In the meantime, once the persecution had subsided, a new church dedicated to St Alphonsus Liguori had been built by the Redemptorists on the site of the ruined church of St Matthew. Then a chance remark by one of the priests led to the discovery of the Icon.
The Father General of the Redemptorists, Fr Nicholas Mauron, decided to bring the whole matter to the attention of Pope Pius IX in the hope that he would allow them to take charge of the Icon for the new church. Remembering that as a boy he often prayed before the Icon in the old St Matthew’s church, the Pope readily agreed and charged Fr Mauron and his Order to “Make her known throughout the world!”
This the Redemptorists have done sending copies of the Icon world wide in the wake of their missionary endeavours. At first these were authentic copies Diary being distributed, blessed and crowned by the Pope. Later because of the great demand and cost involved, printed copies were produced as well as copies which took account of the popular tastes of the different regions and countries, but which were not identical to the original.
This is what makes the Icon at Great Billing so special. The inscription on the back testifies that it is number 533 of the special edition of almost 1000 that were first handcrafted and painted from the original. It is certified as such by Fr Mauron and crowned and blessed by Pope Pius IX’s successor, Pope Leo XIII.
The Icon was acquired by a member of the Elwes family (notable local converts) in 1878. The actual details are not known but the Icon was originally exhibited in the Elwes’ own chapel at Billing Hall before being donated to the new church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour (the church itself being a gift of the Elwes family). At the opening of the church an article appeared in The Weekly Register dated 14th September 1878 describing the High Mass in the new church; “The fittings of the new church are completely Roman, with a magnificent picture over the High Altar of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour……..”
It is worth recording this further comment from that same article: “One cannot fail to be struck with the piety and earnestness of the newly converted congregation, many of whom have had a good deal of petty persecution to endure, and with the interest evinced by all the villagers in the matter. And while the bell of the neighbouring church is silent from Sunday to Sunday, the daily “Angelus” and the call to the Holy Sacrifice each month from the turret of the new church make one believe that one is in a Catholic country”.
In the Catholic world today about 80% of all shrines are dedicated to Mary. “In Marian shrines one seeks to meet the Mother of the Lord, the one who is blessed because she believed, is the first among believers, and therefore became the mother of Emmanuel.” (Redemptorist Mater) Pilgrims therefore come to seek a strengthening of their own faith with the help of Mary. Mary’s nature and her life are essentially defined by faith. “Blessed is she who believed”. (Lk. 1:45); this acclamation of Elizabeth addressed to Mary is the key concept in Mariology. Furthermore, the Icon invites us to recall, to contemplate and experience the great mystery of salvation that begins with the Incarnation and culminates in the Passion, Death and Resurrection of the Son of God and to which Mary is indivisibly linked.
The archangels, Michael and Gabriel, stand on either side of Mother and child one holding the cross and the other the lance and hyssop stick. They hold these instruments of the passion with great reverence within their robes. Frightened by this image of the passion, the Christ child clings trustingly to his mother, while she holds him with great care and support.
It is something that as a mother she does for all her children who call on her in their need. In fact the title by which she wishes to be known and approached, ‘Holy Mary of Perpetual Succour’, demonstrates this perfectly; the word succour meaning more than help. Our Lady is only too willing to rush, to hasten, to our aid. The Latin word ‘subcurrere’ literally means to run under, thereby to support one who may be in danger of falling. Furthermore, Mary is willing to do so endlessly
In Redemptorist Mater, the encyclical by Pope John II marking the Marian Year of 1987, the Holy Father stresses the dying Lord’s gift of Mary as our mother. What makes Mary’s mediation with her Son on our behalf unique is that it is a motherly one: a deep personal relationship between mother and child, which brings Mary into everything that makes up one’s life and directs it to Jesus.
This is the most important element in Mary’s mediation, but she is also there to succour us in all our needs. And this she has ably demonstrated in a weekly novena that has been taking place in the church for a number of years. Pope Paul VI in a meeting with rectors of Marian shrines in 1965 described shrines as centres of prayer, of recollection, of spiritual refreshment and places on genuine religious intensity. He also referred to them as “spiritual clinics” and “testimonies of miraculous deeds and of a continual wave of devotions”. This we have experienced through the good auspices of our Mother and is one of the main reasons why as a parish we petitioned our bishop for shrine status so that others from across the diocese may experience the power of her intercession in this place.
Furthermore, and more importantly, we feel that this is what Mary desires and has been leading us in this direction.
Some six years ago now, the Redemptorists led a parish retreat. When they learned of the history of the Icon they pointed out that where there were other handcrafted copies of the original, such places were all dedicated shrines. This then was the impetus we needed.
A lot of the research was conducted by parishioner Bob O’Donoghue, who happened to be Grand Knight of Northampton Council at the time, ably assisted in this project not only by fellow Knights of Council 339 but also by brother Knights throughout the Province. This took a great load off the parish priest and facilitated the whole process. Helping too was Canon lawyer, Rev. Brendan Killeen, who explained the statuary requirements and put together the decree. Fr Brendan also preached on the day of Inauguration about the history of the Icon and the meaning of a shrine as a place hallowed by its association with such a sacred object – a place of encounter with the Lord of Life, where grace is experienced.