By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
An heirloom copy of the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help will be enthroned in the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul by Cardinal Justin Rigali on June 13 at the 5:15 p.m. Vigil Mass. At the same time the Cardinal will bless four new or refurbished marble side shrines in the Cathedral.
This includes shrines dedicated to St. Joseph and St. Katharine Drexel on the north side and shrines dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and St. John Neumann on the south side. Each has a newly sculpted seven-foot marble statue of the honored saint over its altar.
The altars of the shrines to Our Lady and St. Joseph are new to the cathedral, but formerly graced North Philadelphia’s St. Boniface Church (1866-2006) and date from the late 19th-century. The statue on the Blessed Mother altar is a rendition of the image on the Miraculous Medal. It is at this altar also where the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help will be enshrined in a marble frame.
In fact, this same image and frame, now beautifully restored, graced this altar for more than a century when it was at St. Boniface.
What is completely new on all four shrines are the imposing marble statues and the marble reredos which serve as backdrops, explained Msgr. John McIntyre, secretary to Cardinal Rigali who also noted the incorporation of Our Lady’s image in its original frame and altar is appropriate.
“The Cardinal does have a great devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help,” he said.
The design and building of the four shrines took about two years, according to Louis DiCocco, president of St. Jude Shops, the firm that undertook the project.
The four marble statues each weigh between 5,500 and 6,000 pounds and were sculpted in St. Jude’s studio in Italy. The Neumann and Drexel statues were especially challenging because they are based on recent saints whose true likenesses are known and had to be captured by the sculptors, according to DiCocco.
It was especially important that the original altar be retained at the St. Katharine Shrine because it was donated in the 19th century by St. Katharine herself, along with her sisters, Elizabeth and Louise, as a memorial to their deceased parents, Francis and Emma Drexel.
Because all four altars were crafted in the 19th-century, they used marbles which have become extremely rare and the level of craftsmanship in their construction can’t be duplicated today, DiCocco said.
In addition to utilizing the altars from St. Boniface, the shrines to the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph are enclosed by sections of the original marble altar rail from that same church, DiCocco noted, and the new marble reredos, embellished with Venetian gold mosaics, match the older work in color, design and style.
The four shrines, planned and executed with a unified vision, replace the more eclectic original works each in a different style and constructed at different times.
Reconstructed, “they maintain a classical look consistent with the Cathedral,” DiCocco said. “His eminence has a keen eye for that.”
The original icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, also known as Our Mother of Perpetual Help, is painted on walnut in Byzantine style. It is believed to have been executed in Crete in the Middle Ages and taken to Rome in the 15th century, where it achieved a reputation for miracles granted to supplicants who prayed at its shrine. The image shows Mary holding the child Jesus in her protective arms with accompanying symbols suggesting He has received a premonition of His future suffering and death on the cross.
The original has been in the custody of the Redemptorist Fathers in Rome’s St. Alphonsus Church since the 19th century. The reproduction, which was donated by the Redemptorists, is an especially fine copy originally obtained from the Vatican and was given pride of place at St. Boniface, a church conducted by that congregation for much of its history.
“Our Lady of Perpetual Help is our patroness,” said Redemptorist Father Bruce Lewandowski, pastor of Visitation B.V.M. Parish. “We are in 75 countries and wherever we go we promote her devotion.”
His own parish conducts devotion to Mary under this title in three languages – English, Spanish and Vietnamese – and a number of the parishioners will be at the Cathedral for the enthronement ceremony.
The work on the four shrines is part of an ongoing restoration of the Cathedral.
“All of the work that has been done so far is a beautiful addition to this historic basilica that is such an inspiration to all, both Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who come here to worship,” said the Cathedral’s pastor, Msgr. Michael T. McCulken. “Through the Heritage of Faith – Vision of Hope capital campaign we hope to preserve the basilica for generations to come with all of the work that is yet to be done.”
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.