St Agatha

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Saint Agatha. Virgin martyr. Born in 231 AD at Catania or Palermo, Sicily, she was martyred in approximately 251. She is one of seven women, who, along with the Blessed Virgin Mary, are commemorated by name in the Canon of the Mass.

One of the most highly-venerated virgin martyrs of Christian antiquity, Agatha was put to death during the persecution of Decius in Catania, Sicily.

Although the martyrdom of St Agatha is authenticated, and her veneration as a saint had spread beyond her native place even in antiquity, there is no reliable information concerning the details of her death. There are many stories of gruesome tortures that she suffered in prison, including having her breasts cut off. St Peter the Apostle is said to have appeared to her and healed her wounds.

According to Maltese tradition, some time during the persecution of Roman Emperor Decius, Agatha, together with some friends, fled Sicily, and took refuge in Malta where she lived in a cave at Rabat, praying and teaching the Christian faith to children.

She eventually returned to Sicily, where she was arrested and brought before Quintanus, praetor of Catania, who condemned her to torture and imprisonment. The original crypt of St Agatha was made into an underground basilica, which from early ages was venerated by the Maltese.

Agatha is buried at the Badia di Sant'Agata, Catania. Two early churches are dedicated to her in Rome noteably the Church of Sant'Agata dei Goti in Via Mazzarino, which has mosaics from 460 and traces of a fresco, overpainted by Gismondo Cerrini in 1630. In the 6th century, the church was adapted to Arianism, hence its name 'Saint Agatha of Goths', and later reconsecrated by Gregory the Great, who confirmed her traditional sainthood.

Agatha is also depicted in the mosaics of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, where she appears, richly dressed, in the procession of female martyrs along the north wall. Her image forms an initial I in the Sacramentary of Gellone, which dates from the end of the 8th century.

Saint Agatha is often depicted carrying her excised breasts on a platter, as by Bernardino Luini's Saint Agatha (1510-15) in the Galleria Borghese, Rome, in which Agatha contemplates the breasts on a standing salver held in her hand.

Basques have a tradition of gathering on Saint Agatha's Eve and going round the village visiting homes. People can choose to hear a song about her life, accompanied by the beats of their walking sticks on the floor or a prayer for the household's deceased. After that, the homeowner donates food to the chorus.

An annual festival to commemorate the life of Saint Agatha takes place in Catania, Sicily, from February 3 to 5. The festival culminates in a great all-night procession through the city for which hundreds of thousands of the city's residents turn out.

Agatha is patron saint of Catania, Molise, Malta, San Marino, Zamarramala in Spain, and Palermo where an eruption of Mount Etna stopped after the people prayed for her intercession. She is also the patron saint of breast cancer patients, martyrs, wet nurses, bell-founders, bakers, fire, earthquakes, and eruptions of Mount Etna.