3rd Century Sicilian martyr, patron saint of bell-founders. Died c. 250 CE
"Jesus Christ, Lord of all, you see my heart, you know my desires. Possess all that I am. I am your sheep: make me worthy to overcome the devil."
Not much is known of the historical Agatha, other than her country of birth. Both Palermo and Catania claim her birthplace, but as with so many martyrs of that era, far more emphasis is placed on her death than her life.
Both the Catholic Church and Greek Orthodox Church record similar tales of her Christian life, but again, they are likely to have been embellished to a degree - most tales grow in the telling (Most Catholic scholars acknowledge that the tale is just that, a fiction). What is known is that she was sufficiently attractive to draw the attention of men of rank and influence.
Beauty and the Beast
It is said that Agatha was born to a wealthy and influential family and dedicated her life to God at an early age. This was quite a dangerous move, as there was a good deal of persecution of Christians at this time. In addition, her beauty was such that many men desired to marry her, or at least have sex with her. She declined all such offers, preferring to follow a chaste life devoted to worship.
All this changed when Quinctianus, a local magistrate, fell for her, and determined to have his way with her. When the Emperor Decius pronounced an edict outlawing Christian worship, Quinctianus saw a way to fulfill his desires. He arranged for her arrest, and personally saw to it that he should be the one to try her. Once she came to court before him, he outlined the fate that awaited her should she persist in her course of action, namely torture and execution. Privately, he made an offer to drop all charges if she would acquiesce and take him as her lover, expecting her to crumble in the face of his threats. Instead (predictably), she refused, uttering the words above.
Torture and Torment
Furious, Quinctianus handed her over to the charge of a local brothel, where she was kept for a month. Understandably, the young woman declined to sleep with any of the customers, but was repeatedly beaten and raped (some tellings state that her virginity was miraculously preserved, however). After a month of this, Quinctianus (presumably not worried about her now being far from virgin) brought her before him again, still intent on her coming to him willingly. Again she declined, announcing her faith in Jesus and God, who had promised her more than he could ever offer.
Again, Quinctianus determined to break her spirit and will. She was given over to prison (which, whilst unpleasant, at least afforded her freedom from the sex-crazed atmosphere of the brothel), but again she was unshaken in her resolve. Quinctianus finally realised that she would not give in, and determined to put her through a series of tortures, in a desperate hope that she would accept his advances.
Whilst no torture could be said to be pleasant, Quinctianus planned a series of physical assaults aimed at her womanhood. He had her body whipped and scourged. He arranged for her to be flailed with rakes and tormented on the rack. As a final attack on her dignity, her breasts were cut off. Denied any medical attention, and kept in a dark cell whilst not being attended by her tormentors, her faith nevertheless remained strong. Saint Peter visited her and strengthened her spirit with words of encouragement, and her broken body with a miraculous salve.
None of this had any effect on her prime tormentor. Unmoved by the miracle, and after four days of the ordeal, he watched as her body was rolled over burning coals. Agatha prayed only to keep her faith intact until her death. After her body was returned to the cell after this final, horrible indignity, there was an earthquake, and she finally died, faithful to the last.
Patron Saint and Reverence
For whatever reason, she is the patron saint of bell-founders (perhaps due to the similarity of shape between breasts and bells), but is also a patron of wet nurses, goldsmiths, weavers, the hungry and those with diseases of the breasts.
It is also said that the citizens of Catania prayed to her during the eruption of Mount Etna in the yar following her death, and she saved the town from destruction by fire. During the Middle Ages, festivals to her memory were held to protect against house fires. This could explain the bell-founder's patronage, as bells (then as now) were used as fire alarms.
There is a reliquary in the cathedral at Catania, dedicated to her, the work of Giovanni di Bartolo, a Sienese goldsmith, and many churches are dedicated to her. The 5th of February is her feast day, and anyone drinking holy water on that day is provided with protection from snake bite for a year. Gruesomely enough, she is often depicted carrying shears, or carrying a platter bearing her amputated breasts.
Finally, catholic.org suggests a prayer to her:
Saint Agatha, you suffered sexual assault and indignity because of your faith. Help heal all those who are survivors of sexual assault and protect those women who are in danger. Amen.