This is the story of an unknown artist and Our Mother of Perpetual Help, a repentant thief, a curious girl, a brother and a priest, an abandoned church, and the return of Our Mother to her home.
The Repentant Thief
There is a legend about a merchant from the Isle of Crete who stole a miraculous picture from one of its churches. He hid it among his belongings on his ship and promptly set sail for Italy. After about a year, he arrived in Rome, deathly ill, with his stolen picture.
On his death bed, he confessed to a friend that he had stolen the picture and begged him to return it to a church. The friend confided to his wife about the painting. But after seeing it, she refused to relinquish such a beautiful treasure. The husband later died, unable to fulfill his friend’s dying wish.
The Curious Girl
One day, the Blessed Virgin appeared to the young daughter of the merchant’s family and told her to tell her mother that the picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help should be placed in the Church of St. Matthew the Apostle, located between the basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran.
Finally, after many agonizing days, the mother reluctantly agreed to turn over the picture to the clergy in charge of St. Matthew the Apostle. The icon of the Virgin was placed in St. Matthew’s on March 27th, 1499. There it remained for the next 300 years.
From 1739 to 1798, the church and adjacent monastery were under the care of the Irish Augustinians. The monastery was being used as a formation center for their seminarians. In 1798, Rome came under attack. Several of the students sought sanctuary in another nearby monastery, bringing with them the icon, which had become a great source of solace and comfort to them.
In 1819, the Irish Augustinians moved to the Church of St. Mary in Posterula, taking with them the “Virgin of St. Matthew’s.” There, it was installed in a private chapel where it remained, all but forgotten, but for Brother Augustine Orsetti, one of the original friars from St. Matthew’s.
A Brother and a Priest
Brother Orsetti and Father Marchi, C.Ss.R.
A young altar boy by the name of Michael Marchi often visited the Church of Sancta Maria in Posterula and became friends with Brother Augustine Orsetti. Years later, this altar boy became a Redemptorist priest. Father Marchi would later relate his personal connection to the icon:
This good brother used to tell me with a certain air of mystery and anxiety these precise words: ‘Make sure you know, my son, that the image of the Virgin of St. Matthew is upstairs in the chapel. Don’t ever forget it. Do you understand? It is a miraculous picture.’ At that time the brother was almost totally blind.
What I can say about the venerable picture of the ‘Virgin of St. Matthew,’ also called ‘Perpetual Help,’ is that from my childhood until I entered the Congregation (of the Redemptorists) I had always seen it above the altar of the house chapel of the Augustinian fathers of the Irish Province at St. Mary in Posterula. There was no devotion to it, no decorations, not even a lamp to acknowledge its presence. It remained covered with dust and practically abandoned. Many were the times, when I served Mass there, that I would stare at it with great attention.
An Abandoned Church: Rediscovering the Icon
In January of 1855, the Redemptorist missionaries purchased Villa Caserta in Rome along the Via Merulana and converted it into their residence. On this same property were the ruins of the Church and Monastery of St. Matthew the Apostle. Without realizing it, the Redemptorists had acquired the very land that, centuries before, had been chosen by the Blessed Virgin herself as her sanctuary between St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran.
Four months later, construction was begun on a church in honor of the Most Holy Redeemer and dedicated to St. Alphonsus Liguori, founder of the Redemptorist Congregation. On December 24, 1855, a group of young men began their novitiate in the new house. One of them was Michael Marchi.
Curious to know more about the property they had just purchased, the Redemptorists began to dig deeper into its history. Their interest was piqued about a special painting after hearing Father Francesco Blosi, the famous Jesuit preacher, mention something in his sermon about “an icon of Mary that had been in the Church of St. Matthew on Via Merulana and was known as The Virgin of St. Matthew, or more correctly, The Virgin of Perpetual Help.”
On another occasion, a Redemptorist with the community found some references in his research about the Church of St. Matthew and an ancient icon of the Mother of God that enjoyed “great veneration and fame for its miracles.” A discussion ensued within the community regarding its whereabouts. Then Father Marchi remembered all that he had heard from old Brother Augustine Orsetti and told his confreres that he had often seen the icon and knew very well where it could be found.
Mary Returns Home:
Pope Pius IX and the Redemptorists
Now that the Redemptorists knew where to find theoriginal icon of Our Mother, interest grew among the Redemptorists to know more about the icon and to retrieve it for their church. Father Nicholas Mauron, C.Ss.R., the superior general at the time, presented a letter to Pope Pius IX in which he petitioned the Holy See to grant them the icon of Perpetual Help so that it may be placed in the newly built Church of St. Alphonsus, which was located near the site where the old Church of St. Matthew had stood.
The Pope granted the request and on the back of the petition, in his own handwriting, he wrote:
“December 11, 1865: The Cardinal Prefect of Propaganda will call the Superior of the community of Sancta Maria in Posterula and will tell him that it is our desire that the image of Most Holy Mary, referred to in this petition, be again placed between Saint John and Saint Mary Major; the Redemptorists shall replace it with another adequate picture.”
According to tradition, this was when Pope Pius IX told the Redemptorist Superior General Mauron “to make her known throughout the world!” In January, 1866, Fathers Michael Marchi and Ernest Bresciani went to St. Mary’s in Posterula to receive the picture from the Augustinians.
Before displaying the icon, the Redemptorists commissioned Polish artist, Leopold Nowotny to clean the painting. Finally, on April 26th, 1866, the image was again presented for public veneration in the Church of St. Alphonsus on the Via Merulana. 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.
The report of marvelous healings spread rapidly throughout the city of Rome and people came by the thousands to visit the shrine. Soon the whole area around the altar was filled with abandoned crutches and canes and 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 visited the shrine. He stood quietly before it for a long time and then exclaimed, “How beautiful she is!”
Today, the shrine and original icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, inside the Church of St. Alphonsus Liguori in Rome, is one of the world’s great centers of Marian devotion.