Frank DuffServant of God
Founder of the Legion of Mary
Born June 7, 1889
Died November 7, 1980
Born in Dublin on 7th June 1889, Frank Duff was the eldest of seven children to John Duff and Susan Freehill. His father and his mother were both civil servants in the British Civil Service – remember, this is before 1922 – and both were quite keen intellects. They were a well to do family because Frank’s grand-uncle, who had emigrated during the 1847 famine, and made a fortune in America left it to John Duff’s father. Frank’s grandfather was a school-teacher and used the money to acquire a large library of books which in turn were passed on to John and of course to which Frank had access as he grew up.
At Blackrock college in Dublin, Frank was an excellent student. He was beaten to first place in Ireland in the equivalent of his leaving cert. Irish by half a mark. Frank excelled in languages and modern literature. This explains why he had such a large collection of theology books in his library (still there in his house in Dublin next to the Concilium) in English, Latin and French.
Although a good sportsman, Frank was shy when it came to drama or any form of oratory.
He had the misfortune of being hit behind the ear by a cricket ball during these years which impaired his hearing for the rest of his life – and which was a great cross to him.
Frank’s life was not without its share of tragedy. During his school years, both Frank and his father caught typhoid. Frank recovered but his father was forced to retire through ill-health from the civil service at the age of 42 on only a partial pension. Susan, his mother had already left work to raise her family. Frank thus became the bread-winner of the family as soon as he left school in 1907. He too joined the civil service. Two of his sisters died in childhood. And, while his two other sisters, financed by Frank, studied to become doctors, one of them too became sickly and had to remain at home with the family. Frank soon became a respected man in the civil service. He possessed a keen intellect, a strong sense of discipline and a good sense of humour. He never really liked math at school but set himself to learn all about it after he left school and invented a new set of calculus which he was sent to teach to the treasury department in London because of the increased efficiency it offered.
Frank grew in wisdom and knowledge in his faith too at this time. He loved to read and he devoured book after book on the lives of the saints. He was faithful to Mass and to his rosary and often visited a church while he was young, but it was not until he joined the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul in 1913 at the age of 24 that his faith took a new turn.
Normally a high-society man, Frank was now exposed to the real poverty of Dublin of that time. Many who lived in tenement squalor were forced to attend soup kitchens for sustenance and some of the natural consequences of abject poverty, alcoholism and prostitution were rife in Dublin. Frank fell in with a wonderful group of upstanding Catholic men in the conference he joined and soon rose through the ranks to Conference Secretary and President of St. Patrick’s conference in Myra House, in St. Nicholas of Myra parish in the heart of Dublin.
Frank’s concern for the materially deprived soon developed into a concern for the spiritually malnourished. It was his idea to begin picketing the Protestant soup kitchens and to set up a rival Catholic soup kitchen instead. He joined forces with Sergeant Major Joe Gabbett who was already at this work of discouraging those entering the Protestant soup kitchens, and over the years succeeded in closing down two of them.
In 1916, aged 27, he published his first pamphlet “Can we be Saints ?“. In it he expressed one of the strongest convictions of his life, namely, that all without exception are called to be saints and that through our Catholic faith we have available all the means necessary to attain this.
In 1917 he came to know the Treatise of St. Louis Marie de Montfort on the True Devotion to Mary, a work which changed his life completely.
On September 7th, 1921 Frank Duff founded the Legion of Mary. This is a lay apostolic organization at the service of the Church, under ecclesiastical guidance. Its twofold purpose is the spiritual development of its members and advancing the reign of Christ through Our Lady.
The Legion, which is to be found in almost every country in the world, has nearly 3 million active members and many more auxiliary (praying) members.
In 1965 Pope Paul VI invited Frank Duff to attend the Second Vatican Council as a Lay Observer, an honour by which the Pope recognized and affirmed his enormous work for the lay apostolate.
On November 7th 1980 Frank Duff died and is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.
In July 1996 the Cause of his canonisation was introduced by the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Desmond Connell.
All of this went hand in hand with a rapid growth in Frank’s own spirituality. Having joined the SVP in 1913, the following Lent of 1914, Frank decided to go to Mass every day but was not satisfied to stop at Easter Sunday and continued his daily attendance at Mass thereafter. In fact, Finola Kennedy tells us in her book that Frank attended two Masses daily from 1914 onwards to the day he died in 1980.
Frank attended his first enclosed retreat in 1913 with the SVP and was deeply moved by it. He subsequently organized two retreats every year (according to Fr. Bradshaw, pp.27, 28). And made his annual retreat in Mount Mellary every year for 48 years until he was unable to make the journey.
Frank himself writing to Pope Paul VI in 1964 was able to say that from 1914 he never failed to miss his daily rosary . Also in 1914 Frank joined the pioneers. He hated the idea of wearing a public religious emblem and balked at the idea at first, but, realising that this was just his pride he returned to take the pledge and never looked back. He always wore his pin and recited the pioneer prayer.
Spiritual reading was an important part of his every day life as has already been mentioned but he coupled this with regular confession and spiritual direction. From 1915 to 1922, Fr. Robert Bradshaw tells us that Frank used to spend 4 hours every day in prayer. He used to make a lunch-time holy hour while at work, and all this time he was under the direction of a Jesuit priest by the name of Fr. Michael Brown.
The official petition to introduce the cause for the beatification of Mr. Duff was accepted and signed by his grace Archbishop Desmond Connell in July 1996.
Frank Duff is now known under the title Servant of God. One of the major stages in the process for a person to be declared a saint is the verification of heroic sanctity by means of a detailed investigation through the appropriate office in Rome formalized by the issue of a solemn decree. The person may then be said to be a Venerable – which means to be regarded with awe. E.g. Edel Quinn The next step requires an authentic and irrefutable miracle (or two) in order to declare the venerable as blessed. Finally, canonization itself is a declaration by the Pope that a deceased person is raised to the full honours of the altar, that is, a saint. Two miracles credited to the beatus are usually required before canonization to attest the heroic virtue of the saint. Where, beatification allows veneration of the blessed, canonization requires it. The canonization is usually celebrated at St. Peter’s.
So, when it comes to the life and work of Frank Duff we are at the stage of determining the truth of his life and virtue to prove that he is worthy of the title of Venerable. This is the first step in the process, which will judge if Mr Duff’s life was one of heroic sanctity. Favorable and unfavorable witnesses have to be interviewed and questioned under oath and his writings will have to be examined by theologians to check their fidelity to the faith and the moral teaching of the Church. This process will be a lengthy one since many persons who knew Frank have to be interviewed and his prolific writings have to be carefully examined.
Frank lived a long life – born on 7th June 1889 and died on 7th November 1980 – 91 years – that’s more years than most! He did not found the Legion of Mary until he was 32 years of age. In the following 59 years he wrote an estimated 200,000 letters – and not just small letters at that - (that works out at about 10 letters a day for his whole life). He has written 205 different articles compiled into several books, there are about 9 hours of video of a taped interview with him that is available (all of which are transcribed) and the Concilium wrote to me recently to tell me that they have around 140 audio tapes of interviews, about which 50% or so of which have been transcribed at this stage.
In other words, that amounts to a considerable amount of primary written material to be read and analyzed.
One of the Best, Boniface Manley OFM, Praedicanda Publications, 1980
Frank Duff as I knew Him, Thomas Flynn CM, Praedicanda Publications, 25th March 1981
Frank Duff – A biography, Leon O’ Broinn, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1982
John Henry Newman and Frank Duff, Finola Kennedy, Praedicanda Publications, 14th November 1982
Frank Duff – A living Autobiography, (8 television interviews), Msgr. Charles Moss, Ed., Maria Legionis, Dublin-Philadelphia-Manila, 1983
A Man for Our Time, Hilda Firtel, Mercier Press, Cork, 1985
Frank Duff (Founder of the Legion of Mary), Robert Bradshaw, Montfort Publications, Bayshore, New York, 1985
Frank Duff, (1889-1980), Maria Legionis, June 1989
Frank Duff Missionary, Patrick O’ Connor SSC, Reprinted from Ensign
Frank Duff, A Memoir, Francis J. Ripley, Incorporated Catholic Truth Society, London, Booklet, 16pps., 1981