Our Lady of Perpetual Succour
Tradition has it that the original painting of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour (or perpetual Help, as it is often called these days) was painted by St. Luke, the apostle.
It stayed in the Holy Land until about the middle of the fifth century, then was given to Eudocia, the wife of the Emperor of Constantinople. A special shrine was built for the painting, and it remained there for a thousand years. Numerous miracles were attributed to the help of Mary, obtained by carrying the painting in procession, in times of attack by enemy invaders. In 1453 Constantinople was captured by the Mohammedans, and it is believed that the picture was destroyed. However, by that time there were already hundreds of copies in existence, and one turned up in the Church of St. Matthew the Apostle in Rome in 1499.
The story of that picture was told on a parchment which was affixed to the picture. It tells of a merchant who stole the picture in Crete from a church, and took it with him to Rome.
There he became seriously ill, and begged a friend of his, a Roman, to fulfil his last request. This was that the picture could be seen and honoured by all. The merchant died, the Roman found the picture where he had been told it was, and took it home with him. The Roman's wife, when she saw the picture, wanted to keep it, and placed it in her bedroom, refusing to part with it.
Our Lady appeared to the Roman and told him not to keep the picture, but to put it in a proper place. He ignored her request, she appeared to him again, and again he paid no attention.
The Blessed Virgin then appeared to the young daughter of the Roman saying to tell her mother, "Our Lady of Perpetual Succour commands you to take her out of your house."
After some time, Our Lady appeared again to the little girl, and instructed her to tell her mother that the picture must be placed in the church dedicated to St. Matthew, which stood between the Cathedrals of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran.
The picture was moved there the same day, and became enshrined in the Church of St. Matthew on 27/3/1499.
For three centuries the picture stayed where Mary had directed it should. On 3/6/1798, the French General Massena commanded that 30 churches be destroyed, because the land could be put to better use. The Church of St. Matthew was one of these, but in the dead of night, a group of monks silently removed the picture, and hid it in St. Eusebio's Church. It remained there hidden from sight for 20 years.
In 1819 the Augustinian's were given the church and monastery of Santa Maria in Posterula, on the banks of the Tiber. When they moved they took the picture with them, and until 1865 the picture had found a new home.
The Redemptorists order, founded in 1732 by St. Alphonsus Liguori, was destined to play the leading role in bringing Mary's picture out of hiding, and into its chosen place.
In 1853 Pope Pius IX commanded the Vicar General of the Redemptorists to establish a worldwide headquarters office in Rome, since by that time they had spread over much of Europe and into America. Father Edward Douglas, an English Redemptorist who was given the task of buying suitable land, and looked at many sites, went to buy one after another, but somehow the deals kept falling through.
Finally, after several months, he found an ideal site, purchased it, and only later discovered that this site contained the ruins of St. Matthew's Church, destroyed over 50 years earlier.
Digging into the history of the ruins, Father Edward Schwindenhammer learned of the miraculous picture and began to see if it could be located. On October 2nd, 1859 a certain Father Michael Marchi was ordained. He had been an altar boy in the church of Santa Maria in Posterula in 1840, and on many occasions he had been told by Brother Augustine that "That picture is very old - it used to hang in St. Matthew's Church."
Brother Augustine, when he was a young novice had spent much of his free time in front of Our Lady's picture and knew its details, and its history as shown on the parchment, intimately.
In 1863, a Jesuit Preacher, Father Francis Blosi, gave a series of sermons on some of the famous pictures of Our Lady, with particular attention being given to the one for which Our Lady had specified its proper place.
When the Redemptorists heard of these sermons, they pieced together the facts that theirs was the spot where Our Lady wanted her picture, and that one of their number, Father Michael Marchi, knew its location.
Instead of immediately setting out to claim the picture, they prayed to the Holy Spirit for guidance - for almost three years.
On 11/12/1865 the Superior of the Redemptorists, and Father Michael Marchi had an audience with Pope Pius IX, and presented him with the full story.
At the conclusion of the audience, recognising that this plea came almost from Mary herself, the Pope brushed aside all formalities, and issued an immediate order, in his own handwriting, directing that this special picture be given to the Redemptorists to enshrine where Our Lady had requested.
On 19/1/1866 Mary's picture returned to St. Matthew's after being in exile for almost 75 years.
The Golden Crowns which you see, one on the head of Our Lady, and one on the head of Jesus, were placed there in a solemn coronation, on 23/6/1867, with the approval of the Vatican.
The Picture - Its Description and Meaning.
If you carefully observe the picture you will notice at the top left hand side, some seemingly strange symbols - these are the Greek initials for "St. Michael the Archangel"
Immediately beneath them is the figure of St. Michael, holding the reed and the sponge, which, soaked in gall and vinegar, were mockingly raised to Christ's lips, after he had moaned in agony on the Cross, "I thirst".
St. Michael also holds the lance with which Our Lord's side was pierced. On the top right hand side of the painting are the Greek initials for "St. Gabriel the Archangel"
St. Gabriel holds the Cross and the nails of the Crucifixion. Mary is holding Jesus, who, frightened by the Angels bearing the instruments of the Crucifixion, has run to His Mother, in His haste almost losing one of His tiny sandals. Jesus is looking towards St. Gabriel, but Mary is looking towards us, pleading for us to avoid sin, and to love and honour her Son.