Getting to know Frank Duff, Founder of the of Legion Mary

Contributed by Nora V. Clemente-Arnalda

(Edited from “From a Legionary’s Desk”)

Frank Duff came from a very close knit family with strong bonds of affection. His religiosity started in a home of “honest to goodness” Catholics. He had his schooling at Blackrock College where he was observed as having a remarkable personality. He liked music, joined eagerly in community singing and was in everything a seeker of perfection, insistent on high standards. They also took note of his dynamism, his tough fiber ― “he was courageous to the marrow of his bones.”

At the age of 24, Frank Duff, in the year 1913, was invited by a colleague from his office to join the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, named after the saint who founded the Congregation of the Mission. The Vincentian charism of visiting the poor implanted one idea in his mind and heart: “personal contact is the essence of the apostolate”. His membership influenced his spirit so much that he gradually developed that great love and sensitivity to the needs of the poor and underprivileged in whom he recognized and honored Christ. He developed a deeper commitment to his Catholic faith.

In the year 1917 he chanced upon a copy of Saint Louis de Montfort’s “True Devotion to Mary.” At first he dismissed as “wildly extravagant” de Montfort’s teaching on Mama Mary’s role in salvation. But when he visited Mt. Melleray Abbey, he saw and read a book entitled “Knowledge of Mary” by Joseph de Consillo. At once, it cleared away his difficulties about the Blessed Mother’s role in God’s divine plan of redemption. So he read again de Montfort’s book and lo! like a bolt from the blue, he suddenly realized that the excesses he thought he found in de Montfort’s book were really deficiencies in himself.

Frank Duff began to talk about this with his fellow Society members. They all wanted to learn how this devotion could be put to practical use. The outcome was a meeting on September 7, 1921, eve of the Nativity of Our Lady, at Myra House, Francis Street in Dublin, Ireland. Gathered together in an attitude of “true Devotion to Mary” were fifteen lay women, one lay man (Frank Duff), and priest-spiritual director Father Michael Toher. They knelt in prayer before the image of the Immaculate Conception. The Holy Spirit must have hovered over them and their Queen and ignited a fire that continues to burn to this day. The “Association of Our Lady of Mercy” later to be known as “Legion of Mary” (LOM) was born. The first president of the Legion in Dublin and in the whole world was Mrs. Elizabeth Kirwan, a New Zealander. The reading of the Standing Instruction of the Legion every first meeting of the month of the Praesidium is credited to her. The LOM altar was set up through the inspired initiative of Alice Keogh, who later became Sister Brendan Marie, Sister of the Assumption. The said altar is preserved at the LOM Headquarters in Dublin. The first work of the Legion was the visitation of poor women in St. Kevin’s Hospital in Dublin.

Frank Duff has given countless talks to the Legion of Mary. It was his closeness to Our Lady and his incredible understanding of her role in our salvation that perhaps enlightened and inspired him with the detailed knowledge of essential doctrines. In one of his talks, he pointed out that true and genuine devotion to Mary must involve service to her. To serve Christ in our fellowmen would be the ideal way of letting our love for her overflow into action.

The Legion of Mary’s official handbook was written by Frank Duff himself. It is the most widely translated work ever written by an Irishman. The handbook ensures the working of the Legion system but is not a set of dry rules. Much of the handbook is given over to an elaboration of the doctrines on which rules and the system are based. This elaboration is most complete in the sections on Our Lady and the true nature of the lay apostolate. In the Philippines, no less than Cardinal Sin exhorted the Legionaries “to just follow the Handbook.”

Frank Duff was a very charismatic person, gifted with a brilliant intellect, a wonderful organizer, a good writer, very widely read, and a great communicator. He spent several hours writing letters everyday which were sent all over the globe. Bishops, prelates, intellectuals, as well as the simple men in the street, would come to him or write to him for advice about their problems. Nobody was ever turned away. He had a particular tenderness for the mentally ill and those who suffered from acute anxiety or phobias of any kind. He even sought them out to help them.

Frank Duff lived as a true and loyal son of the Catholic Church. Five Popes: Pope Benedict XV, Pope Pius XI, Pope Pius XII, Pope John XXIII, and Pope Paul VI showed him their high regard. In 1965, Pope Paul VI invited Frank Duff to attend the second Vatican Council as a lay observer. It was an honor by which the Pope recognized and affirmed his enormous work for the lay apostolate. The two thousand Bishops in the assembly greeted Frank Duff with long, sustained applause and a standing ovation.

Frank’s mother was a mainstay and a solace in his life. He loved his mother so much that when the inevitable day of parting came, he was overheard saying that he felt that life had no further meaning for him. But God is loving and merciful and in due time, Frank was emotionally healed.

The Legion was not Frank’s only “claim” to admiration and emulation. He was a true and ardent

patriot who loved his religion and his country. He served his country as a gifted and hardworking servant of the state. He did not involve himself in politics, not because he opposed it but he transcended it. He bridged social and political divisions from great figures in public life to the humblest men in the street. He saw his role as applying spiritual values to serving his country. He had the satisfaction of seeing the blueprint “True Devotion to Nation” take shape in pilot projects. He was a nature lover and delighted in traveling through the beautiful and scenic spots in the country with his bicycle and camera, chatting to everyone he met along the way.

Frank Duff went back to his creator on November 7, 1980 at the ripe age of 91. No less than the Holy Father sent a telegram personally signed by him to the President of the Concilium in Ireland. The telegram read like this: “The association that he founded has made Catholics aware of their indispensable role in evangelization and sanctification and has enabled them to fulfill that role zealously and effectively.” In his death he was honored by the church and state. People from all walks of life paid their last respects to him. Although the Mass was celebrated in one of the largest churches in the land, the congregation flowed out onto the public thoroughfare. A police escort accompanied the remains through the streets to Glasnevin where the Archbishop of Dublin Dr. Ryan said the prayer at the graveside. People from all over the world flock to his grave especially on his birth and death anniversaries to pray and give due respect and tributes to him. They thank God for the gift of Frank Duff to his Church and to the world, begging at the same time God’s mercy on his great soul.

In July 1996 the Cause of his canonization was introduced by the Archbishop of Dublin, Doctor Desmond Carol. All over the world the LOM is promoting his Cause. Frank Duff considered one of the great Catholics of the 20th Century will always be an inspiration not only to Legionaries but to all Christians especially those who love Jesus and Mary.

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