was probably the most significant year for the Church in the 20th
century. World War I was devastating Europe, and it seemed as
though the end was not near. Lenin and his followers sparked the
Communist revolution in Russia, which would soon set ablaze many
parts of the world with the evils of Communism.
was also during 1917, that Our Lady appeared at Fatima, offering
peace to nations and aiding her children in the struggle against
the growing Russian Revolution.
reveals much about the Divine Plan. For during the same time that
those pivotal events were occurring, Our Lady was beginning to
raise an army of her own. This army, dedicated to the Blessed
Virgin and having as its end spiritual goals, came from Ireland
and was known as the Legion of Mary. It would not be long before
this spiritual army of Our Lady would become a major enemy to
the Communists in their revolutionary takeover of China during
1917, the foundations for the Legion of Mary were being laid.
Frank Duff and other members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society
were at that time holding monthly meetings and doing spiritual
and corporal works of mercy. They continued this format for the
next four years, and from that gathering of Catholics emerged
the Legion of Mary.
the eve of the Feast of Our Lady’s Nativity, September 7, 1921,
a priest, Frank Duff and fifteen young women gathered together
in the topmost backroom of a flat in a poor section of Dublin,
Ireland. At this meeting, the very first of the Legion, they knelt
before an image of Our Lady, the Holy Spirit was invoked and the
rosary recited. Afterward, the small band discussed their proposed
work of visiting cancer patients in South Dublin Union Hospital.
From that day on, the group performed weekly apostolic work assignments
and attended the weekly praesidium meeting. The membership soon
grew to four praesidia, and on the Legion’s first anniversary
there were almost 100 active members in Dublin.
marked the first year that a branch was started outside Dublin,
in Waterford, Ireland. In 1928, the Legion was taken to Glasgow,
Scotland, and the following year to England and Wales. From there,
it spread to India, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The first
Legion envoy left Ireland in 1934, and arrived in the United States.
Two years later, Edel Quinn began her envoyship in missionary
Africa, establishing thousands of praesidia before her death in
1944. From 1930 to 1950, over thirty full time envoys were sent
throughout the world to build up the Legion. During those years,
Legionaries labored in Central America, France, Egypt, Israel,
Mexico, the Philippines and China.
Rev. Fr. William Aedan McGrath (1906 – 2000), a Dubliner with
the Missionary Society of St. Columban, arrived in China in 1930.
Around the time the missionary priest had finished his rookie
year, he was called to his bishop’s office, where he learned of
his first big assignment.
to be a parish priest. I’m sorry to say there is no church there.
I’m even more sorry to say there is no house. I don’t know what
you’ll do, or where you’ll live, but do your best,” said the Most
Rev. Edward Galvin, who co-founded with the Rev. Fr. John Blowick
the St. Columban missionary society in 1918.
Fr. McGrath went, 100 miles north to Tsien-Kiang, where he stayed
for the next sixteen years. He had twenty-four mission villages
to cover. Without a car or even roads, he walked one day’s journey
from one village to the next, where he bunked down for a few days
with parishioners in their mud-and-straw huts. It took two months
to cover his parish, where he baptized, instructed, heard confessions,
buried the dead and blessed graves. Whatever needed to be done,
Fr. McGrath did it. He had no choice. There was no one else.
a few months and already completely emotionally exhausted, Fr.
McGrath pleaded with Bishop Galvin to send him backup. A priest.
A nun. Anyone. Bishop Galvin told him there was no one. Desperate,
Fr. McGrath tried Catholic Action, a lay apostolic movement Pope
Pius XI had promoted. He undertook this task, and his endeavor,
which he later referred to as “McGrath’s Folly,” almost took him
under. After reprimanding a group of parishioners, they took revenge
by writing nasty letters about him to all the bishops in China.
Fr. McGrath pleaded with his bishop for help. Unable to send a
priest, the bishop sent a book, “The Official Handbook of the
Legion of Mary.”
stinging from his failed attempt with Catholic Action, the last
thing Fr. McGrath wanted to do was try to coax parishioners to
help him out. Nonetheless, he decided he’d give it a go, half-expecting
and half-hoping it would fail – just to spite the bishop. For
his first group, he rounded up six uneducated peasants. For six
months, he absolutely forbade the men to tell their wives about
the meetings, which were held – in secret – once a
at midnight. That way, he reasoned, no one would know when it
failed. If word got out about a second failure, that would be
just too much.
after the village dogs had stopped barking and everyone in the
village (except the six men and Fr. McGrath) had fallen asleep,
the first meeting begin with all seven kneeling and praying five
decades of the rosary. Fr. McGrath followed the handbook and assigned
to each of the men evangelization tasks that he had no time to
do. The following week, villagers were still in the street at
midnight, so Fr. McGrath – on the QT – ordered his six recruits
to return in two hours. So at 2 a.m., the second meeting began.
It had been a success! His apostles had accomplished all their
was Fr. McGrath’s introduction to the Legion of Mary. Formally,
he joined the Legion by making his act of consecration to Christ
through Mary, as suggested by St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort
(1673-1716) in his book “True Devotion to Mary,” in which
he explained that the best way to get to Christ is the way He
came to the world – through His Mother.
Fr. McGrath knew it, his Legion grew and grew, but China was in
utter turmoil, being ripped apart by the Chinese Communists (led
by Mao Tse-Tung) and Nationalists (led by Chiang Kai-Shek), as
well as thousands of Japanese invaders.
Japanese, by 1931, had invaded Manchuria, a region in northeast
China. The invaders wanted to get their hands on China’s natural
resources of coal, iron, gold and giant forests. When thousands
of Japanese soldiers marched into the village where Fr. McGrath
lived around 1938, they gave the priest the boot, forcing him
to leave his parish and return to Hanyang.
the end of the diocese,” he thought. “For without me, it’s bound
two and a half years, he was permitted to return. And what he
found in his diocese greatly surprised him and, perhaps, hurt
his ego a little. Not only had the diocese survived without him-
it flourished. The Legionaries had done everything – baptized,
instructed, witnessed marriages, everything except offer Mass
and hear confessions.
1943, Fr. McGrath had six praesidia and 700 adult converts.
Fr. McGrath’s diocese wasn’t the only thing that flourished in
had the power of Mao Tse-Tung, military leader of the Chinese
atheist Mao winning most of the battles during the civil war that
followed the Japanese occupation of China, the future didn’t look
so cozy for Catholics.
Antonio Riberi, papal nuncio to China from 1946 to 1951, realized
that all foreign clergy, nuns and religious would be kicked out
of China, and that the Chinese clergy, nuns and religious would
be thrown into prison. Archbishop Riberi knew something had to
be done. And fast. In Africa, he had met Edel Quinn, the saintly
Legion’s envoy, and he had witnessed the evangelical power of
the Legion of Mary. So he asked around and learned that only Fr.
McGrath, in all of China, was working with the Legion of Mary.
1948, Fr. McGrath was enjoying some R&R back home in Ireland
when he received a message from Superior General Michael O’Dwyer:
“Archbishop Riberi, the nuncio from the Pope, has arrived in China
and is looking for the Legion of Mary. He asked that you be taken
out of your parish to help him establish the Legion in China.”
wasting a second, Fr. McGrath cut short his stay and returned,
post haste, to Shanghai.
their meeting, the papal nuncio told the Legion priest, “Have
you realized the impossibility of the situation? 500 million people
and only 5,000 priests! Even if I doubled and tripled that number,
the conversion of China is still impossible. Father, I want you,
as fast as you can, to go all over China and start the Legion
of Mary before it’s too late.”
Excellency, do you not think it’s too late? Mao will be in power
in a few months,” the Irish priest answered.
what you’re told,” the archbishop ordered.
McGrath embraced his mission. Soon of Legionaries throughout China
doubled, then tripled and continued to rapidly multiply.
one year there were 1,000 praesidia. Within two years,
realizing just what was at stake with Mao and his regime riffraff,
played an important part in disseminating to Catholics the truth
behind the Communist disinformation propaganda.
that time, the revolutionary Reds had advanced into northern China,
where they were finally able to link up with Moscow, the power
base of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, their chief supplier
of weapons. It wasn’t long before Mao drove Chiang Kai-Shek from
mainland China to Formosa (now known as Taiwan).
October 1, 1949, Chairman Mao stood in Tiananmen Square and announced
the founding of the People’s Republic of China – with himself
the head of the beast. There were then in China 4 million Catholics,
3,080 foreign priests, 2,351 foreign sisters, 2,557 Chinese priests
and 5,112 Chinese sisters.
the Communists became aware of the rapidly growing Legion of Mary.
They ordered Fr. McGrath to stop his Legion activities in Chungking,
but he protested saying that the Legion was a purely spiritual
organization. He gave them a copy of the handbook and invited
them to attend a meeting to see for themselves, which they did.
Afterwards, they returned the handbook, with permission for the
Legion to resume its work in Chungking.
comment was, “This is a great organization, just like Communism.”
are striking similarities to note between the Legion and international
Communism. Each adopted the nomenclature of the Roman legion,
and both organizations used the terms praesidium (the name for
their meetings) and tessera (the title of their membership cards).
Another interesting point: The color of the Communist is red,
and that of the Legion is also red.
remained fairly quiet during the first year of the Communist occupation.
Then persecution of the Church began, directed first against foreign
missionaries. Priests and sisters were arrested, falsely convicted
and expelled from China. Many hundreds were sentenced to long
prison terms within the Bamboo Curtain.
to that point, there had been no unfavorable mention by the Communists
of the Legion. Then in the summer of 1950, the Communists proclaimed
their intention to establish patriotic churches, which would be
run by the government and be separated from Rome. That was called
the Three Autonomies Movement, which began on July 28, 1950.
the guise of self-rule, self-support and self-propagation, they
demanded absolute separation of the Chinese churches from any
alignment with foreign congregations. Those same tactics had been
followed in Communist-dominated countries of Europe, since setting
up an “independent church” has always signified independence from
all control but that of the Communist government. Propaganda in
the official Communist Party-controlled press supported independence
to such a degree that for months the Peking (Beijing) People’s
Daily devoted daily space to the patriotic obligation of Catholics
throughout China to participate in the movement.
real challenge had come. The Chinese hierarchy of the Roman Catholic
Church refused to support the new movement, and the Legion of
Mary set to work informing and instructing the Catholic faithful
about the issues at stake in that plot to undermine the Church.
the Communists realized that the effort to separate Chinese Catholics
from Rome was failing, they began a violent attack in the Communist
press directed against Archbishop Riberi, the Catholic Central
Bureau and the Legion of Mary. Within a year (1951), the internuncio
was expelled from China and most of the leading priests were jailed,
including Fr. McGrath. The Legion came under very fierce attacks
by the press, which described Frank Duff as “that imperialist”
and “of the party of those who are in power in Ireland.”
also stated, “This Handbook speaks without evasion of the fact
that the Legion of Mary is like the legion of the ancient imperialists
of Rome, which acted only for the tyrants of the age and killed
people as one cuts down grass; this shows us that the Legion of
Mary is indeed founded on these principles, without any doubt.
We may know thus that the Legion is a secret army, which, under
the guise of religion, really works for the imperialists.”
was the Legion vilified in such a way?
Catholics in China were a small and comparatively uninfluential
minority, and the Legion was numerically less substantial. Fr.
McGrath believed that the main reason was the “part played by
the Legionaries in frustrating the Communist plan for a schismatic
Catholic Church in China.”
next Communist move was to suppress the Legion in Tientsin, Shanghai
and other centers. Legionaries were ordered to register their
names with the police. In Shanghai, where there were fifty-one
praesidia, about fifty registration centers were set up and manned
by a highly trained Communist staff, which had undergone an intensive
training course that had even included studying the Legion handbook.
A six-foot high notice board outside each center proclaimed: SECRET
SUBVERSIVE ORGANIZATION, LEGION OF MARY MEMBER REGISTRATION CENTER.
On each side of the notice board stood soldiers, in full battle
attire. Even more alarming was the form that each member was expected
read, “I, the undersigned, joined the reactionary Legion of Mary
on … and conducted secret counterrevolutionary and evil activities
against the government, the people, and Soviet Russia. I, hereby,
resign from the Legion of Mary and promise never to participate
in such activities in the future.”
register under these terms was equal to signing one’s death warrant,
since “revolt against the country and having contact with imperialism”
came with a punishment of death or life imprisonment. Signing
also meant admitting to the false charges brought against the
Legion and removed the member’s name from the ranks of Mary’s
a handful signed the forms, and most of those later returned and
withdrew their registrations. The Legionaries, as a body, refused
to give up their membership. Those in Shanghai wrote a letter,
signed in their own blood, to the Most Rev. Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei,
bishop of Shanghai.
Excellency, we will follow you wherever you go,” read the letter.
“We are proud to live in this age of persecution, and there can
be no compromise.”
refusal of Legionaries to register led to the arrest of thousands.
Soon, every Legion officer was in prison. Among those was Johanna
Hsiao, a girl in her early 20s, who before being jailed had set
up 362 praesidia in the north of China. She was imprisoned in
1951 (and now lives in Ireland).
very young Legionaries showed heroic courage. Led by their 19-year-old
president, the members of a junior praesidium marched down the
public streets singing from the Gospel of St. Matthew 5:12-13,
“Blessed are you when they shall persecute and calumniate you
and say all that is evil against you untruly in My Name. Be glad
and rejoice for your reward is very great in Heaven.”
total number of those executed by the Communists is almost unbelievable.
In the 1950s, Time magazine estimated that between the years 1949
and 1952, 20 million people were put to death under Mao Tse-Tung.
Another estimate is that between the years 1949 and 1970, the
number increased to 60 million.
for Fr. McGrath, he was released from prison in May 1954, and
saw the injured state suffered by the Roman Catholic Church in
the end of 1954, only sixty-one (foreign missionaries) were still
in the country, of whom twenty-one were in prison. In 1955, there
were still two foreign bishops and twenty priests in China. Of
these, one bishop and seventeen priests were imprisoned. Of the
Chinese priests, about 500 had been imprisoned,” he said.
Communists pressed on, attempting to establish a “church” independent
from Rome. Their plans had been frustrated by the faithful priests,
bishops and members of the Legion. In 1954, Pius XII wrote the
encyclical ‘Ad Sinarum Gentem’, which took issue with the Three
Autonomies Movement and strengthened the support against a reform
in 1954 and 1955, a new wave of arrests and persecutions assailed
the loyal Catholics. The Communists began winning over priests
and bishops, and by 1957, the Association of Patriotic Priests
was founded. The next year, 1958, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic
Association was formally established.
is the state of the Church in China today?
the Communist takeover, there were approximately 4 million Catholics.
Today, it seems as though there is only the patriotic Chinese
church, with its glorious parishes in Beijing, Shanghai, Canton,
etc. But this is only a facade. The Roman Catholic Church is still
alive inside China, although it is seldom able to communicate
is now being discovered that in central China there are between
10 and 12 million Catholics. These Catholics have no churches,
but hear Mass in straw houses and do not wish to have anything
to do with the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. It seems
that after most of the priests and bishops had been imprisoned
in the 1950s, and after almost all of the foreign missionaries
had been expelled, the Chinese laity held the Church together.
For years, the laity had very few priests, but they continued
to evangelize, instruct and baptize. Legion of Mary members were
among these laity.
word should be mentioned also about the Legion’s effect in South
Korea and the Philippines. The Legion was started in South Korea
by the Missionary Society of St. Columban fathers after they had
been expelled from China in the early 1950s. There were 350,000
Catholics in South Korea at that time. The Church was growing
rapidly, and the Legionary work was evangelization and catechetical
instruction. In just thirty years, by 1982, the Legion had grown
to 47,000 active members and 3,400 praesidia. A statistic of February
1984, showed there were 87,000 active members and 6,700 praesidia!
South Korea alone brought in 60,000 converts during 1981, and
had – in the cathedral parish alone – approximately 2,000 parishioners
attending daily Mass.
Legion went to the Philippines in 1941, when a praesidium was
started at Santo Thomas University. During the next forty years,
the Legion grew at an incredible rate. By 1982, there were 200,000
active members and 14,700 praesidia. By 1985, Santo Thomas University
had 18 praesidia, and there were then 15,500 praesidia in the
late Archbishop Michael O’Dougherty of Manila, who had seen the
change in the Philippine Church since the advent of the Legion
said, “I can now dream dreams, and I say to myself, this is the
only Catholic nation of the Orient, why should it not convert
the time, 1985, Fr. McGrath was stationed in the Philippines,
training hundreds of Legionaries for the missionary life and teaching
the Bamboo Curtain opens, the soldiers of Mary will be ready,
and the Queen of Heaven will lead her spiritual army into China
and once again offer them her Divine Son.
Taken from: The Legion of Mary’s Role in Strengthening the Church
During the Communist Takeover of China. by Rev. Fr. Francis J.
and from Therese Marie Moreau, Warrior Priest - Father
McGrath and the Battle for the Soul of China, The Remnant Newspaper,