The origin of the Our Lady (Mother) of Perpetual Help icon is uncertain, although many have thought that it was painted by St. Luke and venerated in Constantinople until that Holy City fell in 1453. The Byzantine style and Greek lettering are consistent with an icon of Eastern origin. While we may not know the exact origins of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, we do know the next part of the story - from the original picture itself. A parchment attached to the painting tells the story of how it got to Rome.
According to this record, a merchant from the island of Crete heard stories of many miracles that occurred around this painting on the island. Wanting this power for himself, he stole the painting and packed it away with his other wares. His travels led him, and the stolen picture, to Rome, where he suddenly fell ill. As he lay dying, he told the whole story of the stolen picture to his friend, a man from Rome, who was caring for him during his illness. His last request was that the man takes the picture and has it placed in a church where it would help many people. The man's wife, however, put the picture in her bedroom. Mary made her opinion of this situation known by appearing to the man in a series of visions. Each time, she asked him to stop hoarding the picture and start sharing it with others. And each time, the man ignored her. After being rejected by the adults, Mary visited their six-year-old daughter. The daughter announced that Mary had commanded that the picture be placed in a church between St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran a church called St. Matthew's. At last, the couple obeyed, and the picture was placed in the care of the Augustinians on March 27, 1499.It is hard to understand why Mary would choose such a place to be honored. St. Matthew's was a small church in a barren place far from the center of the city. Yet the rich and the poor, the powerful and the lowly alike traveled the rough stone path to the church to seek comfort from Our Mother of Perpetual Help and to learn from her humility. One man, however, was not impressed. In 1798, Napoleon's general ordered the destruction of thirty churches when the French invaded Rome. St. Matthew's was one of them. After the soldiers left, those who loved Mary searched the ruins but could find no trace of the picture. There seemed to be no doubt that their beloved picture had perished with the church. Almost half a century later and miles away, an altar boy named Michael Marchi listened to a sacristan's tales of the past. The sacristan, named Augustine Orsetti, pointed to a picture of Mary in the chapel and said, "See that picture, Michael? It is old very old. It used to hang in St. Matthew's Church, where many people came to pray to the Mother of God." The painting, he said, had been rescued at the last minute, hidden from the marauding general in a humble cart, and transported secretly to this chapel. Remember that," the sacristan told him. Michael Marchi remembered. Years later, Father Michael Marchi, by then a Redemptorist, was in Rome. In 1853, Pope Pius IX commanded the Redemptorists to establish their world headquarters in Rome. After much searching and prayer, the Redemptorists bought a huge estate. When they inspected their new property, they found a house, barns, stables, gardens and the ruins of an old church. Inquiring into the history of the church, the Redemptorists learned that its name was St. Matthew's, and that it once had housed a miraculous painting, a painting that had been lost. Even as they ruefully shook their heads at the loss of such a treasure, Father Michael stunned his associates by telling them that not only did the picture still exist, but also he knew where it was. After three years of prayer, the Redemptorists decided to ask that the picture be brought back to Rome.
When they told Pope Pius that it was Mary's own wish that she be enshrined between St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran where the Church of St. Alphonsus now stood the Pope immediately commanded the return of the painting.