The Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Patrick was canonically erected in the Church of Saint Francis Xavier and aggregated to the Prima Primaria Sodality in Rome on 1st May, 1853. So what is the Prima Primaria Sodality?
It is the first Sodality of Our Lady, which was founded at the Collegio Romano of the Society of Jesus in 1563 by Father John Leunis, S.J., for the students of that College. To it were granted various Indulgences and Privileges, beginning in 1577.
The foremost privilege was that of aggregating to itself other Sodalities and of communicating to them its own Indulgences and Privileges. It is not surprising that these first favours of the Sovereign Pontiffs would be followed by more and greater signs of favour. Unsurprising, in the first place, because, in honouring the Sodality, the Popes honoured Our Lady, but unsurprising also because nearly half the Popes since then have been members of either the Prima Primaria itself or of Sodalities aggregated to it. Of those who were members of the Prima Primaria itself we may number Popes Clement X, Clement XI, Blessed Pius IX and Leo XIII.
Indeed, within its first twenty years, the Prima Primaria itself accounts for 7 Cardinals: Franciscus Cardinal Forgách de Ghymes, Archbishop of Esztergom, Mariano, Cardinal Pierbeneditti, Agostino, Cardinal Valeri, Secretary of State, Ottavio, Cardinal Bandini, Bishop of Fermo and uncle of Archbishop Runnuccini, Legate to the Catholic Confederation of Kilkenny, Duke Antonio Cardinal Caetani, Nuncio to Vienna and Madrid, and his brother Duke Bonifazio Cardinal Caetani, and finally Bernard, Cardinal Maciejowski, Archbisho of Cracow.
It is equally unsurprising that, from the fountain of devotion to Our Lady and the favour of the Apostolic See there has flown rivers of grace and sanctity. More than 80 canonised Saints claimed membership of a Sodality of Our Lady aggregated to the Prima Primaria, which is not to count the more than twenty-five million souls who had been formed in holiness by their membership of the Sodalities of Our Lady up to the middle of the last century.
With most Societies and Associations, the founder is of profound significance, not just as an historical figure but as a spiritual leader. St. Ignatius, St. Dominic, St. Francis, Frederick Ozanam, Fr. James Cullen, Frank Duff, are all names that resonate with their spiritual children and even with us. However, the founder of the first Sodality of Our Lady is different. To us, sad, perhaps, to say, the name of Fr. John Leunis, S.J., is simply a name and no more. I will not ask why that is. Each of us can find an equally satisfactory answer. Sufficing to say that to him we Sodalists owe our very identity but to him, to serve Our Lady in obscurity was reward enough.
On 3rd May, 1556, precisely three hundred and three years to the day before the erection of the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Patrick, John Leunis presented himself to St. Ignatius at Rome seeking admission into the Society of Jesus.
The Noviciate Book records as follows: John Leunis, Fleming. Arrived in this house on 18th June, 1556, was examined as an Indifferent and found free from impediment. Declared himself ready for everything proposed to him in the examination. Brought with him a new garment of coarse white stuff, a very old shirt, a black felt hat, already much worn, a pair of old torn shoes of tanned leather and a Little Office of Our Lady.” Underneath, in his own hand, is written: “I, John Leunis, Fleming of the Diocese of Liège, confirm what is said above.”
St. Ignatius died on 31st July of that year and the General Congregation that met in the same house necessitated John’s transfer to the Noviciate at Perugia, where he took up Scholastic duties. On 22nd May, 1557, he wrote to the Secretary of the Society, begging to be sent on the Mission to India, St. Francis Xavier having died at Goa on 3rd December, 1552.
While at Perugia, it seems likely that he came to know the ‘Colleges of Our Lady.’ The members exercised themselves “in the way of real virtues” and, after Communion on days of obligation, made thanksgiving, spent an hour in pious conversation and, having recited vespers together would undertake works of charity “such as visiting the sick, bestowing alms on the needy, giving hospitality to pilgrims, reconciling enemies, spurring on the negligent and promoting the Divine worship.” All were admonished that “they would make progress in the ways of God in proportion as they did violence to their natural inclinations, were filled with love of God and devoted to the Virgin Mary.”
On 4th October, 1557, the Rector at Montepulciano, where St. Robert Bellarmine first met the Jesuits, received notice that Leunis was coming as a teacher “and to study, as he is to go next year perhaps to Flanders or to India, as he desires.” He became procurator of the house for a short time but early in 1559 he was sent to Paris for higher studies. In mid-1560, he accompanied five students sent to Rome and was given a teaching post at the Collegio Romano. By 1561, he is recorded as one of the professors of Grammar and in 1563, when the Prima Primaria was founded, he is recorded as being 27 years of age and 7½ years in the Society and as recently ordained, since he is now referred to as ‘Father’ for the first time.
After this time, he returned to Perugia and, in 1567 he was appointed Prefect of the Boarders’ College in Paris, where he remained for two years and established another Sodality of Our Lady. In 1569, he was at the College of Billom, where he established another Sodality, and was commissioned by St. Francis Borgia, to promote the Sodality at Paris in 1572. In 1580, he was appointed to Turin and he made his solemn profession there in 1583. Devoting himself with great affection to the poor and the sick, he died at Turin on 19th November, 1584, exceptionally beloved and esteemed by the people, a mere 16 days before his Sodality at the Roman College was created “Mother and Head” of all Sodalities of Our Lady throughout the world by Pope Gregory XIII’s Bull Omnipotentis Dei.
Sacchini, in his History of the Society of Jesus states: “In the year on which we are at present engaged  a pious Sodality was begun among the pupils by John Leunis, a Belgian, Master of the lowest class of Rudiments. The lower classes included at that time all those up to Rhetoric, which was then counted among the higher classes. So the members of the lower classes who had a particular desire to unite piety with literary studies began to meet every day, after the rest were dismissed from school, in one of the class rooms. Here they had an altar, which they had beautifully adorned. All engaged in prayer for some time, then one read to the rest from a book of piety. On Sundays and holidays of obligation, they sang Vespers in the regular ecclesiastical way with moderate singing. Such was the rude origin of those Sodalities which, dedicated later on to the Blessed Virgin in particular, and formed according to set rules, have been spread over the whole world to the vast good of youth and others.
In 1561, there were 800 pupils in the Collegio Romano. By 1566, there were 935. In 1566, the class that Fr. Leunis taught contained 80 pupils and the next three higher classes contained 80, 70 and 64 respectively, which is to say, that in 1563, he had taught about 250 of the pupils of the College. Given that the students in that period in the College finished the lower classes as early as 16 years of age, it seems likely that the first members of the Sodality were largely boys between the ages of 9 years and 16 years.
Now, the roll of the Sodality is not perfectly kept in the first few years but “about 70” of the Sodalists had been members in the first year. The initial list contains the names of 51 Sodalists and it is not in alphabetical order. However, a further 28 names are, and these appear to be the first intake of members early in 1564.
The first Prefect was the Marquis Tiberius de Massimi, four times Prefect, in fact. Among the pioneer members were Marian, later Cardinal, Pierbenedetti and Celsus, later Bishop, Paci, both Prefects in 1575. Also in that list were Octavius Accoramboni and Guarnerius Trotti, both future Bishops, and Fabius Fabii, who would fill every post of superiority in the Society of Jesus except the Generalate, as well as Aloysius Croce, John Francis Contardo, Hippolytus Voglia and Hannibal Terzi, all of whom became Jesuits. 13 others went on to become Priests but should be stated that the Collegio Romano was not a College for clerical students. Balthasar Vergari became a physician and the three members of the Pamphili family, like the remaining 48 pioneer Sodalists, remained in the world all their lives.
The then Director, Fr. Prosper Malavolta, wrote to the Secretary of the Society of Jesus on 14th July, 1564: “As I have made mention of the piety of our pupils, I will add that a good many of them, especially of the lower classes, have founded a society and put it under the Blessed Virgin’s patronage. Their rule is to go to Confession every week and to Communion on the first Sunday of each month. They have to attend Mass every day, and to recite the beads or the Office of Our Lady, and after classes are over in the afternoon, they assemble in a Chapel which they have in the College and on their knees meditate for a half hour, then reflect on what they have done that day and what they are to do or meditate next. In the same Chapel, but adorned more magnificently, they sing, on feast days, Mass and Vespers with a pleasing sort of music, hear sermons in our Church, wait on the poor and visit the relics of the Saints to gain the Indulgences.”
“At the beginning about 70, nearly all boys, joined the Sodality. To secure success, under God’s favour, one of the Fathers of the College is at the head of the whole Sodality. They elect a Prefect among the more sensible and older members. His first duty is to choose 12 division heads and give them charge of so many sections of the Sodality, to prevent, as far as possible, any unworthy conduct or negligence in studies.”
We have seen how the Prima Primaria was founded by Fr. Leunis in 1563 from among those students of the Collegio Romano who would have been his pupils, that is, the four lower classes of the College. By 1569, the body of the Sodality had a senior and a junior division, the Prima Primaria and the Secunda Primaria respectively. The decree of the Sodality found in the Rule Book of 1574 states: “For certain reasons touching the service of God, it has been judged expedient and necessary that the two Sodalities and Academies of our College, called the Senior and Junior, should be entirely separated, not as regards the bond of charity, but as touches their government, namely that neither depend on the other in any way; and that the Seniors’ Academy be that of Theology and Philosophy, the Juniors’ that of Humanities and Rhetoric.” The Senior Sodality was to be for those over 18 years of age, the Junior for those under it.
Academies, as the Rule of 1910 states, were study groups for Sodalists: “to practise themselves in scientific, literary, artistic or economic exercises, to help them on in their studies or profession, and to secure for them under the direction of competent persons correct views on questions connected with Catholic faith and morals.”
About the year 1591, the Secunda was divided in two, so great had the numbers become, and the Tertia Primaria was created. In 1593, the age for entry to the Prima was raised to 21 years. The Rules of 1595 (No. 39) state that all members of the Secunda must join the Prima on reaching this age. About 1595, a fourth division took place and so, for a time, the number of Primarias was four.
The Secunda Primaria continued in existence until 1667. It had been formed for a practical purpose, namely the great number of Sodalists in the Prima, who could only meet together with great difficulty. However, with a fall in the numbers joining the Secunda and the creation of the larger Sodality Chapel, the Father General decided to allow the Secunda to “sink out of existence.” It appears that this became an accomplished fact, certainly by 15th May, 1667, when a member of the Tertia Primaria sought admission directly to the Prima. Upon its suppression, or rather, its amalgamation, its property, principally the furnishings of its Chapel and its records, passed, with its membership, to the Prima Primaria.
On 29th May of that year, the Director, Fr. Bernadine Cruvagino, presented the bodies of the Martyrs, Ss. Vitus, Cerealis, Antenodorus and Theodore to the Prima Primaria. The relics were processed solemnly to the Chapel and the anniversary was marked every year to the suppression by the recitation of the Office of the Holy Martyrs and these Saints invoked at every meeting of the Sodality as the heavenly Protectors of the Sodality. On 22nd July, the age for transfer from the Tertia to the Prima Primaria was set at 16 years.
In 1692, a Decree of the Prima Primaria established the custom of inviting the Tertia to the Pangyric on the Feast of the Annunication: “…to show by the coming together of the two Sodalities on that day, that they are one and the same body, though divided into by reason of age.” The Secretary of the Prima records in 1735 that it was the custom on that occasion for the Prefect of the Tertia to sit with the two Assistants on the bench of the Prefect in the Chapel of the Prima Primaria.
When the Society of Jesus was suppressed in 1773, a commission of three Cardinals took charge of the Roman College. They decided to suppress the Tertia Primaria, despite various efforts of the Prima. They ordered the Sodalists of the Tertia to attend the Prima Primaria but only a portion of the property of the Tertia came with them. This was catalogued and each article carefully marked in the hope of a restoration that never came. Thus, the Prima Primaria was left ‘childless’ in the Collegio Romano right up until its own suppression in 1967, the meanwhile the aggregation of ‘extern’ Sodalities gathered pace.