Door-to-door Catholic evangelists continue Alaska mission

Lillian Syren, 6, a member of the Junior Legion of Mary, gives an immaculate medal necklace to a retirement home resident in Anchorage on March 13. The junior Legionaries meet weekly to clean the cathedral and visit an area retirement home. — Photo by Rashae Ophus Johnson

Legion of Mary marks 90 years since its founding


Knock, knock. Who’s there, distributing religious literature on behalf of their church?

Not Mormons. Not Jehovah’s Witnesses. Catholics.

The Legion of Mary, a Catholic lay organization, deploys its legionaries on door-to-door evangelization every week throughout Anchorage and around the world.

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the Legion of Mary, founded by Frank Duff, a current candidate for sainthood. It’s the largest apostolic organization of lay people in the Catholic Church, operating in nearly every nation with more than three million members, and has been active in Anchorage on varying levels since the 1960s.

“The Legion of Mary is really a pearl of great price that has been a little bit buried and not really understood,” said Kristina Johannes, president of the parish chapter at St. Benedict Church in Anchorage, known as Our Lady of Mercy Praesidium.

Door-to-door evangelization is among the Legion’s most vital, defining missions.

“It’s the most fruitful work there is,” said Therese Syren, who joined the Junior Legion at age 10 and, more than 40 years later, is president of the local Legion of Mary governing council. “Many Catholics don’t realize they have an obligation to evangelization.”

Legion members see their obligation to evangelize in Christ’s final injunction to the apostles: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16:15)

Legion of Mary founder Frank Duff.

The Legion of Mary handbook — toted constantly, studied doggedly and cited frequently by faithful Legionaries — states that the Legion must be “obsessed” by that commandment.

“It must, as a first principle, set out to establish a contact of some sort with every soul everywhere,” the handbook instructs — to reach every person with “all-embracing, undiscriminating contact.”

Johannes said Legionaries are not pushy or preachy but rather use a “very soft approach” based on friendship. Local Legionaries visiting door-to-door have introduced nondenominational Christians to the faith, given miraculous medals and rosaries to non-Catholics and returned entire families of inactive Catholics back into communion with the church.

“You try to bring everyone to a more fervent level than where they’re at,” Johannes said. “You’re just meeting them where they are and trying to invite them to a deeper level.”

Frankie Filipowicz, 59, launched a Legion chapter, called a praesidium, in his native New York shortly before moving to Alaska three years ago and joining the Mystical Rose Praesidium at Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage. Among his cherished door-to-door encounters, Filipowicz taught a young girl to pray the rosary and practice in a rosary coloring book.

“It’s such a good feeling that I had a hand in this little child’s life. Maybe she’ll be baptized Catholic one day,” he said. “When you find the little ones who don’t know what the inside of a church — any church — looks like, the Blessed Mother urges you to go for it.”

Not all Legionaries approach private homes. The parish priest assigns to each legionary a specific apostolic mission that must be fulfilled every week, ranging from hospital visitation to religious instruction. Then at a mandatory weekly meeting each member presents a progress report, including a “literature count” tallying how many brochures, bulletins and miraculous medals he or she distributed that week. The meetings are timed to never exceed 90 minutes and are uniform across the world. They include a rosary, study of a lesson from the Legion handbook, individual updates and success stories, circulation of the “secret bag” to collect donations for literature and medals and assignment of missions for the upcoming week.

“This organization is about getting things done — not just devotion, but doing things for the Blessed Mother, for the church,” Filipowicz said. “We’re unique because we go out and try to actually perform for the Blessed Mother.”

“To be slaves of Mary,” expounded Sister Immaculata Maria Uwanuanwa, leading the study during a recent meeting of Our Lady of Mercy Praesidium. “We are coming here to draw strength from her, and then we go out to spread her good news.”

Local praesidia are attached to Holy Family, St. Benedict and St. Patrick parishes, as well as some Korean branches and a Junior Legion of Mary chapter for children, based at the cathedral. Prospective members who cannot commit to the mandatory weekly meetings and apostolic duties may become auxiliary members committed to pray on behalf of the Legion.

All local Legionaries and auxiliaries assembled March 26 for the annual Acies, a public consecration ceremony in which legionaries as a body “renew their fealty to Mary, Queen of the Legion, and from her to receive strength and blessing for yet another year’s battle with the forces of evil.”

This year, to further the canonization of Legion founder Frank Duff, Legionaries are striving to promote awareness of his achievements and encourage intercessory prayer to him, as well as challenging themselves to recruit new members and launch new praesidia.

Prospective Legionaries must attend praesidium meetings and undergo a three-month probationary period during which they contemplate whether they are called to join. If they are uncertain, they consider it three additional months and then either become a full-fledged Legionary or auxiliary member, or postpone it indefinitely.

For many like Johannes, who enjoyed participating in many Legion retreats and observed the Acies several times as a spectator before joining the Legion, the decision amounts to finding the time to commit to weekly apostolic work and meetings. When the timing is right, Legionaries are passionate about their devotion to Mary and serving the church through the Legion.

“The first thing I do each day is light the candle in front of my Blessed Mother statue and say, ‘Good morning,’” Filipowicz said.

“You approach Jesus through the Blessed Mother,” he added. “That’s worth telling other people about.”

And legionaries are not afraid to knock on doors to spread the news.

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