“Our Lady of Perpetual Help” is the name of a Byzantine icon whose history dates back to the 15th century. It is also a title given to the Blessed Virgin Mary by Pope Pius IX. Although the origin of the icon is uncertain, many believe that it was painted by St. Luke and venerated in Constantinople until that Holy City fell in 1453. Since 1886, it has been entrusted to the care of Redemptorist priests in Rome, where it is enshrined in the Church of St. Alphonsus Liguori. A parchment attached to the painting tells the story of how it came to Rome.
Interior of the Church of St. Alphonsus Liguori – Rome
“According to this record, a merchant from the island of Crete heard stories of many miracles that occurred around a fabulous painting on the island. Wanting this power for himself, he stole the painting and packed it away with his other wares. His travels led him, and the stolen picture, to Rome, where he suddenly fell ill. As he lay dying, he told the whole story of the stolen picture to his friend, a Roman, who was caring for him during his illness. His last request was that the Roman take the picture and have it placed in a church where it would help many people.
The Roman’s wife, however, put the picture in her bedroom. Mary made her opinion of this situation known by appearing to the Roman in a series of visions. Each time, she asked him to stop hoarding the picture and start sharing it with others. And each time, the Roman ignored her. After being rejected by the adults, Mary visited their six-year-old daughter. The daughter announced that Mary had commanded that the picture be placed in a church between St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran – a church called St. Matthew’s. At last, the Roman obeyed, and the picture was placed in the care of the Augustinians on March 27, 1499.
It’s hard to understand why Mary would choose such a place to be honoured. St. Matthew’s was a small church in a barren place far from the center of the city. Yet the rich and the poor, the powerful and the lowly alike, traveled the rough stone path to the church to seek comfort from Our Mother of Perpetual Help and to learn from her humility.
One man, however, was not impressed. In 1798, Napoleon’s general ordered the destruction of thirty churches when the French invaded Rome. St. Matthew’s was one of them. After the soldiers left, those who loved Mary searched the ruins but could find no trace of the picture. There seemed to be no doubt that their beloved picture had perished with the church. Almost half a century later and miles away, an altar boy named Michael Marchi listened to a sacristan’s tales of the past. The sacristan, named Augustine Orsetti, pointed to a picture of Mary in the chapel and said, “See that picture, Michael? It is old, very old. It used to hang in St. Matthew’s Church, where many people came to pray to the Mother of God.” The painting, he said, had been rescued at the last minute, hidden from the marauding general in a humble cart, and transported secretly to this chapel. “Remember that,” the sacristan told him. Michael Marchi remembered.
Years later, Father Michael Marchi, by then a Redemptorist, was in Rome. In 1853, Pope Pius IX commanded the Redemptorists to establish their world headquarters in Rome.
After much searching and prayer, the Redemptorists bought a huge estate. When they inspected their new property, they found a house, barns, stables, gardens and the ruins of an old church. Inquiring into the history of the church, the Redemptorists learned that its name was St. Matthew’s, and that it once had housed a miraculous painting, a painting that had been lost.
Even as they ruefully shook their heads at the loss of such a treasure, Father Michael stunned his associates by telling them that not only did the picture still exist, but he knew where it was.
After three years of prayer, the Redemptorists decided to ask that the picture be brought back to Rome. When they told Pope Pius that it was Mary’s own wish that she be enshrined between St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran – where the Church of St. Alphonsus now stood – the Pope immediately commanded the return of the painting. Flowers and banners greeted Our Mother of Perpetual Help on April 26, 1886, and miracles attended her procession – including the cure of a four-year-old boy suffering from a brain illness. After 75 years, Our Mother of Perpetual Help had finally returned home.”1
The icon shows Our Blessed Mother holding the Christ Child. He has run to her, frightened by the vision of two angels holding the instruments of the Passion: the Cross, the spear, and the sponge. In his hurry, he has lost one of His tiny sandals. Mary is holding Him reassuringly in her arms, yet she is not looking at Him. Instead, she is looking at us – a reminder that we should avoid sin and love her Son. Christ’s little hands are pressed into Mary’s. It is a gesture that reminds us that Jesus placed Himself entirely in Mary’s hands when He lived on earth, that He counted completely on her for protection. Now in Heaven, Christ has entrusted all graces into Mary’s hands, so that she can distribute them to all who seek her help and her intercession.2
Mary is invoked as Our Lady of Perpetual Help because of her great love and protective care for all of us, her children. She helps us in our spiritual needs as well as in our every day needs; no trouble is so small that it escapes her notice. She is a merciful and loving Mother who will not reject anyone – no matter how great our sins might be. She continually intercedes for us and helps reconcile us to her Son. Mary helps us in all of our temptations; she supports us and helps obtain the grace of perseverance in all of our trials. She not only comforts us, but also protects us and assists us at the hour of our death. In that final moment, “As the exalted Queen of Heaven she takes the souls of her faithful servants under her protecting mantle, accompanies them to the judgment seat of her Son, and there she becomes their intercessor.”3 The feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is celebrated on June 27th, and novena devotions are held in her honour each Wednesday throughout the year.
– Sharon van der Sloot
For more information on Our Lady of Perpetual Help, go to http://www.marys-touch.com/history/olhelp.htm.
Prayer to Our Lady of Perpetual Help
Our Lady of Perpetual Help, you have been blessed and favoured by God. You became not only the Mother of the Redeemer but the Mother of the redeemed as well. We come to you today as your loving children. Watch over us and take care of us. As you held the child Jesus in your loving arms, so take us in your arms. Be a mother ready at every moment to help us. For God who is mighty has done great things for you, and His mercy is from age to age on those who love Him. Our greatest fear is that in time of temptation, we may fail to call out to you, and become lost children. Intercede for us, dear Mother, in obtaining pardon for our sins, love for Jesus, final perseverance, and the grace always to call upon you, Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Amen.
Novena Prayer to Our Lady of Perpetual Help
Begin on June 18th
Dear Mother of Perpetual Help, from the Cross Jesus gave you to us for our Mother. You are the kindest, the most loving of all mothers. Look tenderly on us, your children, as we now ask you to help us in all our needs especially this one…
(Pause to recall your petitions)
While you were on earth, dear Mother, you willingly shared in the sufferings of your Son. Strengthened by your faith and confidence in the fatherly love of God, you accepted the mysterious designs of His Will. We, too, have our crosses and trials. Sometimes they almost crush us to the ground. Dearest Mother, share with us your abundant faith and confidence in God. Make us aware that God never ceases to love us, that He answers all our prayers in the way that is best for us. Strengthen our hearts to carry the cross in the footsteps of your Divine Son. Help us to realize that he who shares the Cross of Christ will certainly share His Resurrection.
Dearest Mother, as we worry about our own problems let us not forget the needs of others. You always love others so much; help us to do the same. While praying for our own intentions and for all the intentions of all who pray this Novena, we earnestly ask you, our Mother, to help us comfort the sick and the dying, give hope to the poor and unemployed, heal the broken-hearted, lighten the burden of the oppressed, teach justice to their oppressors and bring back to God all those who have offended Him. Dearest Mother, help us to avoid sin, which separates us from our heavenly Father and from one another. Full of trust in you, we place ourselves under the mantle of your maternal protection and confidently hope for your powerful help. Amen.4
1 St. Alphonsus Parish, “History of Our Lady of Perpetual Help,” adopted from Liguori Publications; available from http://www.stalsmn.org/parish-Worship-Phhist.htm; Internet; accessed 18 June 2013.
2 Cf. Ibid.
3 Rev. Lawrence G. Lovasik, S.V.D., Treasury of Novenas (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1986), 151.
4 The National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, “Novena Prayer,” available from http://baclaranovena.org/About_the Shrine/Novena Prayers and Song.html; Internet; accessed 18 June 2013.