Simeo Ondeto founded the Legion Maria (Maria Legio/Legio Maria Church of Africa) in the early 1960s. While the movement did not begin solely through the work of Simeo Ondeto, he fashioned it and made it a formidable religious group that could attract followers from different tribes and nations of the earth. Legio Maria was a transformation of the Roman Catholic Church local Legion of Mary movement into a purely new experience of God.
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Here is the background to Legion Maria:
1. Ready Local Environment for Legio Maria
During the late 1950s to the early 1960s, the local Kenyan scene was tense with nationalism and African fight for freedom against the yoke of colonialism. The Mau Mau and other political organizations were struggling to close the horrific Chapter of black oppression. It is during this time that resentment increased in the local churches and Africans wanted to worship God in a way that did not conflict with their traditional beliefs. In fact, there were increased breakaway movements from the local churches as Africans formed their own independent churches.
When Simeo Ondeto appeared in the scene and was recognized immediately as a prophet and great teacher, many people traveled to listen to him. His teachings were full of inspiration and hope for Africans. He delivered the much-needed hope that the yoke of colonialism and oppression would end soon and Africans would be free again to live their own lives without being bullied around.
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Simeo Ondeto also identified with and publicly supported African freedom fighters such as Dedan Kimathi, Jomo Kenyatta, Oginga Odinga, Thomas Mboya and many others. On his part, however, he insisted on religious freedom, inspiring Africans to realize that they too were created by God and were equal with other races in the eyes of God.
2. Trust in Spirits/Superstition
The environment was also ready in terms of African trust in spirits. The local communities believed in the existence of spirits (juogi) and practices such as exorcism and divination were still popular. In fact, in communities where almost all people believed in the existence of witchcraft, spiritual solutions to most of the problems and calamities were quite popular. For instance, the sick prayed to God for help, but also frequently consulted diviners, mediums and magicians for solutions. Since the locals lived in perpetual fear of witches and always looked for solutions for their fears, sickness, poverty, failure or curses from charismatics and those with spiritual power, Simeo Ondeto quickly became popular as a healer, prophet and leader of the masses by providing the spiritual solutions they sought. Indeed, through charismatic people such as Vitalis Okelo Oketa and Gaudencia Aoko, the new movement attracted streams of followers who sought for solutions to their problems.
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3. Desire for Greater Inclusion in Church Service
In the local Roman Catholic Church where Simeo Ondeto was a member and auxilliary catechist, members of the congregations played marginal roles in the church services. The priests and other clergy dominated the Sunday services and interpreted the scriptures to the people, and there was minimal involvement of the lay. On the contrary, the lay Legio Maria movement and the growing numbers of independent churches offered greater room for the lay to participate in church service, attracting more new followers than the established churches. In fact, Maria Ragot of Nyabondo in Nyakach attracted followers even from the local Roman Catholic Church because she not only offered spiritual solutions, but also allowed for greater participation of the lay in church services.
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4. Mama Maria and the Gelling of Myths
The appearance of Maria Regina Owich (Mama Maria) in the scene in the early 1960s was an important factor in the development of Legio Maria. As soon as she appeared, she immediately took up the place of Virgin Mary and was soon adored as the mother of God. But most importantly, almost all the local myths about a wandering woman in the Luo nation were associated with her. For instance, she was said to have directly fallen from heaven in a rainbow with her spiritual son Simeo Ondeto. After coming through the rainbow, she fell on Lake Victoria and lived in the lake. The local narrative about Nyamgondho Kombare was used to explain how this woman left the lake and lived with people. So Legio Maria took it that Mama Maria was the one fished out of the water by Mai, Son of Ombare, who lived in Gwassi, by the shores of Lake Victoria according to the Nyamgondho Kombare myth.
The Blessed Mama Maria (Legion Maria's Virgin Mary)
Mama Maria was then associated with the myth of Simbi Nyaima in Karachuonyo. From the story of Simbi Nyaima in which it is said that an old woman did sink an entire village because she was insulted, beaten, and denied shelter, the Legio Maria movement got a story equivalent to the mythical story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Another story that bolstered her position was that of the wandering woman called Mother of Omolo Nyunja. This story was now popular among the luo and parents used to scare their crying children to silence by threatening them with the appearance of the wandering woman. By combining these local narratives with the Fatima mysteries, the Legio Maria followers created a fantastic and pithy narrative of Virgin Mary, which helped to legitimize and promote the new movement.
5. Testimony of Mama Maria
Mama Maria said that she had visited several Roman Catholic churches before she appeared in Legio Maria. Most importantly, she said that she was the one who appeared to Lucia Santos in Fatima. This claim immediately made her to be linked with Virgin Mary. But most essentially, she stated that she had come to Africa because it was time for Africa to lead the world into the worship of God. This statement was relevant to the African perception of themselves and for their sense of identity. The statement was also relevant in the context of independence and self-rule. Furthermore, when she united with Simeo Melkio Ondeto, the two stated that they had come from heaven and were going to lead Africans into religious independence.
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6. Testimonies of Former Roman Catholics
Timothy Atila, First Pope of Legion Maria
Being initially Catholics, majority of the earliest followers of Baba Simeo Melkio and Mama Maria were Roman Catholics. These Catholics soon became the catechists and priests of Legio Maria. But more importantly, they corroborated what Mama Maria said about her journeys and revelations. The Catholics were slightly familiar with the Fatima secrets and promoted them as prophecies about Legio Maria. Furthermore, former Catholics, such as Timotheo Atila and Susana Ouma testified about their experiences with this woman when they were still Catholics.
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For example, Atila Timotheo testified that the woman appeared to her several times when he was still in school and called him to join the new Legio Maria movement. Susana Ouma testified about her experiences with Baba Simeo Ondeto right from when she was a little girl, while other former Roman Catholics like Peter Oswago, Vitalis Okelo, Romanus On’gombe, Omolo Malo Malo, Abala Rafael, Gaudencia Aoko, and Juma Pesa, all said that they had either had or known of visitations and appearances of Mama Maria. Indeed, all of them trusted and supported her claim to be Virgin Mary.
7. Roman Catholic Opposition to Charismatics
When Legio Maria movement was still part of the Roman Catholic Church lay movement called the Legion of Mary and most of its members, including Mama Maria and Baba Simeo Ondeto attended Sunday services in local Catholic churches, the Roman Catholic Church started expressing opposition towards their charismatic powers. For instance, when Simeo was paid his first salary as a catechist, he used the entire salary to buy a huge crucifix and would go to church with this crucifix, a behavior which was distasteful to the local Catholic priests. On the contrary, the lay Legion Maria movement offered so much room for charismatics and for members to express their charismatic gifts freely. In fact, charismatics such as Maria Ragot and Vitalis Okelo were also former Roman Catholics who sought for more freedom in lay movements.
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The Roman Catholic opposition occurred until after 1966. The persecution of Ondeto and other Legio Maria worshippers were instigated by the local Roman Catholic Church. Ondeto was arrested severally and was detained in a number of occasions. Ondeto was also arrested and beaten by the police and his Legio Maria headquarter at Got Kwer was burnt in 1966. But through these persecutions, the position of Simeo Ondeto as the savior of Africans from spiritual tyranny of Catholic Church was cemented. He was called savior and Messiah because of his suffering.
8. Legio Maria Pentecostal Day
Just like Christians have a Pentecostal day and like the people of Israel were gathered at Mt. Sinai to make a covenant with God, Legio Maria Pentecostal day is the most important event in the foundation and development of the movement. The day had been predicted by Simeo Ondeto and Mama Maria, and so when it came to pass, the position of the two as true people of God was confirmed.
ALSO READ: Events of Legion Maria Pentecostal Day
During the Legio Maria Pentecostal Day, a loud chorus of voices was heard by people who were gathered at John Baru’s home, in Suna Migori. The chorus was of four different but familiar Roman Catholic songs. When the chorus or spiritual voices had sung and entered at John Baru’s home, a wind of spirit filled each person who was there. Over 1000 people at once began to speak in tongues, to jump in the compound, to sing, and to proclaim the names of Simeo Ondeto and Mama Maria.
All the over 1000 people testified that they all saw angels and saints singing and joining with them. The saints and angels were also seen worshipping Ondeto, whom they saw as sitting on a throne. When finally all the noise and cheers were silent, the spirit spoke through one person, Siprianus Ochieng. It is on this day that the spirit declared Simeo Ondeto as God’s son and Mama Maria as Virgin Mary. From that day on, Legio Maria’s progress was directed by the spirit and Simeo Ondeto was worshipped as the son of God.