In 1882, there was a terrible outbreak of smallpox in the small nation of Haiti. Over the course of several months, tens of thousands of Haitians died of the disease. The epidemic was made worse by a drought that was unusually long for the tropical island. On February 5, 1882, Archbishop Alexis Jean-Marie Guilloux gathered the people to the church of St. Francis Xavier in the Bel-Air neighborhood of Port-au-Prince where he offered a Mass, calling upon the Blessed Mother for assistance under the title of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
This title of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is associated with a Byzantine religious image called an “icon” that dates possibly to the ninth century. It depicts Mary holding the Child Jesus in one arm as she gazes out from the golden panel at the viewer. Our Lord is shown clinging to His mother’s free hand as He appears to look in fear at the instruments of His Passion – the cross, the nails, the crown of thorns, and the lance – that are being presented to Him by archangels. As He seeks refuge under the protection of Our Lady, one of the Child Jesus’ sandals is falling off of His foot.
This icon had been venerated for centuries in a monastery in Crete, where many miracles were attributed to Our Lady’s intercession. In 1498 it was stolen by an Italian merchant who brought it to Rome, where it eventually found a home for public veneration in the Church of St. Matthew on the Via Merulana, not far from the Cathedral Church of St. John Lateran. The image was rescued when St. Matthew’s was destroyed in 1798 by French Revolutionary troops during their brief occupation of Rome. When in 1866, Pope Pius IX granted permission to the Redemptorist religious order to establish a church dedicated to their founder, St. Alphonsus Liguori, on the site where St. Matthew’s had been, he also allowed them to take possession of the icon to display in their new church on the Via Merulana, where it remains to this day.
It was sixteen years later that the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince placed a copy of that same icon at the church of St. Francis Xavier, seeking the intercession of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in the midst of a terrible crisis. Interestingly, while devotion to the Blessed Mother was widespread in Haiti at the time, there was no popular devotion to her under the title Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Nevertheless, after the Mass had ended, it began to rain. The much-needed rain continued for two days, bringing relief to the people, and the epidemic soon came to an end. With that, the devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help spread quickly throughout the country, eclipsing all other devotions to the Virgin Mary. The church of St. Francis Xavier was renamed after her, and in 1942 the whole nation was consecrated to Our Lady under that title. Today, the church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Bel-Air is the most important destination of Catholic pilgrims in Haiti.
This weekend, Bishop Caggiano has asked that we take up a special collection to help provide relief to the people of Haiti who in recent weeks have suffered from an earthquake followed by a hurricane, both in the wake of the assassination of their president – all of this on top of having to deal with Coronavirus. As we support our Haitian brothers and sisters with our material donations, let us also turn with confidence to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, asking for her powerful intercession on behalf of her beloved Haitian people.