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Saint Agnes’ Martyrdom

Text authored by Sister Rachel Doerfler, CSA

We are told that Agnes came from a wealthy and powerful Roman family. Because of this and because she radiated a beauty that came from deep within, she attracted many who sought her hand in marriage at the early age of thirteen. Early weddings were the custom and Agnes was often asked to give an explanation for rejecting the offers of the rich young men attracted to her.

Her response was always the same:

“Jesus is my love. I am already espoused to Him.” Their threats to report her as a Christian had no power over her. Finally, the son of the Roman Prefect, bringing many gifts and promises of even greater ones, went to her parents to ask her hand in marriage. When Agnes rejected him and his riches, he and his family made greater promises of riches, a palace, estates, numerous slaves and all the delights of life if she would say “Yes” to the proposal. Nothing could deter Agnes from her resolve to be the spouse of Christ. Finally, she was arrested for the crime of following the teachings of Jesus Christ.

This was around the year 304 A.D. and Diocletian was then nearing the end of his reign as Emperor. Persecution of the Christians was then at its height. Tortures by fire and horrors of personal abasement were used to weaken the followers of Jesus Christ. When all these efforts failed, all Christians who refused to renounce Christ and to bow to the Roman gods were put to death by the sword.

Because of the importance of her family and also because of her youth and her beauty, Agnes was treated, at first, with mild consideration. To this, Agnes responded: “Put aside this pity for my youth and do not think that I wish to use such a plea in order to gain your indulgence. Faith resides not in the years of time but in the sentiments of the heart. As to your gods, whose anger you fear on my account, leave them to their rage.”

Having failed again, the Prefect ordered her to serve the gods in the temple of Vesta. When she refused, the Prefect, in a final attempt to insult her steadfast adherence to her virginity, condemned her to be dragged naked through the streets to a brothel. In one legend, we are told that, as Agnes prayed, her hair grew instantly long and covered her nakedness. In another legend, we are told that the son of the Prefect, who was determined to have her, was struck dead but was restored to life as Agnes prayed over him. Whether or not we give any credence to these legends, they clearly reveal God ’s providential care and protection of Agnes’ virginal love and steadfast love for Jesus.

Finally, the order was given to put her to death by fire. Tied to a stake and standing in the midst of flames, Agnes praised and blessed God who had preserved her from defilement. As the flames parted away from her, leaving her unharmed, she is said to have prayed:

“Behold, what I believed, I now see! What I hoped for, I possess! What I have desired, I now embrace!” By the end of her prayer, the fire was completely extinguished; not even any heat remained. At that point, she was ordered to be beheaded.

“Strike without fear,” she encouraged the trembling executioner as he raised the severing axe over her head and let it fall, making young Agnes one of the most revered virgin martyrs in the history of the early church.

Her name was her life: chaste and pure, she was led, like a lamb, to the slaughter. She is often represented with a lamb, the symbol of her innocence, and a palm branch, like other martyrs. She is shown as a young girl in robes holding a palm branch with the lamb either at her feet or in her arms.

The Church calendar marks January 21 as her feast day. On that day, two lambs are taken to the church of St. Agnes in Rome. They are blessed and then taken to a convent for care until Wednesday of Holy Week. On that day, the lambs are shorn. The wool is then woven into strips to make a liturgical vestment called a pallium which is worn by an archbishop over his neck and shoulders. Once the pallia are woven they are taken to the tomb of St. Peter and kept there until they are presented to newly consecrated archbishops as a sign of their role as followers of Christ, the Good Shepherd.

Two churches in Rome are dedicated to this saint: St. Agnes on the Piazza Navona and the Basilica of St. Agnes on the Via Nomentana. Both churches have attracted many visitors. Among those who found their way to the Basilica of St. Agnes was a zealous Austrian missionary priest, Father Caspar Rehrl. Having read of the urgent pleas of the Church in America for priests to serve the immigrants in the newly-opened lands, he felt God was calling him. He must go to America!

From the beginning of his missionary work, he was aware of how important it was to find others who would help with faith instructions, especially for the children. His initial efforts to find a Sisterhood failed, but he did not give up. In 1852, he set out for Europe hoping to find a religious order interested in sending Sisters to America, but found none. Deciding to return to America, he first stopped to pray at the tomb of St. Agnes. “Show me the way,” he pleaded. And she did! In a vision, he saw the saint leading a long procession of maidens clothed in a black-and-white religious garb. Was this the answer – for him to found a society of his own, with St. Agnes as the patroness of the members?

He outlined his plan to Pope Pius IX, also a devotee of St. Agnes, and was given approval to start this new undertaking. On his return to America he bought land at Barton, Wisconsin, and by December 1857 a church was built there. About one year later, on the feast of St. Clare 1858, the Congregation of St. Agnes was born in Barton.

The rest is history and can be read in Ordinary Sisters written by Sister Margaret Lorimer, C.S.A., 2007.

Words attributed to St. Agnes, taken from accounts of early Christian writers—Saints Ambrose, Damasus, Jerome and others—as quoted throughout Saint Agnes of Rome ~Mary’s Waiting-Maid by Sister Muriel Tarr, CSA, 1971

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