Catholic Herald staff
In World War II-era Poland, a young man committed to meditating on the rosary decade by decade.
The future St. John Paul II, then Karol Wojtyla, would become the intercessor for the more than 12,000 people who continue to pray in this tradition. They are members of the Living Rosary Apostolate, a ministry founded by five Catholics, including one couple from the Diocese of Superior.
Frank and Trudy Bonack, Three Lakes, are members of St. Theresa Catholic Church and lifelong residents of the area. Eight years ago, they met a couple through a mutual friend, Genny Mamai, and the five formed a prayer group and online Bible study.
The living rosary has roots in Lenten retreat meetings. During the Nazi persecution of priests, a Polish layman, Jan Tyranowski, organized 15-person rosary-praying groups at the request of Salesian priests. Wojtyla was one of 10 members who would later be ordained to the priesthood.
Participants were asked to meditate on a single decade of the rosary every day for a month, and each member was assigned a different decade from which to start. Together, they prayed the entire rosary, the Glorious, Joyful and Sorrowful mysteries, united in their prayer intentions.
Praying the rosary by the decade has much older origins, traceable to before the Venerable Pauline Marie Jaricot sought to re-establish the devotion in post-revolutionary France. In 1826, she founded the Living Rosary Association, which promoted the division of the rosary among 15 people, each of whom could pray one decade daily and still enjoy the graces of saying the full rosary.
In 2003, Fr. Andrew Swietochowski, a native of Poland and personal friend of St. John Paul II, was one of two priests in Mitchell, South Dakota, who asked parishioners to pray the single-decade rosary. As a child, Fr. Swietochowski learned to meditate on each decade for one month before moving on to the next decade, and he taught parishioners to pray their way through the Glorious, Joyful, Sorrowful and Luminous mysteries (added by Pope John Paul II in October 2002) in groups of 20. The devotion spread, and soon 500 people were participating.
The Bonacks were drawn into the fold by Glenda LaFleur and Roger Olsson, friends from the prayer group. When she heard the story and learned the devotion, Trudy’s response was, “We’ve got to get this going. We’ve got to spread this more.”
Thus, the Living Rosary Apostolate was born. Together, the Bonacks, LaFleur, Olsson and Mamai transitioned from participants in the movement to leaders. They formed the apostolate, an organization dedicated to spreading the living rosary.
“I guess we are like the founders of it,” Trudy added. “The five of us.”
The Bonacks began their part of the ministry by contacting priests in Michigan, traveling to parishes and giving 5- to 7-minute presentations before the final blessing at Mass. Anyone interested in registering as a member was assigned a mystery and decade, which they prayed for one month before continuing onto the next decade; after 20 months, participants began again at their original decade. Thus, the rosary was “living” and never ended.
As did their WWII predecessors, apostolate members pray together for specific concerns. Their four primary intentions are their parishes, pro-life endeavors, all religious and clergy and the private petitions of fellow members.
Trudy knows of another organization – the Universal Living Rosary Association – that also advocates praying the rosary by the decade. The Texas-based association has 11 million members and promotes Jaricot’s style of prayer – each person meditates on a single mystery for the duration of his or her life. Their patroness is St. Philomena, who was credited with curing Jaricot’s heart condition.
The apostolate’s mission is a little different, Trudy added. Members pray all the mysteries, which she believes provides insight into how their lives relate to Jesus’, and they consider St. John Paul II their primary intercessor.
The Bonacks have traveled through the Midwest and beyond to share the apostolate’s mission – the other founders are simultaneously spreading the living rosary in Europe and Africa – but word-of-mouth has been the most expedient carrier. According to Trudy, the group has members in 25 states and at least 23 countries.
The apostolate’s protector is Bishop Anders Arborelius of the Diocese of Stockholm, Sweden. As frequently as possible, they enlist priests to share their message, and they ask bishops for blessings.
“We have met so many wonderful people and priests. O my gosh. The priests are just on fire, most of these priests,” Trudy said. “Every priest that we have met is just so in love with the Blessed Virgin and Jesus.”
When Bishop Peter Christensen headed the Diocese of Superior, the Bonacks sought his blessing as well.
“We’ve actually tried to make contact with the bishop many times in the past to tell him all about this,” Frank added.
As it happened, Trudy did get a chance to speak with him briefly while confirmation pictures were being taken. He asked for a letter explaining their work, Frank said, but he was transferred, and they ran out of time.
While they do not need a bishop’s approval to speak in a diocese, “We always want to do things in order,” Frank added.
Locally, the Bonacks have received much support from Fr. Bala Showry, pastor of parishes in Three Lakes and Sugar Camp. About 45 people from their parish participate, plus another 25 from their sister parish.
“Fr. Bala is just on fire for this. It’s wonderful,” added Trudy.
The couple also aims to recruit lay Catholics to spread the word. Christine O’Toole, a rosary-maker from Stetsonville, is among those who’ve joined the effort.
Besides frequent travel, the Bonacks carry out their mission via written, spoken and electronic communications. Sometimes Frank goes on the road alone, and Trudy stays home to receive phone calls and postcards from prospective members.
“It’s a lot of work,” she said. “It’s a full-time job.
“We get wonderful phone calls, wonderful letters,” she continued. “It’s giving people hope.”
Still, she likes to join her husband because she believes in the power of marital unity, particularly in a time when families are struggling.
“It’s just important to see that husband and wife team together,” she added.
Despite the many hours the Bonacks and their fellow founders have devoted to the cause, the couple doesn’t claim any credit for the apostolate’s growth.
“It’s nothing we’re doing,” Trudy said. “It’s all Jesus and Mary. It’s not us. We’re just the instruments.”
“We tell people that there are thousands of people around the world who are praying this devotion together in unity as one family … So every day, thousands of rosaries are being offered up for each others’ personal intentions,” Frank added. “Very, very powerful. It’s quite a beautiful apostolate that we have.”