Frank Duff – an Inspiration for Our Time

A Remarkable Man of Courage and Vision – before his time!


I often think of the comment of a Religious Sister who taught us at school who claimed that the reason we were created is that God likes stories.  The stories told at the Pearly Gates, upon entry, must indeed be interesting in variety and many adventures.  The obituary section of the newspaper or the biography section of the book shop always draws my attention as I have an interest in the human story.  The personal stories behind the RTÉ series on TV on a Sunday night The Meaning of Life rarely disappoints in variety and a wealth of lived experience.


An instance of such a life-story is that of a man called Frank Duff, founder of a religious organisation called the Legion of Mary.  The Legion celebrated the centenary of founding just last month, September 7th.  1921 was an interesting time in national and world history.  Post First World War.  Middle of the Civil War or Troubles.  In Church terms life was much more stable.   Vocations to priesthood and religious life were plentiful. Religious devotion and practice could hardly have been higher.  It was a time that Ireland was exporting priests and religious to work all over the globe.  Seeing that there was no shortage of priests and religious to work full-time in this area it sounds unusual that a lay organisation was formed to promote piety and involvement in charitable works.


None of this deterred Frank Duff, a determined, intelligent, civilized man who worked as a civil servant in Dublin.  He was a committed member of the St. Vincent de Paul, open to men only at the time.  In Myra House in Francis Street on that September evening, beginning with the rosary and a pledge of doing good work in the local community the Association of Our Lady of Mercy began, with a small number of women and men and the spiritual direction of Fr. Michael Toher and the presidency of Elizabeth Kirwin.  It soon became the Legion of Mary, adopting the famous nomenclature of the Roman Legion, with the local unit or cell being known as the Praesidium.


One hundred years on The Legion of Mary claims three million members in over 170 countries with members, following weekly prayers, committing to at least two hours of voluntary, charitable work, visiting homes, hospitals, prisons, encouraging people at home and abroad to practice the faith.  All Legion work is voluntary, no one is paid and is always done in pairs.  Some of the very focused apostolates at the time was the founding of a Hostel and refuge for prostitutes, this being based  in Harcourt Street.  This was followed by the Morning Star Hostel for homeless men and the Regina Coeli for homeless women.   The important principle for the dignity of residents was that of charging a small fee or taking a donation from residents this giving a sense that a service was being provided rather than charity being given.


Duff was passionate in his belief that single mothers should be assisted in being allowed to keep and rear their own children.  This was a revolutionary and controversial view at the time and he was highly commended for this by the Commission of Enquiry in the recently published Mother and Baby Home Report, issued earlier this year.


As we are in the month of the Missions there is always a strong mission focus to the work of the Legion with many volunteers embarking on missionary work in various parts of the world in mini-missions entitled Peregrinatio Pro Cristo, adapted from the mission of St. Columbanus, journeying with Christ.  The most famous missionary envoys are Edel Quin who worked in Africa and Alfie Lambe in South America, who along with Frank Duff are proposed as possible candidates for future sainthood.


Considering the concentrated and rich religious atmosphere of the time, it is perhaps little wonder that the work of this fledgling, ‘amateur’ organisation got little notice, heed and cooperation in clerical circles and  even opposition at this time.  This must have been stressful and disappointing for Duff in these early years and he deserves great credit for his perseverance and persistence.  It must have been a great vindication to Duff that he was invited to address the world-wide Church at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s in an effort to develop a strategy for promoting the vocation of the laity in the Church, one of the big themes that emerged from the Council.  Like a man who was canonised just ahead of the Legion centenary, St John Henry Newman whose radical views on the involvement of the laity in the Church, Duff was ahead of his time.  In these days of anticipation of the synodal approach as a way of ‘being Church’, we gain inspiration from the likes of Duff, Newman and Legionary associates, visionaries for today and people who were ahead of their time more ways than one.


Fintan Monahan is bishop of Killaloe

Clare Champion Article 8th of October 2021