The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is one of the most well-known and loved images of the Blessed Virgin known to Catholics. For many years, a weekly holy hour or novena in honor of Our Mother of Perpetual Help was common in many parish churches all over the world, and indeed, the custom continues in many places to this day.
The history of the original icon, which is now enshrined in the Redemptorist Church of St. Alphonsus in Rome, can be traced back to the year 1495, when the image, already considered ancient, was enshrined in a church on the island of Crete. When the island was threatened by Turks, the icon was carried off — possibly stolen — by a merchant who took it with him to Rome. Shortly after arriving there, the man became grievously ill. Before his death he begged a friend to take the icon to one of the churches in Rome so that it could be publicly venerated.
Upon his death, however, the friend’s wife persuaded her husband to allow her to keep the painting in their home, where it remained for several months. One night the Blessed Virgin appeared to the man in a dream, warning him not to keep the picture. Twice she appeared to him with this message, and both times he disregarded her warning. The third time she told him that if he continued to disobey her, he would die a miserable death. This time the man tried to persuade his wife to give up the painting, but she refused. Our Lady appeared to the man again to tell him of his impending death; within a short time, he became sick and died.
Our Lady then appeared to the man’s 6-year-old daughter, telling her to tell her mother, “Holy Mother of Perpetual Help commands you to take her out of your house!” The mother, who had seen a similar vision, was terrified and was about to give the picture to a church when a neighbor woman persuaded her that it was just a dream and that she should pay no attention to it. That night the neighbor became violently ill, and recognizing her fault, made a solemn promise to the Lady of the picture, whereupon she was immediately cured. Again the Blessed Virgin appeared to the young girl, this time commanding her to tell her mother to place her picture in a certain church between St. Mary Major’s and St. John Lateran’s. That very day, March 27, 1499, the picture was taken in solemn procession to the church of St. Matthew the Apostle, where it was placed above the exquisite white-marble altar. The church itself was very small — only about 75 feet long and 35 feet wide. Nevertheless, the shower of miraculous graces began even before the image entered its walls, with a paralyzed man being cured as the procession passed by his house.
The history of the image up to this point was written in both Latin and Italian on a large piece of parchment, which for many years was hung next to the icon in St. Matthew’s Church. Copies of the parchment are now kept in the Vatican Library.
For the next three hundred years, this humble church was one of the most popular pilgrimage places in Rome because of the miraculous picture. Then in 1798, the Church of St. Matthew was leveled to the ground by Napoleon’s forces. The Augustinian monks who were caretakers of the church took the picture with them, but for 64 years it was lost to the rest of the world. Eventually even the monks forgot that the image had once been regarded as miraculous.
One of the monks, Brother Augustine, who had had a great devotion to the miraculous image as a young religious, later recognized it in the monastery of Santa Maria in Posterula when he was transferred there in 1840. He would often tell Michael Marchi, one of the altar boys he was training, “Do you see that picture, Michael? It is a very old picture. Know Michael, the Madonna from St. Matthew’s is the one that hangs here in the chapel… Always remember this.”
And he did remember, even well after he entered the Redemptorists in 1855. As a young priest Fr. Marchi lived at the generalate of the order, which, along with the Church of St. Alphonsus, was built on the same piece of land on which the Church of St. Matthew once stood. One day while the community was at recreation, he had the opportunity of sharing this recollection from his youth with his fellow religious. One of the priests mentioned that he had learned that a miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin had once been venerated in the Church of St. Matthew which once stood there, but that it had been lost many years earlier. At this Fr. Marchi broke in: “But it is not lost! I know that picture — it is called Our Mother of Perpetual Help. I saw it often during the years of 1850 and 1851 when I was a young student. It is in the chapel of the Augustinian monastery of Santa Maria in Posterula.” Father went on to explain what Brother Augustine had often told him about the image and its origin.