Today is officially known as the Feast of Our Lady of Prompt Succor. Yet this title for Mary, our Mother, may not resonate with many Catholics these days. If it seems a bit antiquated or stilted, it’s probably because we don’t use the word ‘succor’ very often anymore. Some of us might not even know what it means! But I don’t think our Blessed Mother would want us to get bogged down in language or allow anything to stand in the way of us calling on her in times of need. For that is what prompt succor actually means – “quick help” – and who couldn’t use a little more of that? In our increasingly fast-paced world, she is the perfect intercessor.
A Quick History
The devotion to Mary, Mother of God, as Our Lady of Prompt Succor has an interesting history that can be traced back to the faith of a French nun of the Ursuline Order. The Ursulines had arrived in New Orleans in 1727 to establish a convent and school for girls. But, in 1800, during the French Revolution, the fate of Louisiana was uncertain and this parcel of land bounced alternatively between English, French, and American hands. It was a tumultuous time and even the pope himself, Pius VII, had been put under arrest in Rome by Napoleon. The nuns at the Ursuline Convent and Academy were afraid of what might also happen to them and many fled to Cuba. Only seven of the sisters remained at the convent and, for a time, their fate was uncertain as well.
When Louisiana finally passed into the control of the United States, the sisters received assurance from President Thomas Jefferson that the new government would honour their property rights. It was a huge relief, but there were other problems. They were short of staff and the work was overwhelming. Sister St. Andre Madier appealed to a cousin back in France, Mother St. Michel Gensoul, asking her to come help the struggling Ursulines.
The Revolution had already forced Mother St. Michel to leave her home at the monastery of Pont-Saint-Esprit, and nearly every religious community felt the hand of Napoleon upon them. Yet she was a resourceful and faith-filled woman, and despite the pressures and constraints had already established a boarding school in Montpellier, her place of exile. But there was much work to do. How could she possibly leave now and go to America? Nevertheless, Mother St. Michel realized the important work that was happening in the new land and feared they might not succeed without her help.
She finally made the decision to go, but first needed the approval of Bishop Fournier of Montpellier. Not surprisingly, he refused her request. From his perspective, he simply couldn’t afford to lose another nun; so many had died during the revolution or fled. Only on condition of the pope’s blessing would he allow her to leave. However, since the pope was under house arrest, it would be almost impossible to reach him.
Mother St. Michel’s prospects didn’t look promising. She sent a letter nonetheless and awaited a reply. A few days later, while praying before a statue of the Blessed Mother, she was inspired to ask, “O Most Holy Virgin Mary, if you obtain a prompt and favorable answer to my letter, I promise to have you honored in New Orleans under the title of ‘Our Lady of Prompt Succor’.”
Amazingly, a response from the Holy See arrived a short time later – in record time, given the circumstances! Mother Mary was obviously pleased with her new title for the pope had given his blessing. As promised, Mother St. Michel had the statue made – carved out of wood and covered with 24-karat gold leaf – and brought it with her when she and her companions arrived in New Orleans in 1810.
Since that time, the devotion has grown, spreading throughout the United States and beyond. Many favours have been obtained – and even miracles worked – as a result of Our Lady’s intercession. The most famous ones are well documented: First, a devastating fire swept through the city of New Orleans, threatening to consume the convent and its inhabitants. The nuns and students ultimately fled, but not without first praying fervently, “Our Lady, unless you hasten to save us we are lost!” Within minutes the wind turned back on itself, the fire lost its momentum and burned out, leaving the remainder of the city untouched.
The other miraculous intervention was some 5 years later, during the Battle of New Orleans. General Andrew Jackson and his troops were seemingly out-matched: 6,000 ill-prepared men versus 15,000 strong, well-trained British soldiers. As one author described it:
“The night of January 7 the Ursuline sisters went before the Blessed Sacrament and stayed there through the night. Others joined them in the chapel, praying and weeping before the holy statue. On the morning of January 8 the vicar general offered Mass at the main altar, above which the statue had been placed. The prayers were said in special earnest, for the thundering of cannons had been heard by all in the chapel. At Communion time–at the very moment of the Eucharist–a courier rushed into the chapel to inform all present that the British had been miraculously defeated. They had been confused by a fog and had wandered into a swamp, in full view of the waiting Americans, who fired upon them from unseen positions.”1
Since the day of that miraculous victory, the Ursulines and the archbishop of New Orleans have honoured Our Lady of Prompt Succor, Louisiana’s patroness, every year with a Mass of Thanksgiving. It’s celebrated on January 8th, and last year marked its 200th anniversary.2
The Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor naturally resides in New Orleans, the city that inspired its image. Along with the convent and school, it’s also under the care of the Ursulines. Whenever a hurricane threatens, local Catholics know to promptly call on Our Lady’s protection. Today, the large church houses two miraculous statues: the original one commissioned by Mother St. Michel and another, considerably newer version that is still over a century old. Yet both images possess some common features: “The Blessed Mother is always in motion, while the Christ child is usually portrayed with his right elbow resting on Mary’s shoulder and his left hand holding a cross-topped orb – representing Christ’s tender care for humankind. Although Our Lady of Prompt Succor and her baby often wear crowns, the crowns are never part of the statue itself, but rather outside accessories that can be rotated on and off the statue’s heads.”3 The fact that they are looking in opposite directions suggests their providential care – the fact that nothing escapes their notice.
Our Blessed Mother – Our Lady of Prompt Succor – has been given to us by God, not only for the people of New Orleans, but for all people. As it turns out, succor has its roots in the Latin succurrere and means “to run to the aid of.” We can imagine that just as Mary was there for the boy Jesus, running to His side when He fell or got hurt, our Blessed Mother wants to be there for us, too. She is always ready to pray and intercede for us, never too busy or uninterested in our problems or difficulties, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem to be. She is just waiting for us to call on her and promises to come quickly!
– Kelley Holy
A Prayer to Our Lady of Prompt Succour4
O Mary, Mother of God, amidst the trials and tribulations of the world, watch over and protect us. Be to us, and to all people of good will, truly Our Lady of Prompt Succour. Come to our aid quickly and in all our necessities, that in this fleeting life you may be our guide and help, and obtain for us that which we need most in this particular moment (here ask the favour you desire). As you once interceded and saved a great city from ravaging flames, save us from temptation and the eternal fires of Hell. As you once protected a great country from an invading army, have pity on us and obtain for us protection from the storms of our lives, whatever they may be. Be to us truly Our Lady of Prompt Succour, now and especially at the hour of our death.
Our Lady of Prompt Succor, Hasten to Help Us!
1 “Shrine in New Orleans has what may be Nation’s oldest image of Blessed Virgin”; available from http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/prayers/succor.html; Internet; accessed 5 January 2016.
2 In 1851, Pope Pius IX approved and authorized the devotion for the Universal Church.
3 Beth Donze, “OLPS statue begins long journey home to Ursuline” (July 30, 2013), Clarion Herald [online newspaper]; available from
http://clarionherald.info/clarion/index.php/news/archdiocesan-general-news/2425-olps-statue-begins-long-journey-home-to-ursuline; Internet; accessed 6 January 2016.
4 The author’s adaptation of a more traditional prayer…
For more information on the shrine and its history, check out