You’ve met this Mary, but have you read her?

Redemptorists aim to promote message of renowned icon

She may be the best-known image of Mary in the western Church.

Our Mother of Perpetual Help is a Byzantine icon that dates back to the 15th century and is enshrined in the church of St. Alphonsus Liguori in Rome. Her name comes from the many miracles attributed to her.

Now that the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer order has successfully made her famous, they want to make sure you also hear her message.

“She is more than a beautiful sacramental,” Redemptorist Brother Dan Korn, an expert on the icon who gives talks and retreats on it across the globe, said from his office in Liguori, Mo. “Icons are the Gospel in image form.”

“Our Mother of Perpetual Help icon is about the mystery of redemption,” Brother Korn explained. “The incarnation, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus are proclaimed through the elements in the image.”

Last month the Redemptorists, a missionary order founded by St. Alphonsus Liguori, started a yearlong celebration leading up to April 26, 2016, which will mark the 150th anniversary of their filling a pontifical mandate to protect and promote the image.

Armed with new knowledge they have about the icon, they have a new mission.

“For the next 150 years, we want to spread the message contained in the iconography,” Brother Korn said. “We want to teach people how to read and pray the icon.”

The Gospel in images

The Redemptorists were entrusted the image in 1866 by Blessed Pope Pius IX who told them to “Make her known throughout the world!”

“We have done that very effectively,” Brother Korn said. “But it’s only since 1990 that we have understood in depth the iconography.”

That year, because the icon was showing signs of wear, the order had it restored by Vatican Museum experts and gained a deeper appreciation for its rich symbolism.

“When we were given this beautiful piece of sacred art from the Byzantine tradition, we didn’t understand it, but now we do,” Brother Korn said.

“Christian icons express in images the same Gospel message that Scripture communicates by words,” notes the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1160). “Image and word illuminate each other.”

That’s why icons are described as being “written,” rather than “painted,” Brother Korn said, adding that one can only understand their message if they can “read” the symbols in the image.

“Reading it leads us into deep prayer,” Brother Korn said. “The icon’s elements are all ‘windows’ … into divine mystery.”

“(Our Mother of Perpetual Help) is a mirror of redemptive love, meaning that everything in the icon is about how we have been redeemed by Christ,” Brother Korn said.

Reading the icon

Our Mother of Perpetual Help’s message is shared in five key elements: Mary’s face, her hands, the Christ child, the angels, and the color gold.

“Those are the five ‘chapters’ we read in the icon,” Brother Korn said, adding that symbols were vital in the Middle Ages when most of the population couldn’t read words.

1 PH image from Liguori_DC - Copy (2)

The Christ Child:

Jesus, as if straining toward his mission to redeem humanity, is looking over his shoulder at the Archangel Gabriel who holds the cross and nails of Christ’s future crucifixion. His gold sandals represent his divinity.

“This is a Greek icon and in Greek hierarchy only the prince of the king wore gold sandals,” Brother Korn explained. “The falling gold sandal … is symbolic of Jesus’ humility in taking on our humanity.”

Mary’s face:

The veil above Mary’s face has an eight-pointed star, which is an ancient sign used to identify the Mother of God. Her sad eyes catch the viewer’s attention and draw them into the image. Her veil exposes a bit of her right earlobe, which signifies listening. Across from her ear is a tiny mouth, which represents silence.

“Her face is telling us that in order to listen to the word of God we must be silent in his presence,” Brother Korn said.

1 PH image from Liguori_DC - Copy

The angels:

The angel holding the cross and nails is bowing toward Mary, who bows toward the angel, signifying this is Archangel Gabriel of the Annunciation.

The angel holding a jar of gall, a lance and a sponge on a stick from Christ’s passion and death, represents Archangel Michael, who is the Old Testament protector of Israel and the New Testament guardian of the Church. He is protecting the Virgin and Child and the person viewing the image.  (Greek letters in the icon also identify the angels, the “Mother of God” and “Jesus Christ.”)

Mary’s hands:1 PH image from Liguori_DC - Copy (3)

One hand is cradling the infant Jesus while the other holds his hands. Mary’s upper hand points to the child’s heart, and beyond that to the cross.

“The Blessed Mother is presenting Jesus to the person praying before (the icon),” Brother Korn said. “This is the Gospel message she is proclaiming: the Incarnate, Crucified, Risen Word of God.”


The gold in the background and on the characters denote the Kingdom of God and God’s grace.

“The gold is the light of God coming through (the figures) into us,” Brother Korn said, adding that it signifies the grace of God that transforms us.

Prayer for Jubilee Year

“Mother of Perpetual Help, your glory we celebrate, your icon we venerate. Work new signs and wonders in this your jubilee year. O holy Mother of God, show us Christ your Son. Amen.”


In 1894, just 24 years after the railroad reached Denver, the Redemptorists accepted a request from Bishop Nicholas Matz to serve St. Joseph Parish in downtown Denver.

The missionary order, whose official name is Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, arrived to a parish sparse of people and dense with debt. Soon their work resulted not only in solvency, but eventually a large and devout congregation.

“God bless the sons of Liguori,” Bishop Matz wrote. “This boon I shall never forget.”

Other Redemptorists also served at parishes in Greeley and Fort Lupton, and the outlying missions in Eaton, Ault, Platteville and Wattenberg.  The Redemptorists returned St. Joseph Parish to the Archdiocese of Denver in 2005.

Although they no longer operate parishes in the archdiocese, their presence continues as the headquarters for the order’s Denver Province, which was established in 1996, is located here.

Eight Redemptorists currently living in Denver help out at local parishes throughout the archdiocese.

The Redemptorists are a missionary congregation of priests and brothers founded in 1732 by St. Alphonsus Liguori in Naples, Italy. Some 5,000 Redemptorists are presently ministering among the poor and most abandoned in nearly every part of the world.

Everywhere the order goes, they spread devotion to Mary under her title Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and many parishes in the Denver Archdiocese continue to hold Perpetual Help novenas one night a week.

Last month the order began preparing to mark next year’s 150th anniversary of protecting the original 15th century Perpetual Help icon, housed at St. Alphonsus Liguori Church in Rome, and promoting the devotion, which they were charged with by Blessed Pope Pius IX on April 26, 1866.

Redemptorist parishes in the United States will send representatives to St. Alphonsus “Rock” Church in St. Louis on June 26, 2016, the feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, for a jubilee celebration at the site where the weekly Perpetual Help novena began in North America. The “Rock” Church is an official pilgrimage site for all who visit the shrine in 2016, a spokesman said. The order is also organizing pilgrimages to pray before the original icon in Rome.


Phone: 303-370-0035

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”