Actually, the number of these saints venerated as a group was not always the same. In France, for in stance, the Fourteen Holy Helpers were fifteen, because Our Lady was added to the others. Furthermore, the list of the “Helpers” varied. In some places in Germany local favorite saints like St. Dorothy or St. Nicholas of Myra (“Santa Klaus”) replaced some of the saints more widely invoked under this group title.
It was apparently German Dominican priests who, in the 14th century, first promoted devotion to the cluster of fourteen well-known saints. Cistercian and Benedictine monks adopted the devotion and further promoted it. From Germany it spread to Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary, Italy and France; but Germany remained the real center.
Why cultivate a group of saints? The theory was that since each of those 14 promised (or was said to have promised) while still alive to intercede after death on behalf of certain human needs, the intensive invocation of the whole company would take care of the majority of mankind’s necessities. They were called in Germany the NOTHELFER – “Helpers in Need.”
The 14 usually included are the following. St. Denis of Paris (invoked against headaches and rabies); St. Erasmus of Elmo (for colic or cramps); St. Blaise (for throat ailments); St. Barbara (protector against lightning, fire, explosion, and sudden, unprovided death); St. Margaret (against diabolic possession and for pregnant women); St. Catherine of Alexandria (patroness of philosophers, students and wheelwrights); St. George (for soldiers); Sts. Achatius and Eustace (for hunters); St. Pantaleon the Physician (against tuberculosis); St. Giles (against epilepsy, insanity and sterility); St. Cyriac (against diabolic possession); St. Vitus (against epilepsy and “St. Vitus’ Dance” – chorea); and St. Christopher the Giant (patron of travelers).
In the middle of the 15th century, the devotion to the “Vierzehnheiligen” (“Fourteen Saints” or “Fourteen Martyrs”) found its focus in the diocese of Bamberg. The literature distributed at their shrine told the following story about the origin of the cult. About 1445, it was said, the son of the shepherd employed by the Cistercian monastery at Langheim near Bamberg had a vision of the Christchild surrounded by 14 children. The Christ told the shepherd’s son that these were the 14 Holy Helpers. They wished to have a chapel built in their honor on that spot, for they promised to dispense from thence group favors. The chapel was forthwith built. Destroyed in the Reformation period, it was reconstructed in 1553. The 1553 church was succeeded in 1772 by the present basilica, a notable model of German Rococo architecture by the famous architect Balthasar Neumann. This still remains a popular shrine for the dioceses of Bamberg and Wuerzburg. At one time there was at least one church in America dedicated to the Fourteen Holy Helpers – a church in Baltimore, presumably having a German-American congregation. But devotion to the Holy Helpers never took deep root in this country.
No doubt these Holy Helpers, all recognized saints, inspired piety and obtained favors. It was, however, one of those medieval popular devotions that could easily create the impression that we venerate the saints, whether singly or in groups, simply because of their ability to grant favors, and not also as people whom we are expected to imitate. The “gimme” approach smacks of haggling in the marketplace; and while the saints, as our friends, cannot object to a little haggling, I am sure that they are willing to be our “need-helpers” mainly to persuade us to become more like the Christ who dispenses his graces through them.
–Father Robert F. McNamara