Without any doubt, the Legio Maria, founded in Kenya in the early 1960s, is the largest of the churches in this overview. Although it is very difficult to estimate the numbers of followers, some researchers state around one million followers, while some give even higher estimates. During its existence, it has had at least three popes. The founder, Simeo Ondeto could be included, too, but he was also considered the Messiah, and today they are two claimants to the Legio Maria papacy.
Timothy Joseph Blasio Atila (1964–1998).
Maria Pius Lawrence Jairo Chiaji Adera (1998–2004).
Raphael Titus Otieno (2004–)
Papacy disputed by Romanus On’gombe (2010-)
The Legio Maria became an organised religious movement in 1962. It was founded among the Luo in Western Kenya, beginning in the Nyanza Province. The founder was a man called Simeo Ondeto, who was born in 1926 and baptised a Catholic in 1952. Soon, however, he came to the conclusion that the African laypeople had a too marginalised role in the church.
In the late 1950s, Ondeto had become a well-known healer and prophet. He gathered many followers and was increasingly criticised by the Roman Catholic Church authorities, who did not accept his active and quite unorthodox ministry. In the beginning of the 1960s, Ondeto became upset by the fact that Pope John XXIII did not make the Third Secret of Fatima public, as many had hoped. Ondeto claimed that as a reaction to the pope’s silence, Virgin Mary became angry and walked away from Rome coming to Africa, where she hoped that she would meet more faithful people.
Ondeto’s movement later took the name Legio Maria, which also was the name of a Roman Catholic lay organisation, normally known by its English version, Legion of Mary, which was established in the Luo area in the 1930s. According to early testimonies by Ondeto, in the beginning, he had no intention to found another church, but as Legio Maria was counteracted by the Roman Catholic Church and the newly independent Kenyan state, he looked upon the Legio Maria as an African Catholic church, which had nothing to do with the Vatican that the Virgin had left. According to Ondeto, the third secret of Fatima had, in fact, to do with African independence and the establishment of Legio Maria.
It is a Legio belief that on 9 March 1962 in Suna, Migori, the Holy Spirit revealed that Christ had returned to earth as Simeo Ondeto, now known as Baba Simeo Melkio Messias. According to testimonies by followers, there was a general outpouring of the Holy Spirit over the 1150 people present, and many started speaking in tongues and have visions. Ondeto established his headquarters on the mountain of Got Kwer, which he and his followers referred to as the New Jerusalem and the Holy City.
One noteworthy Legio Maria doctrine is the three visitations of God. This teaching implies that God has appeared in human form on three occasions: first, he came to India in the person of Melchizedek, then to Palestine in the person of Jesus Christ and finally to Africa in the person of Simeo Ondeto. The latter was believed to have descended to earth on Mount Ararat and wandered down to Kenya, and his appearance meant the Second Coming of Christ.
Apart from Ondeto, the most important figure in the early years of Legio Maria was Mama Maria (Regina Owitch), who was believed to be an African incarnation of Bikira Maria (the Virgin Mary) and the “spiritual mother” of Ondeto, the Messiah. In 1966, at age 90 the Kenyan Mama Maria returned to heaven. One of the other important members of the Legio was Gaudencia Aoko, born 1943, who was known for her prophetic gifts. She and Ondeto would only collaborate until 1966 when Aoko would leave as the Church Council decided that women should not be able to serve as priests. She founded a church of her own and today, Aoko is hardly mentioned in the official history.
In the first years of its existence, the Legios were persecuted by the Kenyan authorities and groups of faithful, including Ondeto, were arrested. However, in 1966 the Legio Maria was officially registered a church.
Legio Maria has retained much Roman Catholic Church’s traditional structures and worship practices, including the liturgical acts, the use of Latin in the Mass and a hierarchy including bishops, cardinals and a pope. Still, there are many differences. Mass is, for example, celebrated with wafers and Coca-Cola, and clerics could be married. But Legio Maria also shares many characteristics with African independent churches of a charismatic kind. Healing rituals, exorcism, deliverance from witchcraft, prophecies, glossolalia, dream interpretation and visions have a central place. Moreover, the group has much focus on purity rules, and prohibit the eating of pork, and the use of tobacco and alcohol.
The Legio Maria is a clearly hierarchical organisation. As long as Ondeto lived, he, as the Messiah, was the unquestionable leader, seconded by Mama Maria, who was believed to be the incarnation of the Virgin. In 1964 the two elected Timotheo Blasio Atila (1941–1998) pope of the Legio Maria. He became the highest leader at Ondeto’s death in 1991. In the 1960s, it was also decreed that Atila’s successor should be elected by the Holy Spirit, but at the same time, a Cardinal Dean was chosen. He had the right of succession and worked closely with the pope. There are also a number of other cardinals in Legio Mary and below them are archbishops, bishops, priests, deacons, nuns, brothers and sisters.
At Pope Atila’s death in 1998, Maria Pius Lawrence Jairo Chiaji Adera (1944–2004) became the pope. He had converted from Roman Catholicism in 1971 and later became the Cardinal Dean. The present (2016) pope is Raphael Titus Otieno Adika (2004–). He was baptised in the Roman Catholic Church in 1954 and joined the Legio Maria in the 1970s. In 2010, his papacy was disputed by Cardinal Romanus Alphonsus On’gombe, and from that time, the church has two popes and there are clashes between the fractions. The Jerusalem church sided with Adika, while the Kalafare Church, God Kwer Hill, sided with On’gombe
Though the Legio Maria is a church founded in Africa, it has a more universal scope. It is stated that the Legio is “of Africa, but not just for Africa”. Still, the vast majority of the faithful live there, not only in Kenya, but also in Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, Zaire, Zambia, Nigeria and Ethiopia.
A web page related to the Legio which includes a chronicle and explanations of beliefs: http://legiopedia.com/
Another informative website related to the Legio: http://lejionmaria.blogspot.se/
Cynthia Hoehler-Fatton, “Founders and Foundresses: Revising the History of a Kenyan Independent Church,” Religion 28 (1998): 393–404
Matthew Kustenbauder, “Believing in the Black Messiah: The Legio Maria Church in an African Christian Landscape”, Nova Religio: Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 13 (2009): 11-40.
Nancy Schwartz, “Christianity and the Construction of Global History: The Example of Legio Maria”, in: Karla O. Poewe, Charismatic Christianity as a Global Culture, University of South Carolina Press, 1994.
Nancy Schwartz (2005), “Dreaming in Color: Anti-essentialism in Legio Maria Dream Narratives, Journal of Religion in Africa 35.2: 159-196.