“A Lourdes in the Land of the Pilgrims” is how a New York City newspaper, at the turn of the century, described the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Word spread quickly about the miracles at the church just a short distance from the center of Boston.
In 1883, a girl named Grace Hanley, crippled by an accident, was healed after both she and her family had made several novenas at the shrine. Her case received widespread attention. Her father, a well-known Civil War general, had taken her to many doctors, but not had any success treating the girl.
The case was only one of many and it wasn't long before Mission Church—as it was also popularly known—began a blessing of the sick on Wednesdays. The tradition continues to this day. Naturally, alongside the cures and answers to prayers, came the crowds.
Shortly afterwards, the Wednesday novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help started. At one time the eight services, under the longtime direction of Father Joseph Manton CSsR, attracted up to 20,000 people. Although the number of services today has been reduced to five, the novena continues to attract the crowds and the 93-year-old priest continues to lead one of the five.
The church was first opened in 1871 despite the fact that it didn't serve any particular parish. The Redemptorists built it as part of their missionary program to serve the many German immigrants who lived and worked in the Roxbury section of Boston—hence the name, Mission Church. That same year, the picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was enthroned above the altar.
With the growing numbers of people attending the shrine, the small structure had to be replaced and after just seven years, the present stone neo-Gothic church was built on Mission Hill. With its 215 feet high twin towers, the church could easily be seen from Old North Church across the city, where lanterns once signaled the start of Paul Revere's famous ride.
Today, the journey to the church from Boston Common in the city center is just more than two miles along Tremont Street, but vigilance is called for as the street crosses into the Roxbury section. At this point, Tremont no longer continues on a straight route but veers to the right. However, the towering steeples remain the unmistakable landmarks in a neighborhood which has grown up around the church.
It was Dec. 8, 1954, the last day of the Marian year that Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church was dedicated as a basilica—the only basilica in New England. The interior is certainly majestic enough to bear the title, with its high dome and, within it, the even higher cupola. But more importantly, the venerable beauty lifts the mind and heart into the realms of the spiritual.
Murals added during renovations have served to enhance the original heavenly artistry, many of which are near the main altar of white Carrara marble, surrounded by its elaborately carved tabernacles, spires, and shrine-like upper portion of Our Lady of Sorrows. This statue, surrounded by bas relief angels, was thought to bear the closest resemblance to Our Lady since Our Lady of Perpetual Help, also a sorrowful mother, is presented only in painting. There are also more than 200 other statues and images of angels in the basilica. Saints abound too, and tell of the magnificent heavenly story.
To either side of the main altar are the Gothic-Romanesque altars of the Sacred Heart and St. Joseph. The Sacred Heart is resplendent in elaborate mosaics, with the same form used for St. Joseph, who, in this image, seems to have a strong resemblance to his foster Son.
Beneath the St. Joseph altar is a glass coffin of a Roman soldier. Although the figure within is wax, the coffin contains relics of St. Nazarius, a Roman soldier baptized by Peter's first successor, St. Linus.
In the right transept is the Purgatorian altar, or altar of the faithful departed, with its detailed scenes in mosaic while in the half dome, God the Father, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus as the Triumphant Lamb, watch angels on the chapel walls escort people from Purgatory toward the heavenly New Jerusalem.
The spacious left transept houses the altar of the Holy Family.
But it is the altar of Our Lady of Perpetual Help which is the outstanding masterpiece. The icon itself is enthroned in a golden frame, ornate with rays. A dazzling gold mosaic surrounds Our Lady and glistens in the half-dome above her, where two angels hold a gold star and a banner proclaiming, Ave Maria.
Marble angels stand in awe before the altar and icon, while the rows of flickering vigil lights by the railings offer petitioners' prayers.
Two “vases” filled with neatly arranged crutches and canes stand on either side of the altar—reminders of the many cures granted at this shrine. A plaque on one vase reads, “Miss Grace Hanley cured Aug. 18, 1883.”
The story of redemption and restoration to health through Mary's intercession continues in the dome and cupola. In the center is the victorious Christ the Redeemer (the symbol of the Redemptorists), and just below him, Mary, Queen of Heaven surrounded by images of petitioning crowds. There is the person in a wheelchair, and the picture of the mother who is holding out her children to Jesus and Mary. There are also the Redemptorist saints: Alphonsus Liguori, Clement Hofbauer, Gerard Magella, and John Neumann.
One scene featuring three priests and a nun is unique in that two of the people pictured are still alive. One of those, Father Edward McDonough is pictured wearing his red stole emblazoned with the Holy Spirit. The Redemptorist priest has conducted monthly healing services for more than 22 years, often before a full basilica that holds 2,000 people.
The historic basilica still contains original stained glass windows, and houses a finely tuned Hutchings Organ built in Boston and installed in 1897. One of the first pipe organs to use electronic action, it was restored and rededicated in September, with a series of concerts now scheduled to run throughout its centennial anniversary.
After taking in the Shrine and Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, visitors will find an abundance of other stops worth making in historic Boston, one of the nation's oldest cities. The city itself saw the beginnings of the American Revolution; there is also the old North Church, Old South Meeting Hall, Old State House, Revere House, Granary Burying Grounds, (highly overrated Quincy Market), and Freedom Trail. The list is endless. The New England Aquarium and the Museum of Science are among the major attractions for adults and children alike.
Economy-minded visitors will find it worthwhile to find lodging outside the downtown area. There is a wide variety of motels and hotels within a short driving distance, in suburbs such as Woburn, Natick, and Framingham.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Conn.