|Devotion to Our Lady||
The History of the Icon
The original picture of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is a product of Byzantine art. It is known to be at least five hundred years old in its present form. Painted in tempera on hard nutwood and only 17 by 21 inches, the picture may date back another 1,000 years to the ancient Madonnas of Constantinople. According to many historians, the picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is a partial copy of the Madonna, a picture that was thought to have been painted by St. Luke the Evangelist. The history of this original icon (the partial copy of St. Luke’s painting), now enshrined in the Redemptorist Church of St. Alphonsus in Rome, can be traced back to the year 1495, when the image, already considered ancient in that time, was enshrined in a church on the island of Crete. For a long time, it was highly venerated on the island of Crete. In the fifteenth century, the island was conquered by the Turks and numerous inhabitants fled away from the island. One of them, a merchant, took the holy picture along with his belongings and went to Rome, Italy.
Disobedience to Our Lady
Shortly after arriving there, the man became grievously ill. Before his death he begged a friend to take the icon to one of the churches in Rome so that it could be publicly venerated. Upon his death, however, the friend’s wife persuaded her husband to allow her to keep the painting in their home, where it remained for several months. One night the Blessed Virgin appeared to the man in a dream, warning him not to keep the picture. Twice she appeared to him with this message, and both times he disregarded her warning. The third time she told him that if he continued to disobey her, he would die a miserable death. This time the man tried to persuade his wife to give up the painting, but she refused. Our Lady appeared to the man again to tell him of his impending death; within a short time, he became sick and died.
Our Lady then appeared to the man’s 6-year-old daughter, telling her to tell her mother, “Holy Mother of Perpetual Help commands you to take her out of your house!” The mother, who had seen a similar vision, was terrified and was about to give the picture to a church, when a neighbor woman persuaded her that it was just a dream and that she should pay no attention to it. That night the neighbor became violently ill, and recognizing her fault, made a solemn promise to the Lady of the picture, whereupon she was immediately cured.
Again the Blessed Virgin appeared to the young girl, this time commanding her to tell her mother to place her picture in a certain church, (San Matteo or St. Matthew’s) in the famous Roman street of Via Merulana, which connects the basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran in Rome. That very day, March 27th, 1499, the picture was taken in solemn procession to the church of St. Matthew the Apostle, where it was placed above the exquisite white-marble altar. The church itself was very small — only about 75 feet long and 35 feet wide. Nevertheless, the shower of miraculous graces began even before the image entered its walls, with a paralyzed man being cured as the procession passed by his house. Crowds flocked to this church, and for nearly three hundred years (until its disappearance during the infamous aftermath of the French Revolution in 1789) many graces were obtained through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin. The picture was then popularly called the Madonna di San Matteo. The church was served for a time by the Hermits of Saint Augustine.
French Revolutionary Destruction in Rome
The history of the image up to this point was written in both Latin and Italian on a large piece of parchment, which for many years was hung next to the icon in St. Matthew’s Church. Copies of the parchment are now kept in the Vatican Library. For the next three hundred years, this humble church was one of the most popular pilgrimage places in Rome because of the miraculous picture.
These Augustinians were still in charge when the French revolutanaries invaded Rome at end end of the 18th century and at the start of the 19th. In 1798, the Church of St. Matthew was levelled to the ground and destroyed by Napoleon’s French revolutionary forces. The Augustinian monks who were caretakers of the church took the picture with them, but for 64 years it was lost to the rest of the world. Eventually even the monks forgot that the image had once been regarded as miraculous. One of the monks, Brother Augustine, who had had a great devotion to the miraculous image as a young religious, later recognized it in the monastery of Santa Maria in Posterula, when he was transferred there in 1840. He would often tell Michael Marchi, one of the altar boys he was training, “Do you see that picture, Michael? It is a very old picture. Know Michael, the Madonna from St. Matthew’s is the one that hangs here in the chapel... Always remember this.” And he did remember, even well after he entered the Redemptorists in 1855.
As a young priest Fr. Michael Marchi lived at the General House of the order, which, along with the Church of St. Alphonsus, was built on the same piece of land on which the Church of St. Matthew once stood. One day, while the community was at recreation, he had the opportunity of sharing this recollection from his youth with his fellow religious. One of the priests mentioned that he had learned that a miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin had once been venerated in the Church of St. Matthew, which once stood there, but that it had been lost many years earlier. At this Fr. Marchi broke in: “But it is not lost! I know that picture — it is called Our Mother of Perpetual Help. I saw it often during the years of 1850 and 1851 when I was a young student. It is in the chapel of the Augustinian monastery of Santa Maria in Posterula.” Father went on to explain what Brother Augustine had often told him about the image and its origin.
The Redemptorists now knew where the miraculous picture could be found, but they did not know about Our Lady’s command. The time had not come for the icon to come out of obscurity. It was several years later, because of a sermon given by a Jesuit priest in one of the churches of Rome, that the icon was finally returned to the place where Our Lady wished it to be honored. On February 7th, 1863, Fr. Francis Blosi gave a sermon about several of the famous pictures enshrined in the churches of Rome. Among them, he described the miraculous painting of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, that was once enshrined in the Church of St. Matthew. He appealed to his listeners that anyone there, who might know its whereabouts, should remind its possessor that the Blessed Virgin had commanded that it be honored between the Basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran.
When the Redemptorists heard this, they went to their superior general, Fr. Nicolas Mauron, begging him to procure the picture, from the Augustinians, for their church, which stood on the site of the old Church of St. Matthew. On December 11, 1865, Fr. Mauron obtained an audience with Pope Pius IX and laid the matter before him. Pope Pius IX, had, as a boy, prayed before the picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in San Matteo (St. Matthew’s), and was very interested in the discovery. But at that time, the ruins of San Matteo were in the grounds of a convent of the Redemptorists—the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer—founded by St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787).
Make Her Known!
After hearing the story, the Pope was convinced that it was God’s Will that the icon again be given public veneration, in the location specified by the Blessed Virgin, and so he decided that the Augustinians would have to relinquish ownership so that the picture could be returned to the location of St. Matthew’s—now in the hands of the Redemptorists. Meanwhile, after Napoleon’s destruction of St. Matthew’s church, the Redemptorists had built a new church near the site of the destroyed St. Matthew’s, and had named it St. Alphonsus (San Alfonso)—in honor of their founder, St. Alphonsus Liguori. According to tradition, this was when Pope Pius IX told the Redemptorist Superior General: “Spare no effort to make Our Lady of Perpetual Help known and venerated, because this Madonna will save the world.”
The Holy Father at once took a piece of paper and wrote a short memorandum ordering the Augustinian Fathers of St. Mary in Posterula to surrender the picture to the Redemptorists, on condition that the Redemptorists supply the Augustinians with another picture of Our Lady or a good copy of the icon of Perpetual Help. The short note read as follows:
“December 11, 1865. The Cardinal prefect will call the Superior of the little community of Santa Maria in Posterula, and will tell him it is Our will that the Image of the most holy Mary, of which this petition treats, be returned between St. John’s and St. Mary Major’s. However, the Superior of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer is obliged to substitute another suitable picture. [sgned] Pope Pius IX.”
The Augustinians were stunned to see the note from the Holy Father, for they had no idea that what a treasure they had had in their possession. The Icon meant much to the Augustinians, but when the two Redemptorists came armed with the Pope’s signed memorandum, what could they do but obey? Although they were sad to see the picture leave their monastery, they rejoiced to see it returned to the place where the Blessed Virgin desired it to be honored. In place of the original picture, they were given an exact replica within a short time.
Day of Great Celebration
On January 19th, 1866, Fathers Marchi and Bresciani brought the miraculous picture to St. Alphonsus’ church. The Redemptorists were thrilled to receive the miraculous image, but wishing to give it a fitting welcome, delayed its installation in the church until it could be cleaned and repaired, and other suitable preparations could be made. Finally, on April 26th, 1866, the solemn procession and the formal enthronement of the icon took place. Preparations were now made to inaugurate the new public reign of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. On April 26th, 1866, a great procession was staged in which the picture was carried throughout the Esquiline region of Rome. Along the procession route the buildings and the roadsides were decorated with flowers, vines and banners. Once again Our Lady showed her pleasure at the love shown her, by her children, by an outpouring of grace, for several miraculous cures took place that day, including that of that of a four-year-old boy and that of an eight-year-old girl. Since that time, many spiritual and temporal favors have been recorded, and the devotion of Our Lady of Perpetual Help has spread in a surprising way.
When the procession returned to the church, the picture was enthroned over the high altar amid much rejoicing, in a resplendent shrine-niche that had been especially constructed for it. For three days the celebration continued, with beautiful High Masses, Benediction, special devotions and sermons each day. As the word of the miracles spread, people came by the hundreds to see the picture and honor the Blessed Virgin. The report of marvelous healings spread rapidly throughout the city of Rome and people came by the hundreds to visit the shrine. Soon the whole area around the altar was filled with abandoned crutches and canes and several whole glass-covered cabinets were filled with gold and silver thanksgiving offerings in the shapes of miniature hearts, arms, legs and other votive offerings. Not even two weeks had passed when Pope Pius IX himself came and spent many long moments praying before the image. “How beautiful she is!” he said, after gazing at the picture.
Later, when the Archconfraternity of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was formed, the Pope insisted that his would be the first name on the list of members. On May 12th, 1867, the Vatican ordered that the icon should be crowned. On June 23rd of that same year, after a Solemn High Mass, amid joyful hymns, two golden, jewel-encrusted crowns were blessed, with one crown being placed on the head of the Blessed Virgin and the other on the head of the Infant Jesus. The icon’s popularity among Eastern Rite Catholics was emphasized by the presence of the Latin Patriarch of Constantinople, who presided at the ceremony.
Pope Leo XIII, the next pontiff, had a copy of the picture on his desk, so that he might see it constantly during his working day. St. Pius X sent a copy of the icon to the Empress of Ethiopia and granted an indulgence of 100 days to anyone who repeated the phrase: “Mother of Perpetual Help, pray for us.”
Pope Benedict XV had the picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help placed immediately over his chair of state, in the throne room. Here it could be seen by all just over his head, as if to say: “Here is your true Queen!”
Spread of Devotion
Back in 1865, Pope Pius IX had told the Redemptorists, in speaking to them of the treasure he had committed to their care: “Spare no effort to make Our Lady of Perpetual Help known and venerated, because this Madonna will save the world.” It seems as though they hardly needed the exhortation. It is only in the past 150 years that devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help has increased dramatically on a universal scale. In 1865, Pope Pius IX entrusted the miraculous icon to the Redemptorists and told them to "Make Her Known Throughout the World." As they have criss-crossed the globe, Redemptorist priests and brothers have erected churches and shrines to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. They have encouraged people to gather each week to pray the novena prayers and then to pray daily in their homes to Mary, Our Mother of Perpetual Help. In the United States, they built the first Our Lady of Perpetual Help church in the Roxbury section of Boston, and it was eventually raised to the honor of a “Papal Basilica” by Pope Pius XII.
Prior to the 1960’s and beyond, many parishes had weekly devotions in honor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Tuesday was a popular day for the devotions. Countless miracles, healings, and conversions are attributed to Mary by those who pray to her as Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Sadly, today, much of that has been lost—with very few parishes continuing along those lines—which is also a loss of many and great spiritual graces the devotion brought.