WASHINGTON (CNS) — Millions of baby-boomer Catholics grew up hearing the phrase “Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima” in their churches and Catholic schools.
Like any army, the Blue Army has its divisions. According to Deacon Bob Ellis, national coordinator of the World Apostolate of Fatima, the original thought of Father Harold Colgan, who founded the Blue Army in 1947, was that the Soviet Union had its Red Army, and it would be overcome by the Blue Army of Fatima — promoting the Marian apparitions in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917 and the Blessed Mother’s messages to the three children to whom she appeared.
Mary urged the conversion of sinners, called for devotion to herself under the title of her Immaculate Heart and asked that the people of Russia be consecrated to her under the title.
In another effort to squelch the Soviet threat in a post-World War II world, the Communist Party had its cells, but the Blue Army had its prayer cells — and once a cell reached eight in number, Deacon Ellis said, it would split and become two cells.
The splitting faded away. And the phrase “Blue Army” is also de-emphasized, although not pushed aside entirely, by the World Apostolate of Fatima, Deacon Ellis told Catholic News Service in an April 4 telephone interview from Rockland, Wisconsin, a suburb of Green Bay.
But the prayer cells continue. Deacon Ellis said 140,000 Americans are known to be in prayer cells according to the apostolate’s headquarters in Washington, New Jersey, but the names and contact information of people in prayer cells were not maintained until relatively recently. “There may be many, many more people involved in cells beyond the ones we know,” Deacon Ellis said.
For those who participate in prayer cells today, the apostolate is as important as it ever was, if not more so.
“It’s more important than ever before. It’s more important than when the apparitions were first occurring in 1917,” said Jeanne Kachuk Hall, former president of the cell at St. Jude Parish in Joliet, Illinois. “Nowadays, when you see so much going on with crime and wars and a falling away from the traditional values, we need to look at ourselves to really see what’s worthwhile in our lives and make room for that.”
Hall first joined the Blue Army in 1983 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and set about to reviving it in Joliet after she moved there in 1999.
Linda Vetter, who heads a six-member prayer cell in Harvey, North Dakota, told CNS that the group meets monthly. “We do the prayer cell format” suggested by the World Apostolate of Fatima,” she explained. “We do the mysteries out of the (apostolate’s) spiritual guide and then we alternate them. And then for our meditations, we use a spiritual guide. We’re going through the Catechism of the Catholic Church; we’re going through each chapter of that at each meeting until we’re though with that.”
The cell is winding up a 54-day novena the group does known as the “Nineveh 90” for the intentions and holiness of the Catholic Church, Vetter said, then planned on doing a “33 Days to Morning Glory” novena that would take the group to May 13, the 100th anniversary of the start of the apparitions.
Mary appeared six times to the three children in a field near Fatima, Portugal, north of Lisbon. She first appeared to them May 13, 1917, as they pastured their sheep. Her last appearance to the children was Oct. 13, 1917.
What makes the Fatima apparitions relevant a century later? “The understanding I had is, when this happened, Satan had asked to have control for 100 years. And Mary gave it to him,” Vetter said. “May 13 is the end of the 100 years. Are people going to turn around? The way the world is going it can’t get any worse than it already is. … Something has to change. It can’t continue the way it already is.”
Gloria Belair and Donna Le, senior citizens and sisters in Mulhall, Oklahoma, an hour north of Oklahoma City, had what Belair called “a kind of devotion to Our Lady of Fatima” as children. Belair maintained her faith, but “I left the church in my young adulthood” for 30 years, said Le, 65. She returned to the faith about 10 years ago.
Now Belair, 71, and Le are having a spiritual retreat house built on their 90-acre property, and are hopeful it will be finished in time for the centenary.
They’ve bucked two trends common in the Blue Army. One is that they successfully split off a new cell, which is now larger than their current one. The other has to do with age; while most participants in prayer cells are seniors, they count a couple in their 40s or 50s as well as a college student in her 20s as cell members. “We hope to spread the word about the World Apostolate throughout the archdiocese,” Belair said. “It’s in God’s hands and Mother Mary’s hands to assist us with our legwork.”
Stephanie Rowe leads a burgeoning cell with three dozen members — 25 of them active — at Our Lady of the Desert Church in Apple Valley, California, in the Diocese of San Bernardino. Theirs is one of three cells in the High Desert region of California, with a fourth in nearby Barstow. “Usually it’s a full house,” Rowe said of their first-Saturday cell gatherings.
“I’ve always had a devotion to Mother Mary since childhood,” Rowe added. “I had the inspiration — because our church was named after Our Lady and dedicated to her — all I knew was the rosary and I thought that was pitiful. I had an inspiration of bringing the Virgin’s statue to parishioner’s home for a novena. I asked the pastor and he said you can, but you can’t do it on your own, you have to go through the Blue Army.”
When the statue came to the parishioner’s home, “I saw everyone in their Blue Army jackets,” Rowe recalled. “I thought, ‘This is a group of people that have a devotion to the Blessed Mother.'” That was just six years ago.
“The World Apostolate of Fatima has over 20 million members, in 100 countries around the world,” Hall said “There are some cases where the young people are taking over. I like to see more of that done in the United States, but us older folks have to do our part to encourage them. We can’t expect our young people to do it by themselves.”