In 1798, French troops occupied Rome. General Massena, the governor, decided that Rome had too many churches. Undoubtedly, he had his eyes on the valuable property which they occupied. He ordered thirty churches to be closed and destroyed. St. Matthew’s among them. For sixty-eight years nothing more was heard of St. Mary of Perpetual Help. People who did give it a passing thought presumed it had been destroyed along with St. Matthew’s church. The series of events that resulted in the restoration of the icon to public veneration is so completely beyond chance that it had to be Our Lady who wrote the scenario making it happen.
When the Augustinian Fathers were ordered to leave St. Matthew’s church they moved to a nearby church, St. Eusebius, taking the sacred painting of Our Lady with them. Several years later they relocated again to the church of Santa Maria Posterula. Here the icon was eventually moved and placed over a side altar in a small oratory because the main altar already enshrined a Madonna called Our Lady of Grace.
During the pontificate of Pope Pius IX, the Redemptorists were invited to set up a mother house in Rome. They chose a vacant lot on the Via Merulana, without realizing that it once had been the site of St. Matthew’s church and the shrine of the famous icon. They built next to their general headquarters the small church of St. Alphonsus. One day at recreation, one of the fathers mentioned that he had read an account on old shrines of Our Lady in Rome and recounted how the icon of Perpetual Help had been enshrined in St. Matthew’s church that stood close to the place now occupied by St. Alphonsus’ church.
One of the Redemptorists present was a young priest, Michael Marchi, who became visibly excited. When the older priest stated that the Perpetual Help picture had been lost, Father Marchi burst in, “But it is not lost! It is enshrined in the little oratory of Our Lady in Posterula. When I was a boy, I often served Mass there and one of the old brothers, named Augustine Orsetti, often pointed to the picture and used to say to me, ‘Don’t ever forget it, Michael. This picture is the one that hung for three hundred years in St. Matthew’s church. Many, many miracles were worked for the crowds of people that always came to pray before it!’ So,” continued Father Marchi, “I feel sure that this is the very same picture!”
The fact that the original icon was not lost and that St. Alphonsus church was midway between St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran must have caused bedlam at that community recreation as the Redemptorists put the pieces of the mystery together. Their own church of St. Alphonsus occupied the very ground on which the old St. Matthew’s Church was located, and now the lost sacred icon had been found. They came to the conclusion that even as Our Lady had chosen this location for the Perpetual Help image to be enshrined many years before, the Blessed Mother must have been instrumental in setting the stage for the icon to be returned to its original site.
The Father General of the Redemptorists, Most Rev. Nicholas Mauron, decided to bring the whole matter to the attention of Pope Pius IX. The Pope listened attentively and felt sure it was God’s will that the icon should be gain exposed to public veneration and the logical site was their church of St. Alphonsus, standing as it did between the Basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran. The Holy Father at once took a piece of paper and wrote a short memorandum ordering the Augustinian Fathers of St. Mary in Posterula to surrender the picture to the Redemptorists, on condition that the Redemptorists supply the Augustinians with another picture of Our Lady or a good copy of the icon of Perpetual Help.