MOTHER OF PERPETUAL HELP
a few blocks west of St. Mary Major Basilica stands the lofty
Victorian-gothic church of San Alfonso.
Atop a long staircase beside the church is the International
Headquarters of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, the
Redemptorists. The sacred
picture of “Our Mother of Perpetual Help” is fittingly venerated in
this church named after the Marian Doctor of the church St. Alphonsus
Liguori. It was he who wrote
that great spiritual classic, The Glories of Mary.
It is his sons, the Redemptorists, who are the custodians of
the shrine and picture. They
are forever associated with this miraculous image through their apostolic
zeal in fostering reverence and devotion to our Lady of Perpetual Help
throughout the world.
story of this Icon is one of the most unusual and involved stories of the
many Marian shrines and miraculous images throughout the world.
The painting originally came from the island of Crete where it had
been venerated for a number of years.
The earliest written account is from an old document-plaque written
in Latin and Italian which was placed before the Icon in the church of St.
Matthew where it was first venerated in Rome in March of 1499.
two years before that a merchant in Crete, who was returning to Rome took
the picture just before sailing and hid it among his belongings.
Some think he might have taken it to save it from possible
profanation or destruction from marauding Turks, but the document says
that he simply stole it. 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. Against
all odds, the vessel safely reached Italy.
It would appear, as subsequent events will show, that Our Lady
definitely wanted this picture to be venerated in Rome.
after he arrived in Rome, the Cretan merchant fell ill.
As his condition steadily worsened, he sent for his best friend,
another merchant, and told him about the picture.
His dying wish was to have the picture enshrined and properly
reverenced in a church. When
he died, the second merchant told his wife about the icon that had been
confided to him. But the
wife, after seeing the beautiful icon, was unwilling to part with it and
hung it in her home. Our Lady
admonished the merchant in a dream that the picture belonged to a church.
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!”
Lady appeared again to the man and said that he would be punished for not
carrying out her wishes. Soon
thereafter he sickened and died. Our
Lady then appeared to the merchant’s 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 wants this.”
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
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.
She appeared again to the small daughter indicating the exact
location where she wanted the image venerated—midway between the
basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran.
The church which then stood halfway between these basilicas was St.
Matthew’s. 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 picture 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 March 27, 1499. St.
Matthew’s soon became a popular pilgrimage place in Rome and the icon
was venerated there for three hundred years.
1798, French troops occupied Rome. General
Massena, the governor, decided that Rome had too many churches.
Undoubtedly, he had his eyes on the valuable property which they
occupied. He ordered thirty
churches to be closed and destroyed.
St. Matthew’s among them. For
sixty-eight years nothing more was heard of St. Mary of Perpetual Help. People who did give it a passing thought presumed it 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 Augustinian Fathers were ordered to leave St. Matthew’s church they
moved to a nearby church, St. Eusebius, taking the sacred painting of Our
Lady with them. Several years
later they relocated again to the church of Santa Maria Posterula.
Here the icon was eventually moved and placed over a side altar in
a small oratory because the main altar already enshrined a Madonna called
Our Lady of Grace.
the pontificate of Pope Pius IX, the Redemptorists were invited to set up
a mother house in Rome. They
chose a vacant lot on the Via Merulana, without realizing that it once had
been the site of St. Matthew’s church and the shrine of the famous icon.
They built next to their general headquarters the small church of
St. Alphonsus. One day at
recreation, one of the fathers mentioned that he had read an account on
old shrines of Our Lady in Rome and recounted how the icon of Perpetual
Help had been enshrined in St. Matthew’s church that stood close to the
place now occupied by St. Alphonsus’ church.
of the Redemptorists present was a young priest, Michael Marchi, who
became visibly excited. When
the older priest stated that the Perpetual Help picture had been lost,
Father Marchi burst in, “But it is not lost!
It is enshrined in the little oratory of Our Lady in Posterula.
When I was a boy, I often served Mass there and one of the old
brothers, named Augustine Orsetti, often pointed to the picture and used
to say to me, ‘Don’t ever forget it, Michael.
This picture is the one that hung for three hundred years in St.
Matthew’s church. Many,
many miracles were worked for the crowds of people that always came to
pray before it!’ So,” continued Father Marchi, “I feel sure that
this is the very same picture!”
fact that the original icon was not lost and that St. Alphonsus church was
midway between St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran must have caused bedlam
at that community recreation as the Redemptorists put the pieces of the
mystery together. Their own church of St. Alphonsus occupied the very ground on
which the old St. Matthew’s Church was located, and now the lost sacred
icon had been found. They
came to the conclusion that even as Our Lady had chosen this location for
the Perpetual Help image to be enshrined many years before, the Blessed
Mother must have been instrumental in setting the stage for the icon to be
returned to its original site.
Father General of the Redemptorists, Most Rev. Nicholas Mauron, decided to
bring the whole matter to the attention of Pope Pius IX.
The Pope listened attentively and felt sure it was God’s will
that the icon should be gain exposed to public veneration and the logical
site was their church of St. Alphonsus, standing as it did between the
Basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran.
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.
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?
On January 19, 1866, Fathers Marchi and Bresciani brought the
miraculous picture to St. Alphonsus’ church.
Preparations were now made to inaugurate the new public reign of
Our Lady of Perpetual Help. On
April 26th, a great procession was staged in which the picture
was carried throughout the Esquiline region of Rome.
Upon returning to the church, the picture was enthroned over the
high altar, in a resplendent shrine-niche especially constructed for it.
along the route of the procession the people of Rome decorated their
houses with bunting and flowers. Clergy
and religious were proud to march in the procession.
Our Lady, as is to be expected, showed her pleasure at this
outpouring of her children’s love in several authenticated miracles. The procession passed a house where a little boy of four lay
dying. He had been given up
as a hopeless case by the doctors. Hearing
the singing, the child’s grieving mother snatched him in her arms and
hastened to the open window. Looking
out at Our Lady’s picture passing by she called out: “Dear blessed
Mother, either cure my boy or take him to paradise!”
Lady chose the first, and the boy was cured at once.
The next day he toddled along with his mother to St. Alphonsus’
church and stood before the picture.
He waved his little hands to the Madonna and cried “Grazie,
grazie” and threw her some kisses in the loving Italian style.
As the procession was passing another house, another mother called
upon Our Lady of Perpetual Help to aid her eight-year-old daughter who was
completely paralyzed. At once
the girl regained partial use of her limbs and was able to move about a
bit. The next day the mother
brought the child to St. Alphonsus’ church to thank Our Lady and ask if
she would not complete the cure. At
once the child was restored to full health and vigor.
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 picture, 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 and had enshrined a copy of the original in his own private
chapel and was often seen kneeling before it in fervent prayer.
Later one, 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.
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!” 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.
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.
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.
Of all of
the sacred images and shrines of Our Lady related to this book, 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.
is adapted and edited by the editor from two sources: Fr. Barry Bossa’s
manuscript “Mother of Perpetual Help, Rome’ and the booklet by Most
rev. Clement Englert, C.Ss.R. “The Holy Icon of the Mother of Perpetual
OF THE ICON OF PERPETUAL HELP
as Eastern art had a great influence in the West, so the Western influence
was felt in the East, especially in the 12th and 13th
centuries. Art is ever
influenced by popular piety, and at that time there was great emphasis
placed on the human nature of Jesus.
Devotion to Our Lord’s passion and to Our Lady’s dolors
occupied people’s devotions to Christ and His Holy Mother.
Two strong influences in this direction were the great saints of
that time, St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Francis of Assisi.
emphasis was felt largely in the East through the Franciscan friars
evangelizing in the eastern Mediterranean.
One artistic manifestation of it was the emergence of the class of
icons called Cardiotissa, from the Greek word kardia,
meaning heart. Cardiotissa
means “having a heart” or showing sympathy and mercy and compassion.
In them the face of Our Lady appears full of sorrow, yet supremely
dignified in her contemplation of the sufferings of her Son.
His passion is represented by angels holding instruments of His
passion, most often the cross, the lance, the sponge, and the nails.
Icons of this type in Russia were called Strastnaya (from
the verb to suffer).
Our Mother of Perpetual Help icon is of this type.
The angels holding the instruments of the Passion have their hands
covered with a protecting veil as a sign of reverence in handling sacred
objects. In some Eastern
rites, for example the Armenian, the deacon has his hand covered with a
silken veil when he carries the gospel book.
And in the Roman Rite, the priest covers his hands with the humeral
veil when blessing the people at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
Child Jesus is shown with an adult face and a high brow, indicating His
divine Mind of infinite intelligence.
As God, He knew that the angelic apparition was prophetic of His
future passion. Yet in His
human nature as a small child, He is frightened and runs to His Mother for
protection. Our Lady hastily picks Him up and clasps Him to her bosom.
This action is indicated by the fact that the Lord’s right foot
is nervously curled about the left ankle and in such haste that His right
sandal has become loosened and hangs by a single strap.
Further action is indicated by the way the Child Jesus clasps His
Mother’s right hand with both of His, holding tightly to Our Lady’s
Lady is clothed in a dress of dark red which was long reserved in the
Byzantine world for the Empress alone, indicating the Queenship of Mary.
We know that reddish purple was considered the noblest color in the
ancient world. Recall that
Our Lord said “Those who are clothed in purple and fine linen are in the
houses of kings.”
commentators on color claim that bluish purple became the color of penance
in the Western Church (during Lent and Advent) because purple is a
combination of blue and red. The
blue reminds us of heaven, to which we wish to arrive by our penance, and
the red recalls martyrdom, because all penance requires a dying to
oneself, especially mortifying inordinate desire for food and pleasure. The archangels Gabriel and Michael were tunics of purple
since they carry the instruments of the passion and death of Christ.
IN the usual Byzantine style, the figures of the icon are
identified with abbreviations of their names.
In this icon Mary is designated by her chief title to glory: Mother
the picture of the Mother of Perpetual Help is a traditional Byzantine
icon of Our Lady, but modified by the medieval softening of features in
Cardiotissa style, touching the emotion and showing an action story proper
to this art form. Our Lady’s face is of unspeakable majesty and calm and yet
her large eyes, partly closed, express ineffable sorrow and sympathy.
Our Lady is not looking at Jesus, but rather to us, her adopted
children, as if to express compassion for us in our fears and sorrows.
miracles are attributed to Our Mother of Perpetual Help, pictured above
upon the altar of the Church of St. Alphonsus in Rome.
exterior of the Church of St. Alphonsus with the international
headquarters of the Redemptorist Fathers in Rome
The first Our Lady of Perpetual
Help Church in the United States in Roxbury (near Boston),
Massachusetts. It was raised to the honor of a “Papal Basilica” by
Pope Pius XII.
above is based largely on chapter 5 of the excellent booklet, “The Holy
Icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help” by Archimandrite Clement
the book: Marian Shrines of Italy published by Franciscan Friars of
the Immaculate, Our Lady’s Chapel, New Bedford, Massachusetts, 2000)
MOTHER OF PERPETUAL HELP
history of this wonder-working icon begins in the year 1495, when the
image was highly reverenced in a church on the island of Crete.
At that time it was already considered of great age, with some
writers placing its origin at either the thirteenth or fourteenth century.
It was afforded every measure of devotion because of the number of
favors granted to those who prayed before it.
writers agree that the painting came into the possession of a wealthy
merchant in the late fifteenth century.
Some writers claim that the merchant stole the painting.
One claims that he obtained it through honest means, while still
another reports that the merchant and others fled Crete with the painting
when Crete was threatened by the Turks.
Whatever the reason, it is known that the merchant carried the
painting with him to Rome, and that he became seriously ill.
Before he died he requested that the painting be placed in a church
as soon as possible. Contrary
to his request, the painting remained in private hands until 1499, when it
was escorted in a solemn procession to the Church of St. Matthew on the
Esquiline Hill. A tablet
which hung for many years beside the portrait told of this procession and
noted that, “In this manner, the picture of the most glorious Virgin
Mary was enshrined in the church of St. Matthew the Apostle, on the 27th
of March, 1499, in the seventh year of the Pontificate of our most Holy
Father and Lord in Christ, the Lord Pope Alexander VI.”
Blessed Lady seemed eager to make known the virtues of her image by way of
a miracle that was performed during this procession.
A man who had been paralyzed for some time was immediately cured
when the image passed in procession near the house in which he lay.
the next 300 years the image hung in St. Matthew’s church, where
innumerable favors were granted to the people who prayed in its chapel.
With members of the Augustinian Order as its guardian, the image
was known by various names: Our Lady of St. Matthew, Our Lady of
Never-failing Help, Our Lady of Ever-enduring Succor, and finally, Our
Mother of Perpetual Help.
1798 Marshal Berthier, under orders from Napoleon Bonaparte, invaded Rome
and forced Pope Pius VI into exile in France.
One writer reports that Berthier’s successor, Massena, destroyed
almost 30 churches, including the Church of St. Matthew.
Thankfully the priests had had time to remove the miracle-working
image of Our Lady. For
several years it found refuge in the Church of St. Eusebius.
It was then placed in the Church of St. Mary of Posterula, where it
was hung in a side chapel and was all but forgotten for almost 40 years. The image had at least one devoted admirer, an elderly
lay-brother, Augustine Orsini, who was particularly devoted to it and
often told its history to whomever would listen.
One of those who was keenly interested was a young altar boy,
Pope Pius IX in 1853 requested that the Redemptorists establish a house in
Rome, they chose a property on the Via Merula, which was located between
the Lateran and St. Mary Major. While
the church was being built, one of the priests, Fr. Edward Schwindenhammer,
mentioned that he had found a reference which revealed that their new
church was being erected adjacent to the site where once had stood a
church which enshrined a miraculous image of the Blessed Mother.
One of the priests replied that he knew the history of the image
and the exact location where it could be found.
The priest was the former altar boy, Michael Marchi.
ON learning of the portrait’s whereabouts, the Redemptorist
General, Fr. Nicholas Mauron, gained a private audience with the Pope.
The Holy Father listened to his plan to have the portrait returned
to the site where it had been enthroned for almost three centuries.
Pope Pius IX then recalled that as a small boy he had once prayed
before the miraculous image while it was in the Church of St. Matthew.
compliance with the wishes of the Pope, the image was given by the
Augustinians to the Redemptorist Church of St. Alphonsus.
Our Lady’s triumphal return to her chosen site took place on
April 26, 1866. During this translation two noteworthy cures took place: one
was the healing of a boy who was seriously ill with meningitis; the other
miracle involved a young girl who received the use of her paralyzed leg.
has a portrait of the Mother of God been given as much papal attention as
this image received from Pope Pius IX.
Not only did he pray before the image as a boy, but he also
approved its translation. His approbation of the image was acknowledged on June 23,
1867, when the icon was crowned by the Vatican Chapter. The ceremony was conducted by the Latin Patriarch of
Constantinople, whose presiding was indicative of the icon’s popularity
among Easter Rite Christians.
Pius IX also fixed the feast of the image for the Sunday before the feast
of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, and by a decree dated May, 1876,
he approved a special office and Mass for the Congregation of the Most
Holy Redeemer (the Redemptorists). When
confraternities were erected throughout Europe, the Pope combined them in
1876 into one Archconfraternity of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and St.
Alphonsus. The Pope’s name
was the first in the register of the archconfraternity, and he was among
the first to visit the portrait in its new home.
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. They
received from Rome the first copy of the portrait, which had been touched
to the original. Since then
more than 2,300 copies that had been similarly touched to the original
have been sent to other houses of the Order.
United States also takes credit for inaugurating the Tuesday night
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.
study of the portrait is necessary to understand its historical and
artistic qualities. Although its origin is uncertain, it is estimated that the
portrait was painted sometime during the thirteenth or fourteenth century.
It is painted in a flat style characteristic of icons and has a
primitive quality. All the
letters are Greek. The
initials beside the Mother’s crown identify her as “Mother of God.”
Those beside the child, “ICXC,” are abbreviations meaning
“Jesus Christ.” The
smaller letters identify the angel on the left as “St. Michael the
Archangel.” He is depicted
holding the lance and spear with the vessel of vinegar and gall of
Christ’s Passion. The Angel
on the right is identified as “St. Gabriel the Archangel.”
He holds the cross and the nails.
this portrait was painted, halos were not commonly depicted.
For this reason the artist rounded the head and veil of the Mother
to indicate her holiness. The
golden halos and crowns were added much later.
The Madonna in this portrait is out of proportion to the size of
her Son since it was Mary whom the artist wished to emphasize.
of the portrait are many, from the naivete of the artist, who wished to
make certain the identity of each subject was known, to the sandal that
dangles from the foot of the Child. The
expression of the Child Jesus is haunting as He grips the hand of His
Mother while gazing sideward at the instruments of torture held by the
Angels. Above all, the
expression of the Madonna evokes a sadness on the part of the viewer.
With her head gently touching that of her Son, and while surrounded
with the instruments of her Son’s sufferings, she seems to gaze
plaintively—as though seeking compassion from those who look upon her.
miracles attributed to the image extend from the time of its documented
history in 1495 through the years until the present day.
These seem to give ample testimony and proof of the portrait’s
favor with the Mother of God.
miraculous portrait is till enthroned on an altar in the Church of St.
Alphonsus in Rome. The ruins
of the Church of St. Matthew, where the image was reverenced for almost
300 years, are found on the grounds of the Redemptorist monastery.
the book: Miraculous Images of Our Lady by Joan Carroll Cruz,
published by Tan Books & Publishers in Rockford, Illinois, 1993)