Finally, a woman!
Have you noticed that most of our saints with funny names are men? It’s not my fault. There just aren’t that many women on the Eastern calendar. In June alone the ratio of females to males is 3:22. It’s really nobody’s fault; it’s just a fact of former times. The male saints who made the cut were rulers or bishops or missionaries or at least writers. You couldn’t overlook them. There were simply fewer ladies in prominent roles. A few were empresses or abbesses or martyrs but it is often difficult to find out more than just a few scant details about them.
That is the case with St. Agrippina whose feast day is June 23. We don’t know much about her. But I am going to talk about her anyway because by writing about her I get to do not one, but four women. Agrippina had three holy companions who figure into her story. They were Bassa, Paula, and Agatonica.
St. Agrippina was a princess. She came from a noble Roman family which lived during the time of the Emperor Valerian, who reigned from 253–260 A.D. Valerian’s policies against Christians were brutal. Christian men of rank or title were forced first to give up their offices, then their property, and finally their lives. Women were stripped of their property and banished. Even lowly servants risked becoming the emperor’s slaves if they persisted in the Christian faith.
Valerian must have had something on his conscience because he wanted the Christians out of his sight. He demanded that they sacrifice to the gods. This would prove publicly that they were renouncing their faith. First, he threatened them with banishment. When that did not work, he soon called for their blood.
This was the world Agrippina was born into — hostile to even ordinary Christians but especially to those with rank or title, of whom Valerian wanted to make an example.
Agrippina was not just an ordinary citizen; she was a princess. And she was not just an ordinary Christian; she was a consecrated virgin, a early type of nun. When she resisted a pagan marriage, she was taken before a tribunal. She professed her faith in Christ and was handed over to the torturers. They scourged her and broke her bones. Some sources say she died of the scourging. Others say she was finally beheaded. The year was 262, during which time Valerian was a prisoner of war of the Persians but apparently his policies were still in force.
After her martyrdom, Agrippina’s three girlfriends bravely bore her body away from Rome, the city that ran with the blood of Christians. Bassa, Paula, and Agatonica, took the relic to Mineo, Sicily. A cloud is said to have covered them all the way from Rome to Sicily. I, for one, believe it. It would explain why they suffered no harm in doing so in a place that was hostile to Christians. Also, they were young girls traveling unprotected in a violent world, not to mention lugging a body around.
A church was later built on the site of Agrippina’s tomb in Mineo and became the site of miraculous cures, and pilgrimages. How this Italian girl got to be well beloved in the East is most likely due to the fact that just a short sea voyage away from Sicily is Greece. Sailors who invoked St. Agrippina against thunderstorms probably brought the devotion to Greece. From there it spread it throughout the Eastern church. In the 11th century, her relics were transferred at least partially to Constantinople.
St. Agrippina is not just beloved in the Eastern church. She will forever be honored in Sicily where she is patron saint of the city of Mineo.
In the United States, the Sicilian community of Boston’s North End continues that tradition. Each August, for more than 100 years, there is a four-day festival in honor of their “beautiful blond princess.” There are parades, music, games and, not to be missed, traditional Italian food. The celebration culminates with Mass and the veneration of a relic taken from St. Agrippina’s little finger and finally a procession with her statue through the streets.
Such recognition is fitting. St. Agrippina was as brave and true as the male saints who share her calendar page. And so were Bassa, Paula, and Agatonica. Now I hope that evens the score.