During the chastizing period of the Black Death that devastated Europe from 1346-1349 there were many saints that the faithful invoked against the plague and sudden death. Among these were those who a century later would be known as the Fourteen Holy Helpers. (A brief history of the devotion of the Holy Helpers, and the vision that initiated that devotion, is wonderfully related in a little book, The Fourteen Holy Helpers, by Fr. Bonaventure Hammer, O.F.M. A good deal of the material that follows is taken from this book.)
The Holy Helpers are:
Saint George, a victim of the Diocletian persecution. What little is known about this popular saint comes by way of Saint Ephrem the Syrian. George was born in Cappadocia (Turkey) but moved with his noble mother to Palestine after the death of his father. Being of robust body he enlisted in the army and advanced to a high rank of tribune. When the persecution of Diocletian broke out George rebuked him for his cruelty. Consequently, the brave tribune was cast into prison in the city of Lydda and tortured. No torment could move him to renounce Christ. Rather, he said to the judge, “It were better for you to acknowledge the true God and seek His kingdom.” While being tortured and tied to a spiked wheel, George was encouraged by a vision of Our Lord. Many witnesses were converted by his steadfast firmness of faith. Finally, he was sent to heaven by being beheaded. The year was 303. Saint George is invoked against diseases of the skin and palsy.
Saint Blaise, bishop of Sebaste in Armenia. He was arrested by order of Emperor Licinius in the year 316 and, after being tortured with iron combs, was thrown into prison. Visitors, however, were allowed to see him, among whom was a woman whose child had swallowed a fishbone that could not be dislodged. The bishop blessed the child and he was cured. Afterward, Bishop Blaise was beheaded. He is invoked against diseases of the throat.
Saint Aegidius (Giles). He was from Athens, Greece. He left the city and retired to a remote place in France where he accepted a few other men who desired to live under his direction as monks. Charles Martel, grandfather of Charlemagne, King of the Franks, called him to court as a counselor. He warned the king to confess a certain sin that the king had concealed. After confessing it Charles received peace. Giles returned to his monastic solitude and lived to a ripe old age. He died in 712 and is invoked against crippling diseases. He and Saint Erasmus are the only ones of the Fourteen Holy Helpers who did not die martyrs.
Saint Denis (Dionysius, +95). Saint Denis, the earliest of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, is perhaps the most renowned on account of the fact that he was converted by Saint Paul when the Apostle gave his famous sermon at the Areopagus. Saint Paul ordained him a priest and the first bishop of Athens. To acquaint himself better with the holy people in the land of the Savior he visited Jerusalem where he met several apostles, Saint Luke, and Our Lady herself. So radiantly beautiful was the Mother of God that Saint Denis declared that he would have adored her as God had he not Faith in the divinity of her Son. Back in Athens, Bishop Denis was gaining so many converts by his preaching that some idolatrous priests conspired to take his life. He fled to Rome where he was commissioned by Pope Clement not to return to Athens but to go to preach in Gaul (France). He and his companions labored throughout France eventually settling in Lutetia which later was named Paris. Here, in the year 95, Bishop Denis was martyred by being beheaded on the hill later called Montmartre in his honor. A church was built on the exact place where his head fell to the ground. Denis is invoked against demonic assault.
Saint Eustace. After Saint Denis, he is the next earliest of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, having been martyred under Emperor Trajan in 118. As a pagan, named Placidus, he had been a general in the imperial army. One day, while hunting, he saw an apparition of Christ on the Cross standing between the antlers of a stag. Our Lord told him to become a Christian in order to attain eternal life. His wife, separately, saw the same vision. They both, with their two children, went to the Bishop of Rome, who baptized them all. Placidus, now named Eustace, was recalled to the army by Trajan. He served his post but, after a certain victory, he was asked to offer incense to the gods in thanksgiving. Upon his refusal, he and his family were thrown to the lions. The beasts would do them no harm. He was then put in an oven and burned to death along with his wife. Their bodies, however, remained intact, and they were buried by devout Christians. A church was later built in their honor. Eustace is invoked against fires.
Saint Erasmus. Some accounts have him as a bishop of Antioch, others as the bishop of Campania in Italy. During the persecution of Diocletian he fled to Lebanon living in the mountains as a recluse. Here he was fed by a raven. Being discovered by enemies of the Faith, he was cast into prison in Italy and horribly tortured. Miraculously, he survived, even after having his intestines partially cut out. From prison he converted many. After being delivered by an angel and healed he preached the Faith far and wide winning thousands of converts. Finally, he was thrown into prison again when he returned to Italy. Once again, however, he was freed by an angel. He entered his glory peacefully in 303. Erasmus is invoked against stomach disorders. He is also the patron saint of sailors. This is on account of the Saint Erasmus (or Elmo) Fire which fishermen of the high sea say precedes a storm as a warning of danger.
Saint Cyriacus. He was a Roman deacon. When persecution broke out under Diocletian Christians were forced into slave labor building what became known as “the Baths of Diocletian.” Cyriacus volunteered to take the place of an old laborer. Renowned in all Rome for virtue even among the pagans, he was summoned by the emperor to cure his daughter who was stricken with blindness. The holy deacon came, and in the Name of Jesus, did just that. From thence, now under the favor of the emperor, he was sent to Persia to cure the daughter of the emperor’s friend King Sapor. With that cure Cyriacus returned to Rome. When Diocletian died, the new emperor, Maximin, intensified the persecution against Christians and threw Cyriacus into prison. The holy deacon, along with his companions, was tortured at the rack after he refused to sacrifice to idols. Finally, together, they were all beheaded. Cyriacus is invoked against eye diseases.
Saint Christopher. Saint Christopher’s conversion story is astounding. He, born Reprobus, was a pagan filled with pride on account of his immense height and massive muscles. He hired his services out to a pagan king who was a servant of Satan. Hearing the king speak of the “greatness” of the devil Reprobus was astonished to see the king bless himself at the mention of the Name Jesus. The king then said that this Jesus was more powerful than Satan and conquered him by His Cross. Reprobus ended up seeking the advice of a holy monk on the question of the power of this Jesus. He was hit by grace. The monk instructed him in the Faith and after baptizing him told him to go to the banks of a certain river, build himself a hut, pray, and use his strength to help people cross the river where there was no bridge. We all know the next part of the story. A Child comes and asks Reprobus to carry Him across the river. The Child, mid-passage, became so heavy that the giant carrier asked Him what was happening. The Child answered, “Thou beareth the Creator of heaven and earth. I am Jesus Christ, thy King and Lord, and henceforth thou shalt be called Christopher (Christ bearer).” With a renewed zeal Christopher returned to his birthplace in Lycia (Turkey) and there preached the Faith where he converted 48,000 (according to Saint Ambrose). The cruel Emperor Decius, having heard of this, sent four hundred soldiers to arrest Christopher. Instead of taking hold of him, however, they were themselves converted. Eventually Christopher was seized and cast into prison where he was terribly tortured. Despite the tortures neither fire nor arrows could kill him. At last he gave his soul to God after being beheaded. The year was 250.
Saint Vitus (Guy). He was born in Sicily to pagan parents who gave him over to the care of a nurse named Crescentia. The nurse and her husband Modestus were Catholics. They had the baby baptized and raised him in the Faith. When Vitus returned to his father, Hylas, the unnatural man was enraged. He had his son scourged and then handed him over to the pagan governor. Crescentia and Modestus were also discovered and arrested. They, together with Vitus, were terribly tortured, but they held firm in the Faith. They managed to escape prison and fled together to Italy, but, later, were arrested again under the Diocletian persecution. No tortures were able to conquer them, including having boiling pitch poured over them. Even the lions refused to attack them in the Colosseum. All of these signs only infuriated the emperor even more. They were finally put to death on the rack. The year was 303. Saint Vitus in invoked against paralysis, nervous diseases, and epilepsy. (See Saint Vitus’ Dance)
Saint Pantaleon was a Christian physician in the employ of Emperor Maximin. The bad example of his fellow courtiers, however, seduced him and he abandoned the Faith. By the grace of God he was won back to the Faith by a zealous priest named Hermolaus. Pantaleon continued to practice medicine and gave away his father’s inheritance to the poor. Many were cured miraculously through his intercession when medicines proved useless. Eventually his reputation was such that Maximin had him seized and brought to court. Pantaleon professed his Faith without fear even offering a challenge of power to the pagan doctors at the court. A man with the palsy was brought in and the diabolical arts could do nothing to better him. Pantaleon prayed in the “Name of Jesus, the Son of God, I command thee to rise and be well.” And so it happened. With the conversion of many of the witnesses, however, the emperor became even more hardened. He ordered that the saint, his former physician, be nailed to a tree and then beheaded. The year was 308. Saint Pantaleon is invoked against lung diseases.
Saint Acatius, from Cappodocia, was a Roman soldier, a captain in the army during the reign of Emperor Diocletian. One day, while on a campaign with his troops, he heard a voice saying, “Call on the God of the Christians.” He responded immediately to this grace. He sought instruction in the Faith and was baptized. After this, he tried to convert those under his command. Hearing of this the emperor cast him into prison, tortured him on the rack, and had him scourged. Having survived this, he was handed over to a tribune named Bibianus. Asked his name he said, “My name is Christian, because I am a follower of Christ.” He was beaten with clubs and, after seven days in another prison, he was transported to Byzantium covered with wounds. While on this journey a consoling voice was heard from the clouds, “Acatius be firm.” The soldiers heard it and were terrified. Many fellow prisoners, who heard the voice, were converted. Finally, after angels healed his wounds, he was beheaded. The year was 303. He is invoked against headaches.
The last three Holy Helpers are women.
The first is Saint Barbara who died in 235. Two cities claim to be the place of her birth: Heliopolis in Egypt and Nicomedia in Asia Minor. Heliopolis is more likely because she was converted by a disciple of Origen who taught near there in Alexandria. On account of the growth of Christianity in that country, her pagan father, Dioscorus, confined her to a tower so she would not hear about Jesus Christ. Barbara was beautiful and virtuous and prayed to know the true God. Somehow she heard about Christ and got a message to Origen asking for his help. He sent her one of his disciples who came to the tower disguised as a physician. After instructing her, the “physician” baptized her. She then professed her faith boldly to her father after destroying whatever idols she could lay her hands on. Her father was enraged. Unable to dissuade her by scourgings, he turned her over to the pagan proconsul Marcian. Her father actually stood by, exulting, while she underwent these horrible torments. When none of the tortures did her harm, her own father took a sword and cut her head off. He and Marcian were punished and died by lightning bolts. Saint Barbara is invoked against lightning and explosions.
Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Her story is similar to Saint Barbara in that she was a virtuous pagan, daughter, in fact of the Queen of Egypt, Sabinella. Through the acquaintance of a holy hermit Catherine learned about the Catholic Faith. She had a vision of Our Lord and Our Lady prior to her baptism, but Our Lord would not receive her until she was baptized. After her baptism, Jesus appeared to her again and put a ring on her finger. After the death of her mother, who died a Christian, the evil Emperor Maximin came to Alexandria and began to persecute the faithful. Catherine was renowned before her conversion for her knowledge of philosophy. Because of her renown and nobility Maximin tried to turn her against the Faith by sending fifty pagan philosophers to refute her publicly in a trial in the pagan temple. Catherine answered them so well that they all converted. Maximin then put her to the torture. She was, like other saintly martyrs, tied to a spiked wheel. When the executioners turned her on the wheel the instrument of torture broke apart. The emperor’s wife, seeing, afterwards, a great light shining in the cell of Catherine, herself converted and died a martyr. Maximin then had Catherine beheaded. Tradition in the East has it that angels buried the saint on Mount Sinai. She was martyred in 307. Saint Catherine is the patron saint of philosophers and is invoked in lawsuits.
Saint Margaret. Another victim of the persecution of Diocletian, Margaret was born in Antioch and raised a Catholic by a devout nurse, for whom, according to one account, she tended sheep. When she returned to her pagan father he, hearing her testify to her Faith and to her vow of virginity, was greatly displeased. A prefect of the city, Alybrius, took a fancy to Margaret and tried to convince her to marry him. When she refused, and said she was espoused to the King of Heaven, he brought her to his court and tried to dispute with her, even citing the Bible, about her “Crucified God.” Margaret answered, “The books of the Christians would have told you that the Crucified rose on the third day, and that He ascended into heaven.” With this rebuke, the prefect had her tortured on the rack and pierced with iron hooks. Then, while she was still living, he cast her into prison to die. Therein, a heavenly light appeared and a celestial visitor came and healed her from her wounds . Alybrius seeing her wounds healed was not moved. He had her tortured again with flaming torches. The fire did her no harm and many, witnessing this miracle, converted. Finally, she was beheaded. The year was 304. Saint Margaret in invoked against kidney diseases.