Legio Maria, fully known as the Legion Maria of African church Mission, or Maria Legio, is a new religious movement that emerged from the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) lay movement called the Legion of Mary. The new movement first attracted adherents around Western Kenya regions, with a massive following among the Luo community of Nyanza Province, Kenya. Then it spread massively to the neighboring countries of Uganda and Tanzania, Congo and Zaire, Rwanda and South Sudan, carried to those places by immigrant believers.
Simeo Ondeto’s new movement is unique. Just like Christianity was an offshoot of Judaism but had the unique doctrine of belief in Jesus as God; Legio Maria has the doctrine of divinity of Simeo Ondeto which makes the movement unique and completely different from other Christian churches. Indeed, the worship of Ondeto makes Legio Maria essentially a new religion with links to Christianity and not a Christian denomination as many tend to think. And like the emergence of Christianity from Judaism, Legio Maria has a passionate start that includes persecution of Simeo Ondeto and his memorable victories over his persecutors.
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Factors behind the Rise of Legio Maria
(A). The Missionary Activities Of Legion Of Mary In Kenya
Just like the formation of Christianity, Legio Maria developed gradually. The first major factor behind the rise and development of Legio Maria was the missionary activities of the Roman Catholic lay Movement, Legion of Mary. In fact, the ground for Legio Maria was prepared by the missionary activities of Edel Quinn in Kenya in the late 1930s. Quinn led the Catholic Legion of Mary movement into spreading across Kenya, gaining adherents, and empowering lay people to worship God. According to Legio Marias, this spread was the work of God in the preparation for the fulfillment of Mary’s prophecy of Fatima in Portugal that she would come to Africa in the 1960s. By 1940s, the Catholic Lay movement had enabled many people to know crucial facts of the Bible, to say prayers according to the Tassera, and to work as auxiliary catechists in their local gatherings.
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(B). The Fatima Apparition of Mary in 1917
The second factor behind the rise and growth of Legio Maria is the Fatima Apparition of Virgin Mary in 1917. It is the Third Secret of Fatima that was given to Lucia Santos by Virgin Mary that has been cited as one of the major prophecies for a Marian Movement in the 1960s. According to Legio Maria members, Mary had told Lucia that she should not reveal the secret until the 1960s when the meaning of the secret would be clearer; which, they insist, was a direct declaration of the time when Legio Maria would start in Kenya.
(C). The Convergence of Luo Mythical Stories with Legio Maria Narratives
The third factor that led to the rise and development of Legio Maria was the mythical stories about a woman called Min Omolo Ka-Nyunja. The Luos have two stories, the Simbi Nyaima Narrative (a crater lake in Karachuonyo of Homabay County believed to have been caused by a mysterious wandering woman) and the Nyamgondho Kombare Narrative (story of a woman fished out from the lake) which converge with the Legio Maria narrative of Min Omolo Ka-Nyunja (the story of Mama Maria who was a wandering woman across the Luo nation). Former Catholics who converted to Legio Maria, such as Petro Oswago, Juma Pesa, and Atila Timotheo, recounted how this woman visited them in Catholic and called them out to join the new Legio Maria movement. When this old woman, around 90 years of age, finally met with Simeo Ondeto and called him her spiritual son, the spiritual link between Ondeto, this woman, and the mythical stories retold among the Luo coalesced into a powerful force for propelling the formation of a new religious movement.
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(D). Simeo Ondeto Called Himself Son of God
The Fourth factor is Ondeto’s open and blatant statements that he was the Son of God and the return of Jesus. Simeo was a man of mystery right from childhood as is retold by his elder brother Owino Obimbo. However, this would have not made him known as God unless he talked about his status. So when he started preaching to people at Segegi in Migori about his God’s Kingdom, Simeo made it clear that he was equal or just the same person as Jesus. He proved his claims by telling people everything they wanted to know about heaven, giving true descriptions of past and present events in the lives of the people who went to him, and by healing the sick.
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By 1959, Simeo Ondeto had attracted a following of more than 20, 000 people across Luo Nyanza and Tanzania Mara District. These people traveled to visit him at Segegi. His profile improved quickly due to his many miracles and wonders, such as raising a dead man in Gombania Church in Tanzania and healing Salome Owiny who had bled for over 10 years. And when he was narrating how the father had sent him to earth, he promised that God would help him to start a religious movement that would be characterized by the power of the Holy Spirit. So, many people were excited about his movement and became his followers.
(E). Legio Maria Pentecostal Day
The fifth factor that established Legio Maria as a religious movement was the immense charismatic and prophetic power of adherents. Prior to the Legio Maria Pentecostal day, there were members of the movement who had power to exorcise evil spirits and heal the sick. Vitalis Okelo Oketa and Simeo Ondeto were such members of the movement. But after the Pentecostal Day of March 9, 1962, a massive spiritual power was poured among the faithful and there arose numerous powerful prophets who could take the movement’s message far and wide. Some of the most notable prophets of the early 1960s were Tobias Oongo, Silvester Okweto, Silas of Imbo, Gaudencia Aoko, and Kepha of Asumbi.
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Moreover, it is during the Legio Maria Pentecostal Day that a group of over 1150 followers of Simeo Ondeto who were gathered at John Baru’s home had a public revelation and heard the declaration of the Holy Spirit that Simeo Ondeto is the son of God. On that day, Legio Maria members saw Simeo Ondeto seated on the throne of heaven and passing judgment on the living and the dead. Simeo was also being worshipped by angels and saints of heaven. And the saints and angels joined Legio Maria members at John Baru’s home, giving them an incredible communion with heaven that stirred an unwavering faith in the members.
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Most importantly, the Holy Spirit was donated to the members of the faith by Simeo Melkio Ondeto and those who rebelled from him soon lost their charismatic powers. This occurred to Mercelianus Orongo of Tanzania Mara and Gaudencia Aoko of Kano Kenya who rebelled from Simeo and lost their charismatic and prophetic powers quickly. So, after the Legio Maria Pentecost, Simeo Ondeto became officially acknowledged as God by Legios.
(F) Persecutions of Legio Maria
Nothing binds people together as suffering together. And Legio Maria benefited immensely from the unity that arose from their suffering and struggles in the years 1963-1966 when Simeo Ondeto and members of the faith were arrested, beaten and detained. Some Legios suffered and died during the persecutions. Some were tortured and had their faith tested by brutality. The scorn and insults, the public derision and hatred that was directed towards Legio Maria, made the members even stronger and inspired them to work hard and recruit more members. The period between 1963 and1966 saw great development and restructuring of the faith, the creation of official hierarchy, and the creation of primal theology. And in 1966, the religious movement was officially registered as a church.
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Beliefs of Legio Maria
What are the most fundamental beliefs of Legio Maria? Just as many other religious movements, Legio Maria movement has several doctrines that define its membership. They include:
1. Simeo Ondeto Is the Son Of God: Legio Maria faithful worship Simeo Ondeto as God. To them, he is Jesus Christ.
2. Jesus Second Coming Was Fulfilled by Ondeto’s Coming: in Legio Maria, the much awaited second coming of Jesus was fulfilled in Simeo Ondeto. There is no other return of the Son of God expected. The belief emanates from the words of Simeo Ondeto himself who said that “my children, I have returned. Truly, I have returned.”
3. Simeo Ondeto is the Glory of God: The glory of God is a biblical phrase that implies the splendid light and greatness of God that was often associated with the cloud and fire that accompanied the Israelites during their sojourn in the wilderness. The New Testament promise that Jesus would come in the clouds resonates with the visions of Ezekiel who sees the glory of God coming in the clouds, and the prophesies of Daniel about the coming of the son of man. In Legio Maria, the coming of Ondeto is believed to have occurred from the clouds. Indeed, Legio Maria prophets such as Silvester Okweto and Wilfrida Magel pronounced the coming of Simeo Ondeto upon the clouds long before many of his followers discovered he had physical parents in the name of Margret Aduwo and Obimbo ka-Msumba.
4. Mama Maria is the spiritual mother of Simeo Ondeto: Legio Maria benefited from the work of an old woman known to Legio Marias as Mama Maria, or simply as Bikra Maria. The origin and birth place of this woman is not known. Indeed, while some speculated that the woman was from Alego, Kaudida clan, and was probably married there long before her appearance as Legio Maria’s Virgin Mary, the most dominant side of the woman’s story border on the mythical and mysterious. Legios believe that this woman is the same one that appears in Luo tales such as Min Omolo Ka-Nyunja, Nyamgondho Kombare and Simbi Nyaima, but Mama Maria appeared in the scene in 1962, met with Simeo Ondeto at Johanes Baru’s home, led Legios in building the first and most prominent church (St Joseph Kalafare/ nowadays called St Mary Kalafare in honor of Mama Maria), and helped, together with Simeo Ondeto, to lay the foundation of the new religious movement.
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5. Endless life: While Christians believe in resurrection of the dead as a way of allowing people to enjoy life after death, Legio Marias believe in endless life. According to Legio Maria teachings, life is a form of energy that is only transformed from state to state and that is eternally indestructible. When Legio Maria faithful die, they simply cross over to the next state of life, which is the spiritual and most lasting state. The belief in endless life explains why Legio Maria believes that Ondeto did not have to resurrect with his body to continue living after his death. He was always living before and after his physical death (the return) and will always be there for them. Legio faithful also become saints soon after death and may even be adored by faithful sooner. For instance, Timotheo Atila, who was the movement’s first pope, is adored by Legios. Other Legio Saints that are frequently adored include Carilus Mumbo, Philip Odero, Angi Clement, Petro Otieno, and Tobias Oongo.
6. The End of the World: In practice, Legio Maria faithful do not believe in the end of the world and another return of the Son of God. However, due to the blend of beliefs with Catholics and other Christians, some may still talk about the end of times and the coming of Jesus again. In Legio theology, one dies to be with the Lord. It is a person’s work for God that wins him eternal bliss (light) or eternal suffering (darkness). So, in Legio theology, there are no people resting or sleeping in their graves and awaiting the return of Jesus. In fact, Legios typically pray for their dead on the third and the seventh day after burial to help them find favor with God. Similarly, Legio Maria faithful do not believe in another return of the Son of God. They do not believe in physical hell burning the world, but in spiritual suffering for the sinful.
7. The clergy and the Laity: Legio Maria has a robust and active clergy, but it also has an active laity. Lay people pray using the rosary and Catena when they are on their own, but attend mass every time a priest is around. A sacrificial meal is offered to God for blessing by the priest in a form similar to the Christian Eucharist (especially the Catholic Mass) and then given to the faithful. The communion has not changed much in terms of how it is offered in Legio Maria and Catholic, but the insistence on spiritual worship over ceremonialism is greater.
Historical Sites of Legio Maria
1. Got Kalafare
Legio Maria has numerous historical sites. The most important one is Got Kalafare, which also doubles as the movement’s headquarters. Initially, the hill was a shrine for traditional Luo sacrifices and was known as Got Okwon’g located 15 km west of the south-western Kenyan town of Migori. When the relationship between the lay movement that followed the teachings and charismatic appeals of Simeo Ondeto and the local Catholic Church got strained, the police officers involved advised that Ondeto get a piece of land and build his own independent church.
Soon, Mama Maria gave Silvester Okweto a vision directing him to survey the nearby hill, which was Okwon’g. Okweto found the woman at the site that is now Kalafare as he walked through the thickets in what was a rapturous moment for the Legio prophet. The site was built and completed in 1963 and Legio Maria adherents had moved into the headquarters by December 1963. Got Kalafare is also the site where Ondeto’s passionate persecutions occurred. Simeo was arrested one December night in 1963 at around 2.00 a.m. and frog-matched to the nearest Migori prison remand. He was later charged in Homabay law courts with holding illegal meetings and refusing to allow faithful Legios to be vaccinated against small-pox, among other charges. Later on in 1966, the huts in the church were brought down by local police in one of the bloodiest of Legio Maria persecutions. Simeo never returned to live in Got Kalafare while physically alive and insisted he would only be buried there. Today, Kalafare is the burial site of Ondeto’s remains and is a site visited by many local and international tourists.
2. Jerusalem Amoyo
Legio Maria’s St Mary Basilica in Amoyo played the role of the leading church for almost 4 decades, since 1966. After Kalafare was brought down by the persecutions, Simeo Ondeto moved from Suna Migori to the nearby Kadem location, but still lived in Migori. He always traveled across Kenya and beyond, preaching to people but returned to Amoyo at the end of every tour. Indeed, many Legio converts would have thought of Jerusalem as the leading Legio church, even going by its name. When Simeo died, the local Kadem clan refused to allow Simeo’s remains to be taken to the neighboring Suna location. Indeed, they demonstrated their resolve by burying Simeo’s body. The body was only exhumed in the presence of local police officers and taken to Calvary under police guard. Moreover, recently in 2010, when differences emerged between leading Legio Maria leaders, Romanus On’gombe and Rafael Adika, the Jerusalem church sided with Adika while the Kalafare Church sided with On’gombe. Jerusalem church is also home to the second Legio Maria pope Lawrence Chiaji Adera and will remain a pillar of Legio Maria for many years to come.
3. Efeso Nzoia
The first two sites already mentioned fall in the Southern region of former Nyanza province, Kenya. However, the third most important church for Legio, the Ephesus church is located in former Central Nyanza, in the present Siaya County. The church is engrained in Legio Maria tradition because of the persecutions of 1964, which included two arrests of Simeo Ondeto and his followers.
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First, Simeo was arrested with some followers and taken to the nearest Ukwala police station after the local Catholic Church reported to the police that Legios wanted to burn their church, Sega Catholic Parish. The release was soon followed by a second bloody arrest in which some Legios like Petro Otieno lost their lives. In the second arrest Ondeto and around 37 Legio followers were taken to Kodiaga prison in Kisumu and charged with holding illegal meetings, forcing children to drop out of school, causing havocs in families, and promoting religious extremism. Efeso church is also the burial site of Mama Maria, who died at the church in December 1966.
4. St Peter Manyatta
Located at the heart of Kisumu City, the church is historical because it was the place where Simeo Ondeto died in September 5th 1991. There are claims that Ondeto was first poisoned while in Legio’s Bardin’g Church in Alego, Siaya County, and was poisoned again two times by his maidens in Manyatta church.
5. Other Historic Churches
Kodero, Awasi Church (called Bethlehem because it was the birthplace of Simeo Ondeto), Nazareth Church, St Helena Kariobangi, and Makindani Church Mombasa.
The Link between Legio Maria and Christianity
Legio Maria has borrowed a lot from the Roman Catholic Church and was registered in 1966 as a Christian Church. However, while it has benefited from its origin in the Catholic Legion of Mary lay movement, the new movement has beliefs that are completely foreign to Orthodox Christianity and should, therefore, be considered a new religious movement.
For instance, while Christians believe in salvation through the sacrifice (ransom) of Jesus, Legios go a step further to believe in salvation and grace through the coming and sacrifice of Simeo Ondeto. Legio Maria has a parallel of Virgin Mary the mother of Jesus in the African woman called Mama Maria. Besides, Legio Maria has a new Pentecostal day attributed to the coming of the Holy Spirit at the home of John Baru.
Moreover, while Christians await the second coming of Jesus, Legio Maria talks of Ondeto as the returned Lord and looks forward to meeting him in paradise after their death. And instead of a physical resurrection at the end of time, Legio Maria has immediate “resurrection” after death. Furthermore, with Simeo Ondeto taking the place of Jesus Christ, Legio Maria is completely a new religious movement which is just yet to make a permanent break with Christianity just as Christianity broke away from Judaism.
Nonetheless, the mainstream Legio Maria church is yet to break away from Christianity. And while attempted breaks are already existent, such as the Yie Kuom Chier (Believers in Simeo Ondeto’s Bodily Resurrection) movement that is fostering total worship and praise of Simeo in services instead of Jesus Christ, mainstream Legios still unify Jesus and Ondeto in their worship without giving too much emphasis on either.
But from a far, one can sense the break coming. And even though total break with Christianity will take quite awhile because Legio Maria theologians are still confronting the challenges of such a complete break, the clamor for independence from Christianity is building and the gradual break from Christianity is gaining momentum. According to Samwel of Gwassi, a respected Legio Maria preacher and theologian, the issues that Legio must still confront are numerous and it cannot still make independent theological pronouncements on certain issues because of few talented people at work in those areas. However, Samwel is optimistic that 100 years coming (by year 2115) will find when Legio has made massive strides towards its independence as a world religion.
“Lord Simeo Melkio, you founded this Legion Maria movement as an ark for the glorification of men. Grant that we trust in your promises and work towards the glorification of our souls in eternal life. May we live lives worthy of your believers until we come before your throne in heaven. Amen.”