As Hurricane Matthew whipped up Florida’s Atlantic coast in 2016, Beth Williby got scared.
“That hurricane, in particular, just got my back up,” the Jacksonville mom of four recalled. “So, I did what any modern woman would do, and I Googled: Who do you pray to for protection from hurricanes?”
Her top result delivered the odd title of a special intermediary long known to Catholics across the Gulf Coast and beyond as the go-to gal for spiritual defense against wind-swept rain bands and storm surge floods.
Our Lady of Prompt Succor — a phrase that means “quick help” — is a version of the Virgin Mary known for delivering to her son, Jesus Christ, the prayers of those seeking “motherly care and consolation.”
“Through the intercession of Our Lady of Prompt Succor may we be spared damage to life and property during the hurricane season!” reads the page dedicated to the hurricane season, which begins Tuesday, at the website of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
With as many as five major hurricanes predicted this year, Our Lady’s spiritual in-box soon is sure to be teeming. And there’s little doubt a big swath of messages will arrive from Louisiana, a state over which she reigns as patroness and the principle setting of her backstory.
‘The miraculous shifting of winds’
Lore holds that a French nun in 1803 hoped to join her cousin at the Ursuline Convent in New Orleans. But her local bishop, not wanting her to leave, insisted she get permission from the Pope, who was then a prisoner of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The nun wrote to the Pontiff and prayed this before a statue of Mary: “If you obtain for me a prompt and favorable answer to this letter, I make the promise to have you honored in New Orleans under the title of Our Lady of Prompt Succor.”
And so it was.
Our Lady of Prompt Succor also is credited for “the miraculous shifting of winds” that in 1788 and 1794 saved the Ursuline Convent in New Orleans from fire as well as with ensuring that a force of 3,000 Americans held off a British fleet three times its size during the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, the shrine’s official history states.
When she earned a special papal honor in 1895, the women of New Orleans “donated their prized jeweled necklaces, bracelets, brooches, rings and earrings to have … crowns fashioned in gold and precious jewels” for the statue of Our Lady of Prompt Succor cradling the infant Jesus, the history reads.
Since then, statues of the “quick help” iteration of Mary and her son have included golden robes, said Mary Lee Harris, assistant to the archivist at the Ursuline Convent Archives and Museum.
‘The strength to take on whatever is coming’
Seen as having aided triumphs over fire, war and more, Our Lady of Prompt Succor soon became known as “the go-to for any disaster,” including the devastating natural ones that can barrel through south Louisiana most any summer: hurricanes, Harris said.
It’s a smart play by a people of faith who often choose their holy liaisons based on circumstances, such as St. Anthony when items go missing or to St. Jude when hope seems lost.
“She is the intercessor to her son — but she does it quick,” Harris said, stressing the factor that’s perhaps most key when a storm is churning in the Gulf of Mexico.
Still, as people of any religious tradition might know, blessings don’t always arrive as requested.
When Hurricane Katrina walloped New Orleans in 2005, the flood that followed pushed putrid, brackish water into the 6-foot raised basement of the National Votive Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor in the city’s Uptown section, Harris said. Mechanical equipment and electrical and computer wiring were destroyed, along with a catalog of damage done to the adjacent girls’ school, Ursuline Academy.
“People joked. They said, ‘We made a mistake. … What happened was that we forgot to pray for the levees not to break,’ ” Harris said.
The real godsend, though, might have been what happened a little more than four months later when hundreds of worshippers showed up to the shrine for a Mass of thanksgiving on Our Lady of Prompt Succor’s feast day, she said.
“What they were doing was saying ‘thank you’ to Our Lady for saving our families and for allowing us to come back and giving us the courage and the fortitude to start rebuilding,” Harris said.
Indeed, Williby offers prayers to the devotion just as she attends to hurricane checklist items, from boarding up windows to filling bathtubs with fresh water to checking flashlight batteries.
“For me personally, it’s all about peace,” said Williby, who blogs at A Welcome Grace and Blessed Is She. “It’s about knowing that I have done the physical preparations I need to do, and I am asking for her to pray that we stay safe. But ultimately, our fate is not for us to decide.
“It’s not that I’m asking for the storm to part and go around our house,” she continued. “I’m asking to bring us peace and let us get through this however that’s going to be and that God grant us the strength to take on whatever is coming.”