by Jill Ragar Esfeld
MISSION WOODS — “I think we need these Holy Helpers right now in our time,” said artist Joan Bennett reflecting on the book she recently completed with writer Allison Lunsford, a member of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne Church here.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Bennett and Lunsford undertook the task of bringing back to “life” the saints who were venerated during the scourge of the Black Plague.
Those saints came to be known as the Fourteen Holy Helpers (see below).
The idea for the book grew out of Bennett’s own experience of a very personal miracle.
When the sacred relics of St. Maria Goretti were on tour in the United States, Bennett’s daughter Mary was 26 years old and suffering from celiac disease.
“We lived in the Missouri area at the time, and we went to the cathedral to see the relics,” recalled Bennett. “I begged for [St. Maria’s] intercession for my daughter.
“She was completely healed — obviously, that touched our lives.”
To facilitate her daughter’s consequent devotion to St. Maria, Bennett painted a portrait of the saint.
She took such pleasure in the process that she continued to paint portraits of other saints.
“I love Catholic art,” she explained. “I love my faith. And I love portraits —people’s faces, their eyes especially.
“Over the years, it just kind of developed. I have 276 saint portraits that I’ve done now.”
When Bennett displayed her portraits at shows and different parishes, she would talk with patrons about the saints.
She was surprised to find not many people had heard of the Fourteen Holy Helpers.
“In all of the tens of thousands of canonized saints,” she said, “there are only 14 that have been chosen to have the name of the Holy Helpers.
“I thought of how they came about in the time of plague, and I thought they’re really kind of important for our time.”
Bennett began painting portraits of the Holy Helpers, and consequently was inspired to tell their stories. She wanted to create a book, but she needed a writer.
Now a resident of Pennsylvania, Bennett had attended St. Rose Philippine Duchesne Church when she lived in the archdiocese and became friends with Lunsford.
“And, so, she brought this idea to me,” said Lunsford. “To write stories that would bring the saints to life and show their personalities.
“That was how the book came about.”
Beyond telling vibrant stories of the saints, Lunsford wanted her writing to appeal to every age group.
“That was the intention,” she said. “Older children could read it on their own. Young children could experience it as a read-aloud with their parents.
“And I was really hoping to make it enjoyable for older people as well.”
As Bennett completed the portraits, she sent them to Lunsford for inspiration in writing their stories.
Lunsford did intensive research, relying on sources such as “The Golden Legend,” a collection of hagiographies by Jacobus de Voragine; “Butler’s Lives of the Saints”; and “The Victories of the Martyrs” by St. Alphonsus Ligouri.
The stories were written during the height of the pandemic, and Lunsford developed an accompanying devotion for each Holy Helper.
“Each of the saints has their patronage for different illnesses,” she said. “So, each of them is a very powerful saint on their own.
“All of them together — there is strength in numbers. So, having all 14 of them felt very powerful for something as global as COVID.”
The book was published in July 2021. Bennett and Lunsford hope it becomes a tool for people of all ages to learn about these dynamic saints.
“Joan and I both have felt their help in many situations,” said Lunsford. “And we just want other people to have that help as well.”
Bennett, who believes she has already experienced one miracle, hopes others will understand the help and love available through the intercession of saints.
“They’re our friends, they’ve made it,” she said. “They want to help us make it, too.
“They’re ready, they’re waiting for us to go to them.”
The Fourteen Holy Helpers
These fourteen saints were classified as the “Holy Helpers” during the scourge of the Black Plague in the 1300s:
• St. Acacius
• St. Barbara
• St. Blaise
• St. Catherine of Alexandria
• St. Christopher
• St. Cyriacus
• St. Denis
• St. Erasmus
• St. Eustace
• St. George
• St. Giles
• St. Margaret of Antioch
• St. Pantaleon
• St. Vitus
Published by EnRoute Books and Media, “The Fourteen Holy Helpers” is available online through enroutebooksandmedia.com and amazon.com, and at many Catholic bookstores.
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