By SAMANTHA SMITH, Staff Writer | Published September 3, 2021
ATLANTA—If your Saturday plans include a visit to Little Five Points, someone may offer you a free rosary while you stroll through one of Atlanta’s hippest neighborhoods.
Near a cannabis shop and crystal store, members of the Legion of Mary greet visitors, offering free rosaries in assorted colors, pamphlets on prayer and Catholic books. The Legion of Mary, a lay apostolic association of Catholics that serves the church and its neighbors, celebrates 100 years of ministry around the world Sept. 7.
About four members of the legion come out for the street evangelization, which occurs once a month in the Atlanta neighborhood or at Piedmont Park. In a two-hour visit, they may give away 50 to more than 100 rosaries. Some days, fewer rosaries are shared as legionaries are in deep faith conversations with those they meet.
Bradley Jenkins, 26, greets people and passes out rosaries in the Little Five Points area. He was first introduced to the Legion of Mary in Toronto, Canada, when legion members visited his family and prayed with them in the last weeks of his grandfather’s life.
When Jenkins and his family moved to Atlanta, they looked for the Legion of Mary to join. Since becoming involved four years ago, he started the evening chapter, or praesidium, at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta, where he also serves as president.
Jenkins values the relationships built with those he encounters on the street and at nursing homes, which help to fight against the “epidemic of loneliness” in society.
The Legion of Mary “has been a great anchor,” said Jenkins. Members are “bringing souls to Christ.”
Founded in Dublin, Ireland in 1921, members of the Legion of Mary evangelize the Catholic faith, reach out to the sick and marginalized and do work for those in need. Sanctioned by the church and led by the Blessed Virgin Mary, the lay association is present in about 170 countries with several million members worldwide.
Members are expected to take actions every week “in the spirit of faith and in union with Mary,” according to the official website. Members can be active, who do work based on need, or auxiliary or praying members. Active members focus on meeting the needs of their priests or spiritual directors in the community.
In Georgia, the Legion of Mary was first formed in the Diocese of Savannah-Atlanta in 1942 with the blessing of Bishop Gerald P. O’Hara. Msgr. James Cassidy was the organization’s first spiritual director in the state. The lay association is present in more than 15 parishes in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
The local centennial celebration will be Saturday, Sept. 11, at St. Patrick Church in Norcross. Bishop Bernard E. Shlesinger III will celebrate Mass at 10 a.m.
The world of evangelization
The Legion of Mary draws its inspiration from the “True Devotion to Mary,” as taught by St. Louis Marie de Montfort. This book had a significant impact on Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary who attended the Second Vatican Council as a lay observer and is named a Servant of God on the path to sainthood.
Two additional Legion of Mary members on the path to sainthood are Venerable Edel Quinn, who was a legion envoy to East Africa and Servant of God Alfie Lambe, a legion envoy to South America.
Being in the Legion of Mary “makes me a better Catholic,” said Bryan Lester, a legionary for nearly two years and parishioner at St. Francis de Sales Church in Mableton. He enjoys spiritual outreach and has grown in faith.
“We’re an army for Mary,” he said.
Christy Wallace joined the Legion of Mary in 1996. For Wallace, being a legionary is an opportunity to be a practicing Catholic. For her, the weekly meetings are like ROTC drills that “help strengthen your willingness or your sense of urgency to share the faith.”
“The more you practice, the more natural you become in life,” she said.
While a seminarian, Bishop Shlesinger was a member of the Legion of Mary for four years. He walked the streets of Rome and spoke to people about the Catholic faith. Those whom Bishop Shlesinger encountered would receive a Miraculous Medal, which tradition says brings special graces from the Virgin Mary.
“Spreading the faith or being a missionary disciple was something that was in my calling,” said Bishop Shlesinger. “So as Mary brings Jesus into the world, I need to bring Christ into the world as well.”
A natural introvert, being in the Legion of Mary helped the bishop grow more comfortable talking to people as he walked the piazzas of Rome. He also appreciated the legion’s sense of community.
The faith isn’t lived alone, said Bishop Shlesinger.
“It’s not a personal journey as much as there’s a ‘we’ involved. It wasn’t me alone in the square, it was me with somebody else,” he said. “So I felt that there was a sense of fraternity.”
As the Legion of Mary celebrates 100 years of ministry, Bishop Shlesinger hopes the legion will continue to challenge the laity to step “out into the world of evangelization.”
Changing the lives of others
Evangelizing the Catholic faith for the Legion of Mary includes visiting shut-ins, the marginalized and the imprisoned.
In 2017, during routine Saturday visits to the DeKalb County Jail in Decatur, members of the Legion of Mary met a woman named Brenda, a mother of two, who was arrested with her husband in March that year on drug-related charges.
Brenda was visited regularly by Wallace and Beatriz Gaitan, members of the Legion of Mary; Mary Cruz Martin, parishioner at Our Lady of the Americas Mission in Lilburn and Constanza Vasquez, parishioner at Holy Cross Church in Atlanta.
Growing up, Brenda was raised Catholic, but was not active. But in meeting Wallace, Gaitan, Martin and Vasquez, her faith began to grow. The women taught her how to pray the rosary, which she began praying multiple times a day. Her favorite gift she received was a Bible.
One day, Brenda shared her sadness over missing her daughter’s birthday. Her children, 8-year-old Michelle and 11-year-old Alexis at the time, were living with their aunt while their parents were in jail.
At a birthday party for Michelle, Wallace took a picture of Brenda’s children to show her. She also brought a statue of the Virgin Mary that travels to various homes, a pilgrim virgin, to the aunt’s home so the family could pray together.
Brenda was released from DeKalb County Jail in March 2018. She now has a job and rents a house where she lives with her children and a cousin. The family attends Holy Cross Church and welcomes the Legion of Mary into their home for prayer and pilgrim virgin visits. Brenda keeps all of the pamphlets and spiritual resources she was given while in jail that year.
“I’m happy now,” said Brenda. “I value the small things. I see the presence of God in my life no matter the conditions.”
The Legion of Mary “is a great way in fraternity to put your faith into action,” said Wallace. “If someone wants to give themselves to Jesus through Mary, the legion is the way to live that.”
Editor’s Note: The Georgia Bulletin agreed to protect the confidentiality of Brenda and her family by using first names only.