Newsletter of the District of Asia

 October 2007 - March 2008

The Legion of Mary in China

1917 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.

It 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.

History 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 the 1950s.

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.

On 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.

1927 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.

The 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.

“You’re 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.

Off 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.

After 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.

Again 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.”

Still 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

week, 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.

Long 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 tasks!

That 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.

Before 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.

The 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.

“That’s the end of the diocese,” he thought. “For without me, it’s bound to fail.”

After 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.

By 1943, Fr. McGrath had six praesidia and 700 adult converts.

But Fr. McGrath’s diocese wasn’t the only thing that flourished in China.

So had the power of Mao Tse-Tung, military leader of the Chinese Communist Party.

With 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.

Archbishop 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.

In 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.”

Not wasting a second, Fr. McGrath cut short his stay and returned, post haste, to Shanghai.

At 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.”

“Your Excellency, do you not think it’s too late? Mao will be in power in a few months,” the Irish priest answered.

“Do what you’re told,” the archbishop ordered.

Fr. McGrath embraced his mission. Soon of Legionaries throughout China doubled, then tripled and continued to rapidly multiply.

Within one year there were 1,000 praesidia. Within two years, 2,000!

Legionaries, 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.

Around 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).

On 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.

Soon, 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.

Their comment was, “This is a great organization, just like Communism.”

There 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.

All 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.

Up 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.

Under 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.

The 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.

When 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.”

It 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.”

Why was the Legion vilified in such a way?

The 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.”

The 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 to sign.

It 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.”

To 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 army.

Only 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.

“Your 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.”

The 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).

Even 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.”

The 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.

As for Fr. McGrath, he was released from prison in May 1954, and saw the injured state suffered by the Roman Catholic Church in China.

“At 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.

The 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 church.

However, 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.

What is the state of the Church in China today?

Before 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 with Rome.

It 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.


A 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.

The 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 Philippines.

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 Orient?”

At the time, 1985, Fr. McGrath was stationed in the Philippines, training hundreds of Legionaries for the missionary life and teaching them Chinese.

When 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. Peffley, and from Therese Marie Moreau, Warrior Priest - Father McGrath and the Battle for the Soul of China, The Remnant Newspaper, July 2007


Home | Newsletters | Library | Vocations | History | Links | Search | Contact