Our Mother of Perpetual Help
In 1498, the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help was in a church on the island of Crete, in Greece. The icon had been there for some time and was known to be miraculous. One day a merchant from Crete stole the icon of Our Lady. Some think he might have taken it to save it from possible profanation or destruction from marauding Turks, but history states that he simply stole it. He hid the icon among his things, boarded a ship and set out to sea.
While at sea, a life-threatening storm arose and everyone on board thought their end was near. The sailors, not knowing of the presence of the concealed icon on board, prayed loudly to Our Lady for help. Their prayers were heard. Against all odds, they were saved from shipwreck and the vessel safely reached Italy. It would appear, as subsequent events will show, that Our Lady definitely wanted this icon to be venerated in Rome.
Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Rome
A year later, the Cretan merchant went to Rome with the icon. There he acquired a disease and became terribly sick. He asked his Roman friend, another merchant, to take care of him. The Cretan merchant grew worse and realized that he would soon die. He called on his Roman friend, and with tears in his eyes, begged his friend to do him one last favor. His dying wish was to have the icon enshrined and properly reverenced in a church. When the Roman promised to do so, the weeping merchant continued, “Some time ago I stole a beautiful, miraculous icon of Our Lady from a church in Crete! You will find it with my belongings. I beg you, please place it in some church where the people will give it much honor.”
In time the merchant died. The Roman found the icon and showed it to his wife. She wanted to keep the icon, so she put it in her bedroom. One day, the Blessed Virgin appeared to the Roman in a dream saying, “Do not keep this icon, but put it in some more honorable place.” When he related this to his wife, she became angry and said: “You should not be so superstitious as to believe in a some dream or imaginary vision! After all, I am a good Christian and many Christians have pictures of Our Lady in their homes. It does not have to be in a Church!
Some time later Our Lady appeared again to the man, begging him a second time not to keep the picture, but to place it in a more honorable place. Our Lady said that he would be punished for not carrying out her wishes. Again, he did not do as Our Lady asked him to do. Soon thereafter he sickened and died.
Our Lady then appeared to the Roman merchant’s six year-old daughter asking that the icon be exposed for popular veneration in a church. She told the girl: “Tell your mother and your grandfather that St. Mary of Perpetual Help commands you to take her out of the house!” The mother, now quite frightened, confided the story to her neighbor who scoffed at the whole account. She offered to take the icon for a while, but she too became deathly ill. She needed nothing more to accede to the Madonna’s wishes, and promised to see them fulfilled. Thereupon she was restored to health.
Our Lady of Perpetual Help was still not finished. Finally, after many delays, the Virgin Mary appeared to the little girl a second time indicating the exact location where she wanted the icon venerated, “Our Lady of Perpetual Help commands you to tell your mother, to place my icon between St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran, in the church dedicated to St. Matthew the Apostle!” The wife of the merchant went at once to the Augustinian friars who served that church and told her story.
The friars came to see the icon and were so impressed with its beauty that they made plans at once for a solemn transferal to and exposition in their church. And so it happened on 27 March 1499, the icon was taken to the church of St. Matthew the Apostle on the Esquiline Hill, one of the seven hills in Rome. It was placed between two beautifully carved columns of black Carra marble above a splendid white-marble altar.
For three centuries from 1499 until 1798, the church of St. Matthew in Rome was one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in Rome, because of the miraculous icon. Many pilgrims who came to the shrine: saints and sinners, cardinals, bishops and priests, kings and princes, rich and poor. They came to see the miraculous icon of Our Lady and pray before it.
But this was not to last. The French armies led by Napoleon Bonaparte, invaded the Papal States in 1796. Rome was in danger of being attacked and taken over by the enemies. By 17 February 1797, the Pope was forced to sign the Peace Treaty of Tolintino. The Holy Father did not want to do this but he had to, in order to protect the Papal States from the enemy.
A year after signing the Treaty, the French General Berthier marched into Rome and proclaimed the “Free Roman Republic.” He lied. There was no freedom. Then, shortly after, General Berthier was replaced by the French General Massena. On 3 June 1798 General Massena commanded that thirty churches be destroyed. He cried out, “There are too many churches in Rome. The church land can be used for better things!” He ordered thirty churches to be closed and destroyed. St. Matthew’s among them. He wanted to make the people realize that worse things would happen if they did not obey his every command.
The terrified Romans prayed to Our Lady and she helped them in all their troubles. For sixty-eight years nothing more was heard of St. Mary of Perpetual Help. People who did give it a passing thought presumed the icon had been destroyed along with St. Matthew’s church. The series of events that resulted in the restoration of the icon to public veneration is so completely beyond chance that it had to be Our Lady who wrote the scenario making it happen.
The Restoration of Our Mother
of Perpetual Help
Because the Augustinian Monastery was destroyed, the monks were allowed to return to Ireland, their homeland. A few returned but most of them stayed in Rome. Some went to St. Augustine’s, the main church and monastery of the Augustinian Fathers. The rest of the monks took the miraculous icon of Mary and moved to St. Eusebio’s, a poor old church with a huge monastery. St. Eusebio’s was in terrible condition and needed much cleaning and repairing.
The icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help stayed at St. Eusebio’s for twenty years. Since the place was too large for the few monks who lived there, in 1819, the Pope asked the Jesuits to take over St. Eusebio’s. The Holy Father gave the Augustinian’s the small church and monastery of Santa Maria, in Posterula, on the other side of the city. The monks took the miraculous icon of Mary with them, and gave it a place of honor over a side altar in a small oratory because the main altar already enshrined a Madonna called Our Lady of Grace.
In 1788, Augustine Orsetti joined the Augustinian Order at St. Matthew’s and became Br. Augustine. As a young religious, he used to spend much of his free time praying before the miraculous icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. He studied and memorized the history of the picture.
When St. Matthew’s was destroyed, Br. Augustine was transferred to St. Augustine’s. Then in 1840, he was transferred to the Monastery of Santa Maria in Posterula. When he arrived at Santa Maria he went to the community chapel. There he saw the beautiful miraculous icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. It was just as he remembered it, when he had been at St. Matthew’s.
Br. Augustine looked after the sacristy at Santa Maria. He cleaned the chapel and its holy images. He also trained altar boys and taught them how to serve Mass. Michael Marchi, one of the altar boys, became a good friend of Br. Augustine. The Brother often spoke to him about the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help saying, “Do you see that icon, Michael? It is very old. Know Michael, the Madonna from St. Matthew's is the one that hangs here in the chapel. I am not trying to deceive you. It certainly is. Have you understood, Michael? It was miraculously saved from destruction. Many people used to come and pray before this miraculous icon. Always remember what I am telling you.”
In 1854, the Redemptorists, founded by St. Alphonsus Liguori, bought a piece of land in Rome, called the Villa Caserta, on the Esquiline Hill. Also included with their property, was the old site of the church of St. Matthew, where the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help had been given great honor. In 1855, Michael Marchi joined the Redemptorist Monastery. On 25 March 1857, he made the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. He continued his studies and was ordained on 2 October 1859.
One day when the community was at recreation, one priest mentioned that he had read some ancient books about a miraculous icon of Our Lady and that it had been venerated in the old church of St. Matthew. Fr. Michael Marchi spoke up, “I know about the miraculous icon of Our Lady. Its name is Our Mother of Perpetual Help, and it can be found in the chapel of the Augustinian Fathers at their monastery of Santa Maria in Posterula. I saw it often during the years of 1850 and 1851 when I was a young college student and served Mass in their chapel.
On 7 February 1863, Fr. Francis Blosi, a Jesuit priest gave a sermon about the famous icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. He described the icon of Our Lady and said, “I hope that someone in this crowd of faithful listening to me today knows where this icon is! If so, please tell that person who has kept the icon hidden for seventy years that the Mother of God has commanded that this icon be placed between the Basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran. Hopefully the person will repent of his thoughtless act and will have the icon placed on the Esquiline Hill once again, so that all the faithful may honor it.”
Soon the Redemptorists at St. Alphonsus heard about Fr. Blosi's sermon. Knowing that their church was located close to the site of the old St. Matthew’s Church they hurried to bring the news to Fr. Mauron, Superior General of the Redemptorists. Fr. Mauron was in no hurry. He prayed for almost three years to know the Holy Will of God in this important matter.
Bl. Pope Pius IX
& Our Mother of Perpetual Help
Then on 11 December 1865, Fr. Mauron and Fr. Michael Marchi, obtained an audience with Blessed Pope Pius IX. Eagerly, the two priests gave the Pope a detailed story of the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. They pointed out that Our Lady had asked that the icon be placed in a church between the Basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran. After listening to the story, the Pope asked if they had put this into writing. Fr. Mauron at once produced a document, which Fr. Marchi had written and signed under oath.
The Holy Father had a great love for the Virgin Mary. He immediately took the piece of paper on which Fr. Marchi had written his account. With his own hand, Pope Pius IX wrote a statement on the backside of the document: “11 December 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. – Pope Pius IX.”
The Pope had spoken and the case was closed. The icon of Mother of Perpetual Help would soon be home after nearly seventy-five years in exile. According to tradition, this was when Pope Pius IX told the Superior General: “Make Her known throughout the world!”
In the early morning of 19 January 1866, Fr. Michael Marchi and Ernest Bresciani hurried across the city of Rome to Santa Maria in Posterula to get the holy icon. The Augustinians were sad to see their beloved Madonna go but they rejoiced that Our Lady would once again be honored at the place where she desired. The Augustinian monks wanted an exact copy made from the original. This was given to them shortly afterward.
The Redemptorists at St. Alphonsus waited for Our Lady of Perpetual Help to arrive. They were so happy when the icon arrived. But they found that although the colors were still bright, there were many big nail holes in the picture. These were made when the picture was hung and for other reasons. A talented Polish artist, who lived in Rome, was asked to restore the image. The icon was finished toward the close of April. Plans were made for a solemn procession. The people of the neighborhood decorated their houses for the feast. Loads of flowers and vines hung from windows. Banners and flags draped the walls and the roofs of the houses.
On 26 April 1866, the Feast of Our Lady of Good Counsel, a great procession set out from the monastery of St. Alphonsus. During the procession many miraculous events were reported. A poor mother sat by the bed of her 4 year-old boy, who was at the point of death from a brain illness. He had suffered from a constant fever for the last three weeks. The mother heard the procession coming closer. Suddenly she took the boy in her arms and held him at the open window. When the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help passed by she cried out, “O good Mother, either cure my child or take him with you to Paradise!” Within a few days the boy was totally cured. He went with his mother to the church of St. Alphonsus to light a candle of thanksgiving at the shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.
In another house a little eight year old girl, lay crippled and helpless. She had been this way since the age of four. As the procession passed and the miraculous icon of Our Lady came near, the child’s mother offered her little daughter to the Blessed Virgin. Suddenly the child felt a great change coming over her. She partly recovered the use of her arms and legs. On seeing this, the mother became very confident that Our Lady was helping her little girl. The next day she took the child to the Church of St. Alphonsus and placed her in front of the miraculous icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Looking up at the picture she prayed, “Now, O Mary, finish the work which you have begun.” She had just finished the words and suddenly the little girl stood up on her feet. She was perfectly cured!
When the icon at last reached the Church of St. Alphonsus, it was placed on the high altar. The church was decorated and the altar was loaded with candles and huge amounts of flowers. A solemn prayer of thanksgiving was then sung and the Bishop had Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Then Mary's homecoming was celebrated for three days.
Each morning Mass was celebrated before the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help by a cardinal. After the praying the Litany of Our Lady, a beautiful sermon, and Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament was given by a bishop. Similar services were held each evening. The Holy Father granted many special indulgences to all who attended these devotions. Father Bernard Bernie, one of the greatest Redemptorist preachers in Italy, preached the sermons for three days. His words of wisdom pierced the hearts of his listeners. At least twelve hundred persons received Communion during this time at the shrine of Our Lady.
On 5 May 1866, the Pope made a personal visit to the shrine to see the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help with his own eyes. After he had prayed for a time before the Blessed Sacrament and at the shrine of Our Lady, he entered the sanctuary and climbed the steps of the high altar to study the icon more closely. Later, Blessed Pope Pius IX questioned Fr. Mauron about the history and devotion given to this picture.
Soon afterward, a new gothic styled, marble altar was set up at St. Alphonsus. A space in the upper center of the altar was decorated with brilliant, golden trim. When all was completed, Mary’s icon was lovingly put in place. The first Mass was celebrated at the new shrine altar on 19 March 1871, the Feast of St. Joseph. The icon has remained there until this day.
Devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help spread rapidly. Hardly a year had passed when on 12 May 1867 the Vatican gave the order for the icon to be crowned. The coronation date was fixed. On Sunday, 23 June 1867, the Church of St. Alphonsus was filled up for the solemn Mass and coronation ceremony. After the Mass, while hymns were being sung, the Archbishop blessed two golden crowns with precious jewels. He placed one crown upon Mary’s head, the other upon the head of the Child Jesus, and the icon was put back in its place and everyone sang a joyful hymn of praise.
The next day, the icon was carried through the streets in procession. Each evening fireworks and thunderous cannons were set off to echo the praises of Mary. At the close of the week’s celebration the name of Mary was spelled in brilliant light against the blue background of the sky. The people who had taken part in the ceremonies prayed with one voice, “Long live Mary. Long live devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help.”
As to be expected, the report of those marvelous healings spread rapidly throughout the city 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.
Scarcely two weeks after the solemn exposition of the icon, Bl. Pope Pius IX himself came to visit the shrine. He stood quietly before it for a long time and then exclaimed: “How beautiful she is!” He was given a copy of the original, had it enshrined in his own private chapel, and he was often seen kneeling before it in fervent prayer. Later on, when the Archconfraternity of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was formed, he blessed the project and insisted that his name head the list of the worldwide membership.
Pope Leo XIII, the next pontiff, had a copy of the icon 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 images 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!” Many famous cardinals (like Mercier of Belgium) and bishops (like von Keppler of Germany) declared the Mother of Perpetual Help their own special patroness.
Rapidly the Madonna became known outside of Rome. Bl. Pope Pius IX told the Redemptorists, in speaking to them of the treasure he had committed to their care, “Make her known!” It seems as though they hardly needed the exhortation.
Our Mother of Perpetual Help
in the United States of America
Devotion to this wonder-working icon spread rapidly to the United States. In 1870, when the Redemptorists were asked to establish a mission church in Roxbury, not far from Boston, they dedicated their small church to the Mother of Perpetual Help. It was eventually raised to the honor of a “Papal Basilica” by Ven. Pope Pius XII. They received from Rome the first copy of the portrait, which had been touched to the original. Since then thousands of copies that had been similarly touched to the original have been sent to other houses of the Order.
The United States also takes credit for inaugurating the Tuesday devotions to the Mother of Perpetual Help. Devotions that first took place at St. Alphonsus (Rock) Church in St. Louis, Missouri, on Tuesday nights, were quickly adopted by churches of the Order and by other churches, and took the form of a perpetual novena, a practice that is now observed worldwide.
The Latest Restoration of the Icon
In 1990, the image of Our Mother of Perpetual Help was taken down above the Main altar to satisfy the many requests for new photographs of the icon. It was then that the serious state of deterioration of the image was discovered; the wood, as well as the paint, had suffered from environmental changes and prior attempts at restoration. The General Government of the Redemptorists decided to contract the services of the Vatican Museum to bring about a general restoration of the icon.
The first part of the restoration consisted of a series of x-rays, infra-red images, and analysis of the paint and other tests. It was determined that the wood of the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help could safely be dated from between 1325-1480.
The second stage of the restoration involved filling cracks and perforations in the wood, cleaning the paint and retouching affected sections, etc. This work was limited to the absolute minimum because all restorative work, somewhat like surgery, always provokes some trauma. An artistic analysis concluded that the pigmentation of the paint after the 17th century; this would explain why the icon offers a synthesis of oriental and occidental elements, especially in its facial aspects.
Of all of the sacred images and shrines of Our Lady, one can say without exaggeration that through the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help she was indeed established her domain throughout the whole world.
Our Mother of Perpetual Help, pray for us!
Sources * compiled & adapted: sspx.ca, marys-touch.com