St. Philomena, commonly known as “the little Mustard Seed of God” was born in medieval France, around 1424 in the village of Domremy in Champagne, the same town that Joan of Arc was born in, twelve years earlier. Jacques Battinier, her father, was a poor cobbler, and though his children often went without food, they never had to go barefoot (the many depictions of a barefooted St. Philomena are clearly the product of overzealous romanticization on the part of the artists, she suffered greatly but her feet remained soft.) Philomena was the youngest of thirteen children, and in all likelihood her elder siblings played with the young Jean d’Arc before she herself was called to her own martyrdom.
In a family of pious children, Philomena was the most extreme in her solemn devotion, and sometimes would remain quiet and motionless for days, her lips moving in silent prayer. When all of the other children in the village (save young Jean) participated in pagan rituals such as Maypole dances or singing and playing around the “Fairy tree”, Philomena would shed silent tears and implore the other children to abandon these games and join her in her efforts to weave baskets for the lepers, who loved her as they loved their own children, perhaps even more, for the kindness and mercy she showed them. The people of her village loved her as well, for it was impossible to see this innocent child, with her sweet brow and serious demeanor, and not feel purified and absolved just by looking upon her face.
At the age of ten, while gathering reeds and long grasses to use in her basketweaving, Philomena was overcome by a vision of a “blazing lady of white light” who told the young child that her “duty in life was to spread the word of God to the mermaids and eels and fishes of the waters”. Upon recovering from her vision, Philomena immediately ran home to the village priest and begged that he take her on as a pupil, so she might learn the “exact word of God” so as to correctly administer this balm to the underwater world. The priest gladly agreed to help her memorize every verse and psalm that the Bible had to offer, and so Philomena’s ministry began. God gives to each of us exactly what we need to obey his command, if only we persevere and seek, we will find the gifts and graces He bestows. Philomena was given the grace to walk below the surface of the water, and to converse with the fishes and eels and mermaids that she encountered therein, and she could stay in the water and breath there for as long as she needed in order to be able to recite the Biblical passage she had selected for that day. The fishes and the eels and the mermaids in particular grew to love her, and flocked to the edge of the water as they saw her wavery form approaching through the bright glare above like an angel descending from heaven. She trod upon green-gold rays that pierced the flat surface sending holy beams of light to the cold dark floor where the mollusks and leeches lurked. The creatures of the water caressed her swirling hair and bit her fingertips with fish kisses while she spoke to them of God. This went on for three years.
Shortly after Philomena’s thirteenth birthday the village priest passed away and a new priest came to the town. This new priest was corrupt however, and hunched beneath the wing of Satan, though he was not aware of this himself. He was obsessed with witches and witchcraft, and desired nothing more than to find the secret core of witchhood that he believed lurked inside of every woman, and to draw it like a parasite out of her belly and expose her uncleanness. At once he seized upon Philomena as an aberration, and potential mistress of black magic. He accused her publicly of dealing in the demonic arts and the accusations of a “man of God” were enough to make the villagers doubt their beloved missionary, and begin to fear her. Late one night they gathered behind the evil priest and dragged her from the small bed of straw where she slept each night.
The standard test in this particular village for proving the innocence of a suspected witch was to hold her under water until she drowned, as it was known that a true witch would of course be able to breath under water. The fact that Philomena had already demonstrated her ability to breath underwater left the villagers at a loss as to how to proceed with her trial. They were not inclined towards burning, for they had loved Jean, and did not want to be reminded of the event of her death. The priest proclaimed that no test was needed, for Philomena’s ability was direct proof of Satan’s blessing, but the people had not completely lost faith in the child and were not willing to give her up so easily. An old woman pointed out that Philomena had never stayed under water any longer than the time necessary to recite a chapter of the Bible at most, and so it was decided that Philomena would be tied to a boulder and left at the bottom of a lake for the duration of a week, and if she were still alive after that time they would be forced to dry her off and burn her at the stake.
And so Philomena was tied and sunk to the wet floor of the lake, where the mermaids and fishes, newly cognizant of the danger and lies of the fallen angel (thanks to Philomena’s own efforts), shrank away and refused to look at her or help her, in fear of falling prey to some fiendish trap of Satan. At first this hurt Philomena only in her heart, for no one had ever shown her cruelty before, and she had no trouble at all breathing the cold water that enveloped her, but as the days wore on she grew hungrier and weaker, for she was a small thin child, and constantly malnourished as her father could never afford enough food to keep his children strong and stout. Philomena died on the fifth day of starvation, and the villagers, upon heaving her out from the lake, assumed that she had drowned. They mourned her death and proclaimed her a martyr and a saint, and to this day children in Domremy still throw loaves of bread into the lake on August 11th, the Liturgical feast day in honor of the Saint.