Continuing our examination of our side altars and shrines we come over to the south side of the church, and furthest from the main altar is the shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The icon of Mary and Jesus originated from the Keras Kardiotissas Monastery in Crete and has been in Rome since 1499. Today it is permanently enshrined in the Church of Saint Alphonsus, where the official Novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help text is prayed weekly. St. Alphonsus is the founder of the Redemptorist Order of priests. All five of the founders of the Paulist Fathers were originally Redemptorists, and presumably had a devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, so it makes sense that she is celebrated and honored in this Paulist church.
The first historical reference to the icon comes from Rome in 1499. According to a parchment that was attached to the icon, the icon was stolen from the Cretan monastery by an Italian merchant who had it in his private possession for a while. However, the stolen image of Mary seemed to bring him only bad luck. Or perhaps he began to feel guilty over the theft. In any case, he transferred it to the Church of San Mateo in Rome. There the icon rested for over 300 years, until in 1798 French troops entered Rome and destroyed the Church of San Mateo. Some quick-witted Augustinian monks saved the icon, placing it on a side altar in the Church of Santa Maria in Posterula (there are many churches in Rome).
In 1855 the Redemptorists purchased a plot in Rome for their new headquarters. A few decades passed, and then the Redemptorists built the church to St. Alphonsus Ligouri, who was their founder (and therefore spiritual grand-father of the Paulisits). Unbeknownst to the Redemptorists the spot they picked was the exact location of the former Church of St. Mateo, the first place the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was exhibited and venerated. Pope Pius IX ordered (much to the Augustinians’ chagrin) that the icon be venerated again in its original spot. The Redemptorists gave the Augustinians an exact copy as a gesture of good will.
In any case, it is an ancient icon filled with symbolism. On the left as you face Mary is St Michael the Archangel, holding the spear that pierced Jesus’s side and the reed and sponge on which He was offered wine, and the crown of thorns. On the right as you face Mary is St. Gabriel with a cross and the nails. The letters are Geek contractions. The MP – OY at the top signify “Mother of God.” The OAM signify “Michael the Archangel” and the OAΓ signifies “Gabriel the Archangel.” The IX XC are a contraction of the Greek for “Jesus Christ.” The child Jesus contemplates the instruments of this death (the cross and nails) while one sandal has become untied and is slipping off His foot. Some believe this indicates that contemplating His suffering and Passion Jesus ran to His mother for comfort, one of his sandals becoming loose in the process. But the luminous gold background also speaks of His glorious triumph over sin and death. Mary however is not looking at Jesus, but out at us, the beholder of the icon, as if she is presenting Jesus to us. And of course, that is what Mary does, leading us to Jesus.