by Marc and Julie Anderson
KANSAS CITY — They would give it a try.
That’s what Lita Wurtenberger, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Shawnee, decided about the first meeting of the Legion of Mary that she and her late husband Laurence attended in 1961.
Now, 60 years later and still a member of the organization, Wurtenberger attended the Mass celebrated by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann on Sept. 10 at the Cathedral of St. Peter that commemorated the centennial of the Legion of Mary. The organization was founded on Sept. 7, 1921, by Servant of God Frank Duff, Father Michael Toher and a group of 15 women in Dublin. (Being declared a Servant of God is the first step in the canonization process.)
Concelebrating the Mass were Father Anthony Saiki, the cathedral’s rector, and Father Barry Clayton, who serves as the interim spiritual director for the Immaculate Conception Comitum (the archdiocesan unit of the Legion of Mary). Father Clayton is pastor of St. Philip Neri Parish in Osawatomie, Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in LaCygne and Sacred Heart Parish, Mound City.
According to its official website, the Legion’s objective is “the glory of God through the holiness of its members developed by prayer and active cooperation in Mary’s and the church’s work.”
As a lay Catholic organization, the Legion has more than a million members worldwide who “participate in the life of the parish through visitation of families, the sick — both in their homes and in hospitals — and through collaboration in every apostolic aid and missionary undertaking sponsored by the parish.”
“They were doing a door-to-door visitation of the entire parish [when we were approached],” Wurtenberger said. “The priest who was in charge came over to our house and invited us to come to a meeting, and we’ve been going ever since.”
The priest, Father Bernard Schraeder, served as the spiritual director for the Legion of Mary at the parish. He invited the couple to join a “praesidium,” one of two the parish had then. From the Latin for “troops, assistance or aid,” the “praesidium” operates at the parish level and conducts a weekly meeting where members pray together and report on their various activities.
Wurtenberger said between the personal invitation and the fact she and her husband “wanted to do something for the church,” it was an easy decision for them to join.
“We had four kids at the time, maybe five. . . . We went to the meeting and we thought, ‘It would be nice to give it a try.’ My husband’s mother was a widow and she said, ‘If you’re crazy enough to join, I’m crazy enough to offer to watch the kids on Wednesday nights so you can go to your meeting. So, that was nice. And so, for all those years until she died, she was here on Wednesday nights when we went to our meetings.”
When Wurtenberger’s husband died 12 years ago, he was still attending meetings.
“I think the Legion is wonderful because it paves the way and gives you the grace to go and do things you would never do with the Catholic faith,” she said.
At the time she and her husband began with the Legion, Wurtenberger said there were many young families moving into the parish boundaries.
“We just went door to door, and we found a number of Catholics who wanted to join the church and Catholics who weren’t even sure where the church was,” she said. “I think we used to have some of the largest classes for converts.”
“It was really nice to be in contact with the parishioners, too, especially the ones that don’t get out. . . . We’re in the nursing homes and say the rosary, go and visit the shut-ins at their homes if they’re OK with it,” she continued. “We’ve made a lot of bereavement calls through the years as well as visited new families — just all kinds of things to show to other people that Catholics are not exactly like Jehovah’s Witnesses, but we do go door to door.”
In his homily, the archbishop explained how one of these door-to-door visits affected his family.
“My mother told me that it was the visits of members of the Legion of Mary that motivated my grandparents to put my mother in what would have been the equivalent of a school of religion at that time,” he said.
“That really became my mother’s formation,” he added, “and she never forgot that.”
“You won’t always see the fruits of your work,” the archbishop advised Legion members, “but you’re planting seeds by these visitations. You will never realize the impact that they will have on individuals, families and the life of the church.”