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Saint Agatha
by Jacqueline Alio

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Icon of Saint Agatha.Today Agatha is an unusual Christian name. It wasn't always so. Like Lucy, this early Christian saint came from Sicily. It is unknown whether Agatha was born in Palermo or Catania, the two major Sicilian cities.

If you were to ask someone from Palermo about St. Agatha, not only would they tell you that she is still considered one of the co-patrons of their city, but they might even show you the exact place where she was born, and the place where she left her footprint upon leaving the city when she was taken to Catania for trial.

Ask instead a resident of Catania about her, and they might also show you her place of birth, although being born in two places at the same time has never been considered one of the miracles of St. Agatha. Of course, there is no doubt that Catania is the city of her martyrdom, and the place where her bones (or at least most of them) rest today.

Who was St. Agatha? What do we know of her life?

According to the "Passio Sanctae Agathae" written during the fifth century AD (CE) in two versions, one in Greek and the other in Latin, Agatha was born during the first part of the third century (between the years 230 and 235) to a wealthy and noble family from Catania (and this should already be enough to place in doubt her birthplace at the site of the Church of Sant'Agata alla Guilla behind the Cathedral of Palermo). At the time, Catania was one of the busiest and most prosperous Roman cities in Sicily (certainly more so than the Roman city of Panormus, as Palermo was known). Agatha's parents owned land and houses, and they were Christians, so they raised their daughter according to this new religion.

The girl grew in beauty and purity and at the young age of fifteen she expressed her desire of becoming a consecrated virgin. Most probably though this did not occur before the age of twenty-one as during the early years of Christianity this often meant that a young woman became a deaconess, which is almost certainly the case of St. Agatha, who is represented in the 6th century mosaics of Ravenna wearing a white tunic and the long red veil ("flammeum") and stole typical of her rank in the Church, a fact that is also confirmed in the documents regarding her martyrdom.

As a deaconess, she would have had the task of teaching the Christian faith to new young followers and that of preparing them before they received Baptism and Holy Communion. Furthermore, in documents regarding her, she is referred to as a landowner, and at the time of the Roman Empire this status could only have been possible starting from the age of twenty-one.

During the Christian persecutions under Emperor Trajanus Decius (250-253 AD), the Roman prefect of Catania was a man called Quintianus, who, according to tradition, upon seeing Agatha one day fell madly in love with her and started to persecute her because she refused his advances. It is probable that this persecution was brought on with the intention of confiscating Agatha's family lands and goods, which would have been possible once she was condemned as a Christian. At first, Quintianus sent Agatha to Aphrodisia, probably a priestess of Venus, who practiced sacred prostitution, a common practice at the time.

It may have been around this time that Agatha sought refuge in Malta, where her catacombs are located at Rabat, but there is no certainty of this.

She and her followers tried to lure Agatha into following their ways with orgies, banquets and all kinds of psychological pressure, but after a month in Aphrodisia's custody, Agatha still refused to give up her virginity and her faith in Christ, so the priestess sent her back to Quintianus, who immediately began a trial against her.

After various interrogations, during which Agatha was unyielding and never gave in to Quintianus' pressures, the woman was first tortured in various ways and then her breasts (or one breast) were brutally cut off when she still resisted Quintianus' requests.

Following this mutilation, Agatha was sent to her cell without any salves or bandages, but that night St. Peter appeared to her accompanied by an angel, and he healed her wounds. A few days later, she was again brought before Quintianus, who asked the woman about the healing, and she answered that Christ had healed her. This was the last straw for the Roman prefect, who now hated Agatha with the same passion with which he had desired her: he ordered that she be burned on a bed of coals.

While Agatha lay burning on the hot coals, her red veil was miraculously left intact. Meanwhile, the city of Catania was shaken by an earthquake, and the people rebelled against Quintianus' terrible tortures towards the virgin. Out of fear of loosing his control over the city, the prefect had Agatha taken off the burning coals, and taken to her cell, where she died just a few hours later on February 5 in the year 251.

A year later, on the day commemorating her death, Mount Etna erupted and the lava started moving down towards the city of Catania. The inhabitants of the city rushed to Saint Agatha's tomb, took out her red veil, and held it up against the streaming lava, which suddenly halted before doing any harm.

From that day on she became the patron saint of Catania, and the people believe that the saint has saved their city a great number of times from natural catastrophes (earthquakes and eruptions), from the plague, and from the wrath of Emperor Fredrick II in the year 1231. All these intercessions from St. Agatha make it easier for us to understand the passion with which the people of Catania commemorate her feast on February 5 every year with a procession that lasts through the next day. The majority of her relics are kept in a beautiful urn in the Cathedral of Catania.

There are a number of relics kept in various churches in Palermo today: the bone of one of her upper arms at the Palatine Chapel; the bones of her forearm at the Cathedral; her braided hair at Sant'Agata La Guilla.

There is also a church called Sant'Agata La Pedata with a rather curious relic: a footprint left by the saint on a block of limestone when she supposedly left the city to go to Catania. This church was founded soon after in the year 300.

For many years, Agatha was one of the patrons of Palermo together with three other women: Christina, Nympha, and Oliva. In 1624, these saints lost some of their importance among the people of Palermo when the relics of Saint Rosalie were found.

Her feast is celebrated on 5 February in Catania, where she is the city's patroness.

About the Author: Historian Jacqueline Alio wrote Women of Sicily - Saints, Queens & Rebels and co-authored The Peoples of Sicily - A Multicultural Legacy.

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© 2009 Jacqueline Alio