When Millions Were Dropping Dead From the Plague, The 14 Holy Helpers Were Summoned to Intercede
The Fourteen Holy Helpers are a group of saints venerated together in the Roman Catholic Church. Veneration of this group of saints (known also as auxiliary saints) began during the 14th century, as it was believed that their combined intercession was particularly effective against various illnesses, in particular the Black Death that was sweeping across Europe during that century.
The fourteen saints are St. George, St. Blaise, St. Pantaleon, St. Vitus, St. Erasmus, St. Christopher, St. Giles, St. Cyriacus, St. Agathius, St. Denis, St. Eustace, St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Margaret of Antioch, and St. Barbara.
These Fourteen Holy Helpers are recorded to have first been venerated during the 14th century in the Rhineland (in what is today Germany), and were known as Nothelfer (translated as ‘Helpers in Need’). During that time (around the middle of the 14th century), Europe was being devastated by the Black Death, hence the saints were invoked for protection against this dreadful plague.
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13th Century Icon of Saint Panteleimon (Pantaleon).
Saints to Help with Particular Ailments
Each of the saints had a particular illness that they were invoked against. The intercession of St. George was believed to have been particularly effective against diseases of the skin and palsy, and this saint was also prayed to for the protection of domestic animals from diseases; St. Blaise was invoked against diseases of the throat; St. Pantaleon’s intercession was believed to counter lung diseases; St. Vitus was invoked for protection from paralysis, nervous diseases, and epilepsy; St. Erasmus’ intercession safeguarded one from stomach disorders; St. Christopher’s intercession was sought after for defense against the plague in general; St. Giles was invoked against crippling diseases; St. Cyriacus interceded for those suffering from eye diseases; Invoking St. Agathius was believed to ward off headaches / temptation, especially at the hour of death; St. Denis’ intercession was believed to prevent demonic assaults / headaches; and St. Eustace was invoked against fires / all kinds of difficulties, especially the ones occurring in families.
The Martyrdom of Saint Agathius. 16th century work by an anonymous artist from Toledo.
Three of the fourteen helpers are women, all of whom were virgin martyrs. These saints are said to have been at the heart of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, and the other 11 saints were probably invoked slightly later alongside these three saints. St. Catherine of Alexandria’s intercession protected one against sudden death / was sought after in lawsuits; Invoking St. Margaret of Antioch prevented kidney diseases; and St. Barbara was believed to intercede for sufferers of fever.
Honoring the Fourteen Holy Helpers
The cult of the Fourteen Holy Helpers gained such prominence in Europe that during the 15th century, Pope Nicholas V attached indulgences to the devotion of this group of saints. These indulgences, however, no longer apply today.
Each of the Holy Helpers has their own feast day. St. George’s feast day, for instance, is on the 23rd of April, whilst the feast day of St. Barbara is celebrated on the 4th of December. Nevertheless, in some places, the feast day of the Fourteen Holy Helpers is celebrated on the 8th of August. This, however, never became part of the General Roman calendar for universal veneration.
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During the 18th century, the Basilica of the Fourteen Holy Helpers was built in Bavaria, where this group of saints are known as the vierzehn Heiligen (translated as the ‘helper saints’). According to tradition, a young shepherd by the name of Hermann Leicht saw a child crying in a field belonging to a nearby Cistercian monastery whilst he was driving his sheep home in 1445. The child disappeared suddenly as Leicht tried to pick him up. The child reappeared sometime later at the same place, this time with two candles burning next to him. The child reappeared a third time about a year later, this time with a red cross on his chest, and was surrounded by 14 smaller children.
Hermann Leicht sees a crying child (above), the fourteen saints (below).
The shepherd was told that they were the Fourteen Holy Helpers, and that they desired a chapel where they could rest. Two burning candles are said to have descended from Heaven to that spot after that. Additionally, a seriously ill woman was cured some days after through the intercession of these saints. When the word spread to the monastery, a chapel was built at the spot, and became a pilgrimage site. It was during the 18th century that the basilica was built, as the chapel was no longer large enough to accommodate the pilgrims and it was in much need of repairs.