The Institute for Christian Formation
Saint Agatha, Virgin & Martyr
Feast Day (Memorial): February 5
The next time you are at Mass and Eucharistic Prayer I (the Roman Canon) is being prayed, listen carefully to the lists of Saints’ names. You will hear the name of Saint Agatha, whose feast day (an obligatory Memorial) is celebrated each year on February 5. Agatha, whose name comes from the Greek “agathos,” meaning "good," was an early Christian martyr. Like so many of the early martyrs, we really have very few facts about her life. We know she was a Christian who was martyred for her faith in her native Sicily during the persecution of Christians, most likely around the year 251 under the Emperor Decius. It is said she was a beautiful young women, perhaps just a young teen, at the time of her death. But also like so
many of the early Christian martyrs, over the years many legends grew to fill in the blanks of her short life.
One thing we do know is that Agatha was revered by early Christians, which is attested to by her inclusion in the Roman Canon. The cult surrounding her must have begun almost as soon as she was put to death. It is said that Sicilians prayed for her intercession to ward off a volcanic eruption of Mount Etna just the year after her death. To this day, Saint Agatha is invoked for protection again fire and volcanic eruptions.
Saint Lucy, whose feast we celebrate on December 13, was another young martyr, and the legends that surround Saint Lucy’s life tell that she went to Saint Agatha’s tomb to pray.
Giulio Campi, Entierro de Santa Agata
Burial of Saint Agnes, 1537
If you have still more interest in the multi-day “Festa di Sant'Agata” held each year in Catania, Sicily in February to honor Saint Agatha’s feast day, view the 52 minute video below, “Speciale Festa di Sant'Agata.” While it is in Italian, it is one of the best videos for showing the various aspects of this celebration.
Saint Agatha is the patron saint of Catania and Palermo in Sicily. Every year, the festival in Catania for her feast day festivities lasts several days and is one of the largest religious festivals in the world, full of tradition and pageantry, drawing a million people for the celebration! You can read more about this celebration here and here . One of the traditional pastries associated with Saint Agatha’s feast day is the “Minni di Virgini”, or “St. Agatha’s Breasts.” Learn more about this tradition here, complete with photos and a recipe.
The book, “The Stone Boudoir: Travels through the Hidden Villages of Sicily” by Theresa Maggio, has a chapter (chapter 27) on “The Feast of Saint Agatha.” This chapter provides a detailed and exceptionally good account of the celebration of the feast of Saint Agatha in Catania.
As was noted, it is said that Agatha was very beautiful. It is also said that she came from a very prominent family. The story continues that she caught the eye of the Roman senator, Quintianus, who wanted to marry her. When she refused, it is said he had her tortured and sent to a house of prostitution. In the midst of all the torture which is included in the legend of her life, Agatha’s virginity was preserved. One of the methods of torture connected with Agatha’s life, which has made its way into much of her art and iconography, is that her torturers cut off her breasts. You can find more information and links regarding this iconography of Saint Agatha here. The “Golden Legend,” written in the 13th century by Jacobus de Voragine, also relates much about the saints, including Saint Agatha and the cult that grew up around her. You can read this account of Saint Agatha here. Another tradition, more “local” in nature, which grew up around the cult of Agatha was that during the persecution by Emperor Decius, Agatha and some companions left their native Sicily for refuge in Malta. This legend says she spent a short period of time in a crypt teaching the Christian faith to children, before she decided it would be better to return to Sicily and witness to her faith there. At any rate, a church was eventually built over this crypt where she supposedly prayed, and the crypt and nearby catacombs are named in her honor. If you visit Malta today, you can tour Saint Agatha's Crypt, Catacombs and Museum.
Celebrate Saint Agatha's Feast Day at Home!
If you cannot travel to Sicily this year for the Festa di Sant'Agata, celebrate in your own home. Light one of the candles you just brought home from church on Candlemas (February 2), say a prayer asking for Saint Agatha’s intercession, and enjoy a homemade Minni di Virgini! Follow us on Facebook to keep up to date with our news and newest resources!