New England
Our Mother of Perpetual Help icon
Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help

As the sun fell behind the New England hills, and the sky filled with a warm amber tinge on Ash Wednesday, Head Chaplain Rev. Greg Markey led students in a procession into Our Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel, bearing a new icon of the building’s patroness. “It is important for us to have this procession, as the Chapel will be Our Mother’s final resting place,” said Fr. Markey. 

Inside the Chapel, to the left of the altar, sits a recently completed shrine that previously held a digital rendition of Our Mother of Perpetual Help — a placeholder until the College could obtain a true, written icon to take its place. Through God’s grace and after months of searching, Fr. Markey discovered a talented and unlikely iconographer 200 miles south of the Northfield, Massachusetts, campus — a cloistered nun from the Sisters of Bethlehem in Livingston, New York. 

“We were looking for the right person to do it, and we found this one sister, who wishes to remain anonymous, who is especially skilled in Eastern iconography,” says Fr. Markey. “She had never painted this image of Our Lady before, and it turned out marvelous. We are absolutely thrilled with it.”

In Western art, artists paint using their own creativity and for their own merit. In contrast, Eastern icons are described as “written” because they replicate the beauty and richness of the icons before them. “The idea is you are not free to do something creative, but rather to imitate the masters who have written these icons previously,” observes Fr. Markey. “The icons are considered a window into the divine, in which the mind and heart are elevated to the throne of God in Heaven.”

Since the Sisters of Bethlehem live in isolation, removed from the digital world, communication with the iconographer was not an easy task. “I would email the sisters back and forth, and whoever answers the emails for them would print out my messages and hand it to the particular sister,” recalls Fr. Markey. “The sister would then handwrite a reply to me, and then the written reply would be scanned and then sent back to me.” 

With many intricate and marvelous details on the icon, Fr. Markey notes an inconspicuous element that is common to Eastern iconography and unique to this particular image. “With Our Lady, iconographers sometimes place three stars on her, emblematic of her three-fold virginity. The stars represent her virginity before, during, and after the birth of Christ, whereas the original Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Rome only has one star.”

The cloistered sister completed the icon on the Feast of Immaculate Conception on December 8, 2021. The Most Rev. William D. Byrne, Bishop of Springfield, Massachusetts, will bless the icon when he dedicates Our Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel next week.