Legio Maria (ungrammatical Latin, “Legion of Mary”)—also known as Legio Maria of African Church Mission, and Maria Legio—is an African initiated church or new religious movement that sprung among the Luo people of western Kenya. It emerged as an extension of an interpretation of the Three Secrets of Fátima to a new, albeit African, context. The religious movement was initiated by repeated appearances of a mystic woman to several Roman Catholic members delivering messages about the incarnation of the son of God as a black man. These appearances are said to have begun around 1938, almost simultaneous with the beginning of Edel Quinn’s lay catholic mission on behalf of the Legion of Mary to Africa.
By the early 1960s, the movement had assembled a good number of catechists, acolytes, and believers in a spiritual return of Jesus Christ. The continuous expansion of this movement coupled with its belief in Simeo Ondetto as the returned Son of God led to theological tension, and eventual break with the lay Catholic movement, the Legion of Mary. Legio Maria was legally registered in Kenya in 1966 as a church, expanded massively in the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and eventually spread to many countries in Africa, including Uganda, Tanzania, Congo, Zaire, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Nigeria. In 1966, one of its founders, Mama Maria, died and was buried at Efeso Church, in Nzoia, Siaya County, while the principal founder, Simeo Ondetto, died in 1991 and was buried in Got Calvary, in Migori County.
Legio Maria developed gradually and eventually separated from mainstream Roman Catholicism in 1963. What is now Legio Maria started from the Catholic lay movement as far back as 1938-1940. Central to its formation are the local Luo myths about a mystery woman, min Omolo Ka-Nyunja, who walked Luo land during these years. A number of Legio Maria faithfuls believe that this woman was responsible for the mythical stories such as Nyamgondho Kombare in Gwassi, Homa Bay County, and Simbi Nyaima in Karachuonyo, Homa Bay County. According to Bishop Abuto, a Legio Maria cleric and researcher, “every religion has mythical elements and the Legio Maria movement’s development relied massively on the crystallization of local myths with their beliefs.” Apart from the myths that probably preceded Legio Maria, Deacon Oloo affirms that the Fátima Visitation of Virgin Mary was a key ingredient to the formation of Legio Maria. “As legios, we recognize the three Fatima mysteries. However, the most important for us is the third mystery which predicted the appearance of Our Lord in the 1960s. Though this mystery is controversial because the Roman Catholic did not reveal it for generations and what they eventually revealed is still contested by many Christians, we have faith that through the third mystery Mary promised the coming of Simeo Ondetto.”
In 1963 a movement of dissatisfied Roman Catholics in south Nyanza Province left the Diocese of Kisii and formed the Legio Maria Church, or Legion of Mary Church, under the leadership of the Lodvikus-son of God Simeo Melkio Ondetto and an old mystic woman named Mama Maria. This mystic woman is the one Legio Maria adherents relate with the Fátima Secrets. She is believed to have called a number of Catholics to the new movement by visionary appearances, telling them to look forward to her son who had come to Africa. Her spiritual son, Simeo Ondetto, was then a catechist in Roman Catholic Church. Ondetto was excommunicated by the Catholic Church in the 1960s. By 1980 the church numbered 248,000 adherents. Government estimates at the time of the split from the Catholic Church stated that there were nearly 90,000 followers of Legio Maria. By 1968, it had become a member of the East African United Churches.
The Legio Maria Church was not the only church schism among the Luo people in the early years of Kenyan independence. Catholic missionaries had been working among the Luo for 61 years before the 1963 split. By 1966 there were 31 “distinct Luo separatist churches registered with the Kenyan Government.” Across Kenya, “by 1966 there were 160 distinct bodies with a total of 600,000 adherents, most of whom were formerly members of the Protestant or Catholic Churches,” with the Legion of Mary Church being the largest of the schisms from the Catholic Church. Today, estimates of the number of Legio Maria adherents range from 3.5 to 4 million or down to just over three million. In this regard, the Legio Maria Church is one of the most resilient and successful of the African initiated churches.
While the Legio Maria Church began exclusively as a movement among the Luo people, it is now found all over Kenya and even has significant numbers of communities among the Turkana, Kalenjin, Kamba and Luhya peoples of Kenya and in Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, DRC, and Ethiopia. In 1979, the word “mission” was added to the church’s official name, becoming the “Legio Maria of African Church Mission.”
Origins of the movement
According to Legio Maria leaders and researchers, the origins of the movement can be traced to the convergence of at least four separate events: the concealment by the Roman Catholic Church of ‘the third secret of Fátima;’ the visions of Mary to several people informing them of the coming of her son; Simeo Ondetto’s supernatural attributes that established him as a spiritual leader; the coming of the Holy Spirit at the home of John Baru in Suna Migori and the Spirit’s declaration that Simeo Ondetto is the incarnated son of God; and several miracles and wonders that accompanied the mission of Ondetto, Mary, and numberless Legio Prophets.
Reliance on prophets
Legio Maria had many notable prophets at its founding. According to Bishop Abuto,it is the massive number of prophets and prophetesses in Legio Maria that made it break into a formidable religious organization. Among the prophets that Oloo attributes the success of a young legio movement to are Tobias Oongo, Silvester Okweto, Sila of Yimbo, Siprianus Ochien’g, and Gaudencia Aoko. The name of Gaudencia Aoko has featured prominently as a founder and even a co-equal with Simeo Ondetto, but according to Bishop Abuto, this is a confusion. Oloo affirmed that Gaudencia Aoko achieved great feats for Legio Maria, but was in no way comparable to Simeo Ondetto. Born among the Luo of western Kenya, Aoko was only 20 when she joined Legio Maria. The death of her two children, apparently thought to be due to witchcraft pushed her to seek divine intervention from the ‘budding prophet Simeo Ondetto’ leading to her eventual conversion. Aoko was referred to Ondetto by her brother-in-law, Johanes Muga, and went to Ondetto to seek help. She was commissioned to pray for the sick with Rosary and to battle witchcraft by Simeo Ondetto and the old woman, Mama Maria. Going back to her homeland in Kano and stretching to Alego, Siaya, of Western Kenya, Aoko exorcised evil spirits, burnt amulets, and converted many people to the Legio movement. Bishop Onyango Abuto insists that it is the agility of the young Aoko that led to her being confused with the 90-year-old legio maria founder, Mama Maria.
The Third Secret of Fátima
The Three Secrets of Fátima are related to a number of appearances of Mary to three shepherd children in 1917 at Fátima, Portugal. It was there that Mary revealed three secrets to the shepherds. The Catholic Church released the first two secrets in the 1940s but the surviving shepherd did not write down the third secret until 1944. She sealed the envelope and instructed the church to not open the secret until 1960. The Legio Maria Church believes that Church officials in Rome refused to release the true secret because it revealed Mary’s prophecy of a Black Christ for Africa. Schwartz recounts the theory:
Angry at Rome, Mary decided to ‘walk away from those people’. She determined apparitions no longer sufficed. She would tread on African soil as a person with her Son. Colorless in Heaven, both would become black Africans and bring her message directly to a more receptive audience. Legios declared ‘The Third Secret of Fatima’ was about the mission of the son of God in Africa, the coming of Legio, and the beginning of a new religious age.
In 2000, the Catholic Church released the official third secret of Fátima alongside a commentary on the meaning of the secret written by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Dead and risen
While at Sagegi in 1958, serving as a Catholic catechist, and living in the home of another catechist known as Petrus Pitalis Ogeka, Simeo Ondeto is said to have died for 3 days and came back to life with a mission-focused approach. After rising from death, Ondetto began to call himself the son of God. He was now preaching that he had gone to confer with God the Father about his mission and was freed to begin his mission. He describes a visit to heaven, chats with saints, angels, and God. Simeo Ondetto permitted the baptism of polygamists and the baptism of old Catholic converts without going through catechism training. He also said that he was sent to start a church called Legio Maria.
Appearances of the Virgin Mary
According to early adherents of Legio Maria, the Virgin Mary began appearing among the Luo people in the late 1920s. In their accounts, they say that she first appeared as an extraordinary itinerary woman. At a time estimated to be around 1935, this woman was walking at Awendo market in South Nyanza, when an empathizing tailor known as Omollo who was the son of Nyunja of Alego, Udida, gave her a dress gift. This woman is said to have promised Omollo an eternal name among the Luos. From that day on she began calling herself the mother of Omollo. By the 1940s, this woman is claimed to have visited the Catholic parish of Nyandago and conversed with over five members of its clergy about the mission of Ondetto. However, priests at Nyandago mission discounted the supposed apparitions, stating that Mary could not appear as a Black African.
Legio tradition tells of Mary and her son being incarnated as Luo in the beginning of the 1900s, with Mary entering into an earlier time period than Jesus. Mary wandered throughout Luo land during this time, performing healings and other miracles; the church was officially organised “when the 90-year-old Mary and her adult spiritual Son, Simeo Ondeto, were reunited in Suna, South Nyanza followed by the coming of the Holy Spirit(Mount the World Has Opened to the Light).” Schwartz recounts that the “Black Mary ‘returned to Heaven’ on 23 December 1966, and that those who met her claimed “direct personal experience of Mary’s disclosure of the meanings of the ‘Third Secret of Fatima,'” in which it was revealed that “the Virgin Mary brought a new liberating religion for the world through an African Mission!” At nearly 90 years of age, from 1963 to 1966, the mystical Mary could not reach many places. This resulted in the confusion of Gaudencia Aoko, a prophet, with Mama Maria, the harbinger who prepared the world for the coming of her son.
Birth and early life of Simeo Ondetto
Born in around 1926 to Luo parents, Margaret Aduwo and Obimbo Misumba, the Black Son of God (Simeo Ondeto) grew up in Angoro village, Kano location, near the Nyanza-Rift Valley border. He was named Ondetto by his parents and later got baptised as Simeo after years of studying catechism. According to his brother, Nelson Owino Obimbo, a Legio Maria Cardinal Dean (2011), Simeo was an extraordinary child. Owino who is older than Ondetto lists around six childhood miracles performed by Ondetto while young. Ondetto left their home in Awasi as a young man, worked at Miwani Sugar Company in Western Kenya for a short duration before moving to Tanzania Mara to stay with his relatives there. Around 1955,Ondetto returned home in Awasi, only focused on a missionary life. To find a way of keeping him home, his parents called a meeting that resolved that the only way to keep him home was to have him get married. Ondetto declined the offer of a wife and instead kept a life of solitude and meditation. He moved to Sagegi to live with a catholic catechist before starting the Legio movement.
Gaudencia Aoko Fetters
After joining the Legio movement, Gaudencia Aoko converted many people. In Luo central Nyanza, she was the most visible figure of Legio Maria during its founding years. That she was the founder of Legio is often a confusion with Mama Maria, a 90-year old mystic woman who revealed visions to many Legions. When official church doctrine restricted Aoko’s role to only a prophet and legio nun, without giving her the priestly position that she had occupied in the lives of the many people she converted, conflict set in. Aoko, felt females were not being given enough room. According to Bishop Abuto, Aoko’s departure from Legio Maria was not a statement that she did not believe in Ondetto as God. In fact, Oloo affirms that Aoko continued to revere Ondetto even after her departure, using the images of Ondetto and Mama Maria on her worship altars and advising her followers to do so. Nonetheless, during her tense battles to retain her high position in Legio Maria, in 1968, Aoko went to a press conference and announced that she was the official founder of Legio, and expelled Simeo Ondetto and two other leaders of the church for giving themselves the titles of “God,” “Pope,” and “Cardinal.” This moment of decision is recognized as Aoko’s spiritual downfall. She lost her charisma; went for a second baptism in Tanzania Mara by Mercellianus Orongo, another Legion who left the movement because of Ondetto’s claims to be the son of God; and by 1971, Aoko was negotiating a return to Legio Maria as an ordinary worshiper
The full official title for Simeo Ondeto became Baba Simeo Lodvikus Melkio, the eternal spiritual leader and mediator of Legio Maria.
The administrative duties of the church were put under a Pope. So far, there have been five such popes:
- Pope Timothy Joseph Blasio Atila (1963–1998).
- Pope Maria Pius Lawrence Jairo Chiaji K’Adera (1998–2004)
- Pope Raphael Titus Otieno (2004–Present)
By 2009, there were differences in Legio Maria that led to the consecration of a Cardinal Romanus Alphonse Ong’ombe, going against the order of succession placed by Simeo Ondeto and enforced by Our Lady. The differences between the two leaders has taken Legio Maria to the courts more than three times, and the differences still persist. According to Bishop Peter Onyango Abuto of Nairobi Diocese, the differences will end soon. “Simeo Ondetto has foretold those differences and said that Legio Maria’s unity will return under the third pope.” Under the popes are over 500 deacons, 350 priests, 60 bishops, 21 archbishops and 17 cardinals. Currently, all these lower hierarchies swear allegiance to the different sides led by Adika and On’gombe. Some notable people on the On’gombe side are On’gawo Aloo (Cardinal Camerlengo), Owino Obimbo (Cardinal Dean–deceased), Romanus Odongo (Arch-bishop-Rongo), the late Susana nyar Ouma (Ondetto’s cook), and Bishop Melkio. Notable people on Adika’s side are Cardinal Joseph Atieno (Dean of Cardinals), Maurice Akello (Cardinal Deacon), Bishop Peter Onyango Abuto, Elias Komenya, Mother Dorina (Ka-Baru, and Hellena nyar Rosari. A parallel hierarchy to the male priesthood is the Legio Maria women priesthood that is led by Nuns (Mothers). Legio nuns are married women who are ordained. The lowest female rank in Legio Maria church is sisterhood, then mother (heads a mission), superior mother (heads a diocese), arch mother (heads an arch diocese), and Dean mother (head of legio mothers). Below the clergy are church teachers and church administrators who are elected by the faithful. Prophets are also core to the Legio Maria mission because the church is Spirit Initiated.
Resurrection of Simeo Ondeto
Legio Maria believes that Simeo Ondeto is alive forever. According to Romanus Ong’ombe: “Simeo is God. God never dies, he lives. Even those christians who believe that Jesus was dead body and soul are simply mistaken. If Jesus is God he never died because God never dies. What happened is that God was incarnated and took up a body like ours. When he returns to heaven, he gives up this body and remains God. He becomes spirit as he was before he became a body.” Indeed, Legio Maria members attest to post-death appearances of Simeo Ondeto. They assert that Simeo Ondeto appeared at Calvary to many people before his burial. That Simeo Ondeto appeared to a doctor who was called to preserve his body and the physician ran away after seeing Ondeto alive; that Simeo Ondeto spoke through the spirit even when his flesh was yet to be buried; that on the day of his burial, Simeo Ondeto appeared to a group of Legio Maria prophets called the Michaels’ and asked them to go pray for the sick instead of mourning; and that Simeo Ondeto appeared to Dalmas Oyier, his closest friend several weeks after he was buried. Legio Maria faithful also attest that Simeo Ondeto appeared and taught them during two of his memorials. Ondeto is said to have appeared in person in his memorial of 1992 and to over 30,000 Legio Maria faithful in his memorial of 2012.
According to Legio Maria teaching Simeo Ondetto is the son of God sent to establish the glory of God on earth. Legio Maria believes in dispensations or times when God has stepped into human history after the fall of man. The first is found in the Old Testament “when the High Priest Melchizedek appeared to Abraham. Melchizedek established a reign of a monotheistic awareness which ended with the arrival of Jesus. The dispensation established by Jesus was one of recognising the trinity, of individual salvation, and established universal barometer of religion which is love. Instead of the law, the second dispensation is characterised by love. The third dispensation is the reign of God established by Simeo Ondetto as Lodvikus, that is the son of God sent to show the glory of God to the World. In Legio Maria theology, the second person of the trinity has appeared in history three times: as Melchizedek Son of God to define the history of the human redemption by blessing God’s chosen race through Abraham; as Jesus to conclude the mission of redemption, opening it and teaching the core element which is love; and as Simeo Lodvikus, to reveal the glory of life after death and the nature of God. To Legio Maria faithfuls, Simeo Ondetto, Jesus of Nazareth and Melchizedek are one and the same person incarnated during different dispensations of human history. Simeo Ondeto is known as the Lodvikus or The Glory of God, whose role is to bring the world to understand the hidden treasures of life after death and dramatise the reality of eternal life. According to Legio Maria the promise by Jesus to return has been fulfilled by the coming of Simeo. Legio Maria also seems not to believe in a final judgement of the whole world. They believe in immediate judgement of individuals immediately after death. This is supported by the long list of adored Legio saints. Some of the official Legio Maria saints include Timotheo Atila, Maria Ombwayo, Tobias Oongo, Petro Otieno, Mumbo Carilus and Angi Clement. Church leaders distinguish Messias Simeo Ondeto’s mission as separate from that of Jesus. He was not sent to replace Jesus, for Jesus was a name given to the son of God when he accomplished a second dispensational mission. Instead, Messias Simeo Ondeto is God incarnated in another context, specifically for the third dispensation of the glory of God. Often, 1 John 4:1 is used as biblical support for the confession that God has again come into the flesh through Messias Simeo Ondeto, for “every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God and every Spirit that does not confess Jesus is not of God…Therefore we say that Jesus has come in the flesh. Finding Africa in the yoke of colonialism, Simeo is also talked of as a saviour from the oppression of colonialism and “healer and protector from the evils of witchcraft.” Simeo Ondeto is not seen merely God’s messenger, but as “the actual embodiment of God in history.”
In their affirmation that Messias Simeo Ondeto is the Black Messiah, the Legio Maria do not exclude the possibility and reality that the Messiah has been incarnated in multiple times and contexts. In interviews during her three years researching the Legio Maria Church, Nancy Schwartz relates,
most Legios insisted to me that theirs was not the only way to choose light and Heaven. The Baba Messias Ondeto had preached that ‘God is a polygynist’ who loves ‘all the houses in his home’. All religions, he had said, are akin to ‘branches of a tree that bears fruit’. Legios reiterated that black and white people could both get to Heaven, if they followed their faiths.
Thus, salvation is available through other religions and revelations of God. While the Legio are clear that God has provided specific revelations and even incarnations for different peoples of the world, this does not translate into an exclusivist position in which only adherents of Legio Maria will be with God in heaven. According to Schwartz, “most Legios affirmed that Heaven was a place where the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Mary, saints, angels and Old Testament prophets and patriarchs are without color, a place where there is nothing like Mzungu (European/white person) and African.” She concludes that the Legio Maria Church has “formulat[ed] their own version of an anti-racist black liberation theology,” which is unique.
Prayers and worship
The Legio Maria Church meets as individual congregations for regular prayer and worship. Often the congregations live together in community homes. The Church uses many Roman Catholic hymns in worship services, and employs both original Legio Maria songs and Catholic hymns in informal services, often accompanied with singing, teaching and prayers. Crosses, swords and other symbols are often carried by male adherents or worn around their necks. During worship, both men and women wear robes and women additionally wear head coverings. The robes and head coverings can be any number of colours, and some communities wear their robes at all times as a distinguishing mark of Legio identity. Candles are normally present in worship as representations of spiritual presence. The Legio, in addition to Legio-specific African saints, recognise most Roman Catholic saints.
As an AIC, some aspects of African traditional religion and beliefs are incorporated into the church, including the early revelation to Simeo Ondeto that polygamists could be baptised into the church. In this sense, the church is more willing to accept some cultural practices, but this is balanced by a strict sense of holiness. According to Dirven, there are also “rigorous and legalistic taboos to drinking, smoking, dancing and wearing shoes in holy places — trumpeted as the essence of a strict moral code.”
Gifts of the Holy Spirit
Essentially Legio Maria is a spirit reliant religious movement. All the adherents respect the spirit as the guide of Legio. Even while the Simeo Ondeto and the Black Mary were still alive, it was possible for them to be in one place in Kenya while teaching and visiting other adherents through spirit delivered teachings of glossolalia and holy spirit possessing prophets to convey messages from them . It is a very serious offence to falsify the retelling of encounters with the holy ones in a glossolalia. Such actions could lead to an official rebuke from the priest, or even a beating, called a chwat, from one’s local community.
The spirit also provide direction for the individuals in regard to spiritual discipline practices and outward garments. While many AICs require adherents to exclusively wear white robes when worshipping, the Legio Maria church encourages adherents to listen for messages from angels in their dreams in regard to the color of robe they should wear. Schwartz recounts the varied meanings of these dream inspired colours:
The spirit can lead Legios to acquire robes of yellow, a range of blues, purple, green, red, brown and other colours that are associated with various spiritual gifts and patron saints. Black is for ordained male priests (padri, pl. pate) and church mothers (madha, padri madhako, pl. mathe, pate mamon). Legio priests and church mothers wear black robes at requiem masses and at graveside services held in family compounds. At happier times, black prayer beads are worn or carried by church mothers and priests as a metonym of power and ordained status. A few non-ordained men and women said they had the black beads on their house altars because a dream had directed them to get the beads and pray with them at home. The dream-bestowed black beads were a source of quiet pride to these Legios.
It is through the spirit that the Legio Maria adherents can also receive direction for the more mundane decisions in life.
Headquarters and holy site
The Legio Maria headquarters and center is St. Joseph church of Got Kwer, in Suna Migori. It is referred to as “Calvary” by Legio Maria adherents. This village of about 600 is approximately 15 km west of the southwestern Kenya town of Migori. Baba Simeo Ondeto’s tomb is in this church, and is viewable as a long, cloth-covered plinth with numerous devotional objects scattered around. Both are maintained by local community followers. Other major Legio Maria’s most recognised places are Effeso Nzoia where Mama Maria’s remains were buried; Kodero; Jerusalem Amoyo in Kadem; St. Teresa Kariobangi in Nairobi; St. Peter Manyatta in Kisumu.
Continuity and discontinuity with Christianity
The Legio Maria of African Mission Church can be seen in both continuity and discontinuity with orthodox Christianity. While one of the main critiques of the Legio Maria Church from other Christians centres on the claim that Simeo Ondeto is the “Black Messiah,” there are many ways in which the Legio Maria are in continuity with the Catholic Church.
First, the Legio Maria church recognises salvation through Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The discontinuity with orthodox theology is that the Son of God has been incarnated in multiple contexts, rejecting the orthodox doctrine of Christ taking a human body and soul for eternity. As we have seen in the above research, none of these incarnations are considered exclusive; they only serve to reveal Christ to people of different contexts. All who are saved through any of these incarnations of Christ will worship God together in heaven. Thus, for the Legio Church, salvation is found through Christ, as revealed in their particular Messias Simeo Ondeto.
Second, the Legio Maria church recognises an active spiritual realm that needs to be dealt with to respond to evil and illness. It is God who gives gifts to people for spiritual healing, sometimes through the saints. The Legio specifically recognise the Catholic saints Catherine of Siena and Bernadette of Lourdes in regard to spiritual healing. The Saints Samson and Julian, and the angel Michael help to “guide Legios with gifts for exorcism and battling witchcraft. In seeking guidance from these holy ones they are in continuity with Catholic theology, but this theology is applied to traditional religious understandings of evil and illness.
As stated above, the Legio Maria church is also in continuity with the Catholic Church in its use of Catholic hymns and the Catholic mass. Many Legio Maria communities still celebrate the Latin form of the mass. In addition, original Legio songs are added that reinforce the particularity of the Legio Maria church.
Another sign of continuity with the Catholic Church is that the Legio Maria include a white Catholic priest, Father Philip Chefa, among their saints. Serving at the Asumbi Roman Catholic mission station in the 1930s,
Chefa was said to have practiced a highly charismatic form of Catholicism that addressed his parishioners’ concerns. He had engaged in healing, exorcism, and the burning of paraphernalia associated with ‘witchcraft’ and indigenous spirit-possession. Chefa had treated people who later became Legios well. He had established a chapter of the Roman Catholic Legion of Mary for Luo in 1938.
Not only does the Legio Maria Church acknowledge the Catholic saints as their own, but they have included some European priests who worked in Africa among their cloud of saints.