TORONTO (CCN) — In 1866, Pope Pius IX appointed the Redemptorists as custodians of the 15th-century icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help with the mission to “make her known throughout the world.”
Fifteen years later, a community of Redemptorists brought a replica of the icon with them when they established a permanent presence in Toronto.
As it enters its 150th year, that mission to make the icon known was honoured in late June as thousands of pilgrims passed through St. Patrick’s Shrine Church in downtown Toronto to venerate in front of the national shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.
On June 25, the last day of St. Patrick’s annual novena triduum, the Redemptorists marked the opening of a jubilee year with a prayer service, a thanksgiving mass and a dinner reception. Each night of the novena triduum, every seat in the church was filled with devotees young and old. Their chorus of prayers and hymns boomed throughout the church hall.
Rev. Santo Arrigo, pastor of St. Patrick’s, said the parish is blessed with an active devotion to the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Arrigo jokes that he sometimes feels like he is serving two parishes — one community that attends Wednesday devotional mass and another that attends Sunday mass.
“A lot of it overlaps, but it’s almost like we do Sundays twice a week because we have six masses on Wednesday,” said Arrigo. “As a parish, it’s very much linked to the shrine ministry.”
The 150th anniversary marks many important moments in the mission and the parish’s history.
“It’s not just the 150th of the devotion worldwide, it’s almost 150 in St. Pat’s itself,” said Arrigo.
The replica of the icon that first arrived in Toronto in 1881 was moved to permanent residence in St. Patrick’s when the church was completed in 1908. By 1916, devotions were being held every second Sunday. The devotions became so popular that in 1929 they were moved to every Wednesday, where they have remained for 86 years.
Rev. Philip Dabney, associate pastor of the Basilica Shrine Church of Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Boston, was presider and homilist at the thanksgiving masses. He said that being witness to the devotion in the community has been an “overwhelmingly wonderful” experience.
“The first thing that really touches me is the magnitude and the large crowds that have come and the diversity,” said Dabney. “It’s almost like you look out and you get a sense of what the kingdom of God looks like.”
The Redemptorists are currently running missions in about 80 countries.
“There is a much deeper spiritual value to the picture,” said Dabney. “Our focus is teaching people to pray not just to, but with the icon and not just for, but allowing the icon to speak to them. There is a contemplative focus.”
Throughout the year, St. Patrick’s Parish and the Redemptorists will host a series of educational and reflection sessions to mark important events in the Redemptorists’ history. Arrigo said it is equally important to highlight testimonies of people that have been touched by Our Mother of Perpetual Help.
Faye Arellano shared her testimony before thanksgiving mass of the triduum. She said that being a part of the Wednesday community at St. Patrick’s helps her cope with being homesick. The devotion at St. Patrick’s reminds her of her visits to the Philippine national shrine during her childhood.
“It reminds me of the Baclaran days in the Philippines,” said Arellano. “It’s always full of devotees of Our Mother of Perpetual Help who is very, very popular back home.”
In her testimony, Arellano shared that she had never felt close to her own mother growing up in a big family. With seven other siblings, her mother always had to spread herself too thin. As the middle child, Arellano learned to be independent so as not to be a burden for her mother.
When she immigrated to Canada in 1987, her emotional distance from her mother was amplified by the new physical distance she felt.
“One day, I suddenly felt a deep longing for a mother,” she said. “While praying to the Blessed Lady, I was reminded of those happy times when our family would pray the rosary together or when we joined in candlelight processions.”
That night, Arellano made a pact with Mother Mary to make her a faith companion. Since then, her loneliness has been replaced with a feeling of peace and contentment. She became more active in St. Patrick’s church community.
During her lunch breaks, she would walk to the church every day to visit the shrine. She volunteered to be lector for the lunch time and evening masses. She has also joined a social justice group in the parish.
Arellano said that after she shared her testimony in front of the community, many parishioners have approached her with their own stories.
“To me, to be able to share is also for me to impart something to the parishioners,” she said. “The most important thing for me is to be a witness that Mother Mary really answers prayers and listens to what we have to say.”
Dabney said the testimonies shared during the novena triduum is only a small example of how the Blessed Mother has touched so many people. In marking 150 years of the mission, he hoped the Redemptorists will continue to share Mary with more people throughout the world.
“The theme for this jubilee year is to celebrate the years in which the Redemptorists have carried out this mission,” said Dabney. “And at the same time looking ahead to the future of using this icon for further evangelization.”
The Apostolic Penitentiary recently announced that during this jubilee year, the Vatican is granting plenary indulgences for the devotion and veneration of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.