Blessed Pope Pius IX presented the Icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help to the Redemptorists for veneration in their newly-built Church of Sant’Alfonso, Rome in December 1865. It was in need of restoration so it was April 26th 1866 before it was solemnly installed there. The Holy Father gave the Redemptorists a mandate: they were to promote devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help throughout the world. Just over a year later, the first copy arrived in Ireland.
The icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help has a long connection with Ireland. It had been in the care of Irish Augustinians since 1656, first in the Church of San Matteo and later in their Churches of Sant’Eusebio and Santa Maria in Posterula. It had been available for public veneration until 1819, when it was placed in the community oratory of the Augustinians. This broke with a tradition of public veneration going back to 1499 when the Icon was first venerated in San Matteo.
The Irish connection was restored in December 1867 when one of the first copies of the icon to be made was received in Mount St Alphonsus, then the only Redemptorist church in the country. It was from Limerick that devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help spread in time to new Redemptorist communities, first in Dundalk and then Belfast, as well as to churches and homes throughout Ireland. Irish Redemptorists setting out off from Limerick took copies of the icon with them to Australia and New Zealand (1882), to the Philippines (1906), to Sri Lanka (1939) and India (1940). Devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help was already well established in Teresina (Brazil) when Irish Redemptorists replaced their American brethren there in 1964. The spread of devotion from Limerick shows how faithfully Irish Redemptorists have taken the mandate of Blessed Pope Pius IX.
Limerick En Fete to Welcome Mary
The arrival of the icon in Limerick in December 1867 was greeted with great festivity, culminating in a three-week long “Mission for Men” and the foundation of the Holy Family Confraternity. The people of Limerick took Our Lady of Perpetual Help into their hearts and homes from the very beginning. A beautiful shrine was built to house the icon, to which members of the confraternity generously contributed. It was opened for prayer on the Feast of the Assumption, 1869. The shrine rapidly became the spiritual heart of Limerick and the surrounding areas. Additional decorations and mosaics were added in 1893 under the direction of the architect George Ashlin.
The shrine is an artistic treasure, glowing with mosaics and gold leaf. One can contemplate and be inspired by the entire Catholic tradition of devotion to Our Lady as one prays in the shrine. The main decorative scheme is inspired by the Litany of Loretto. Various symbols from the Litany can be seen in the plasterwork, the mosaics alternate symbols of Mary with titles from the Litany and the side walls develop the Marian themes of rosa mystica (mystical rose) and lilium agri (lily of the field). The words of the Hail Mary in Latin are inscribed on the roof windows.
The shrine continued to be developed and embellished over the years. A notable development took place in 1959 when the women of Limerick donated their jewellery, notably their wedding and engagement rings, to make crowns for the images of Jesus and Mary in the Icon. The images were crowned on the Feast of the Assumption that year.
Devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help has been a constant feature of life in Mount St Alphonsus since December 1867, but the forms of the devotion have changed. The Redemptorists in St Louis developed the weekly or “perpetual novena” in the 1930s. It was brought Clonard Monastery in Belfast in 1943 Fr Matthew Meighan, an American Redemptorist serving as a chaplain with the American forces. From Belfast, it spread from Clonard to Limerick and to many other centres in Ireland.
An annual nine-day novena in preparation for the feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Help had been celebrated in Limerick for many years. Fr Vincent Kavanagh decided it needed refreshing, and re-launched it as the “Solemn Novena” in 1973. Fr Vincent highlighted the celebratory and festive side of the event. He also recognized how important prayer of petition and intercession was for the people celebrating the novena. People were encouraged to write their prayers of petition and thanksgiving, as they always had been, and samples of these were read at each novena celebration. These are truly the prayers of the faithful.
Fr Kavanagh was ahead of his time in harnessing the talents of professional people in both developing and promoting the novena. He believed in the power of advertising and began using such forms of advertising as road signs and information flyers in a way that was regarded as revolutionary at the time. The Limerick Redemptorists, inspired by the pioneering work of Fr Vincent, launched a digital advertising campaign in the lead up to this year’s Solemn Novena. The campaign – Limerick’s Novena – was very well regarded and received extensive media coverage, as did the decision to advertise the novena on the city buses. When Jesus told us to preach the Gospel on the highways and the byways, he surely intended us to take to the digital highway as well.
Celebrated each year in June, the Solemn Novena continues to attract more than 10,000 people to its ten daily celebrations, from 7am and until 10.30pm. There is also a satellite novena in Holy Family Church, Southill, each evening.
The Redemptorists worldwide are celebrating the 150th anniversary of their relationship with the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and of the mandate of Blessed Pope Pius IX to make Mary known to the world as Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The centrepiece of the celebrations in Ireland will be a pilgrimage with a copy of the Icon to all of the 26 Irish Cathedrals. This pilgrimage will begin in Mount St Alphonsus on Monday April 4th 2016 and conclude in Clonard Monastery on May 15th. The pilgrimage website – www.followtheicon.ie – will go live on the First Sunday of Advent, November 29th, 2015.
An ancient prayer inscribed in Latin on the archway over the icon captures much of what devotion to Mary has meant to the people of Shannonside: Dear Mother of the Redeemer, help the fallen people who strive to rise again.
Seamus Enright is Rector of Mount St Alphonsus, where he also serves as Director of the Solemn Novena. He chairs the Irish Committee for the 150th Jubilee of Redemptorist Devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.