|St. Agatha is
very much like St. Agnes, whose feast we celebrated on January 21. Both
were very, very young, both were virgins, both were martyred in the
very early days of the Church. Both are also invoked in the Litany of the Saints.
Of St. Agatha, not much is known for certain, but she was born in
either Palermo or Catania, in Sicily, and was martyred in Catania
during the persecution of Decius, which took place between A.D. 250 and
253. Jacobus de Voragine's 13th century "Golden Legend" tells her story:
S. Agatha the
virgin was right fair, noble body and of heart, and was rich of goods.
This glorious virgin served God in the city of Catania, leading a pure
and holy life. Quintianus the provost of Sicily, being of a low
lineage, was lecherous, avaricious, and a miscreant and paynim, and for
to accomplish his evil desires fleshly, and to have riches, did do take
S. Agatha to be presented and brought tofore him, and began to behold
her with a lecherous sight; and for to have her himself, he would have
induced her to make sacrifice unto the idols.
And when he saw her firm in her purpose, he put her in the keeping of a
woman named Aphrodisia, which had nine daughters, over foul, like unto
the mother. This did he for to induce S. Agatha to do his will within
thirty days. Aphrodisia and her daughters entreated the holy virgin to
consent to the will of the provost, and sometime they made to her great
promises of temporal goods and of great eases, and sometimes they made
to her menaces of grievous torments for to suffer, and great pains, to
which S. Agatha answered freely: "My courage and my thought be so
firmly founded upon the firm stone of Jesu Christ, that for no pain it
may not be changed; your words be but wind, your promises be but rain,
and your menaces be as rivers that pass, and how well that all these
things hurtle at the foundement of my courage, yet for that it shall
In this manner answered she, and alway wept in making her prayers, and
much great desire had she to come to Jesu Christ by martyrdom and by
torments. When Aphrodisia saw well that in no wise she would be moved,
she went to the provost Quintianus, and said to him: "Sooner should the
stones wax soft, and iron turn to soft lead, than turn the courage of
this maid, or to take from her the Christian faith. I and my daughters
have done none other thing night ne day, one after another, but to
labour how we might turn her heart to your consenting. I have promised
her in your name your precious adornments, clothes of gold, houses,
lands, towns, servants, and great meinys, and all this she despiseth
and reputeth them at no value."
When Quintianus heard this, anon he made her to come tofore him in
judgment, and demanded her of her lineage, and at the last he would
constrain her to make sacrifice unto the idols.
And S. Agatha answered that they were no gods, but were devils that
were in the idols made of marble and of wood, and overgilt. Quintianus
said: "Choose one of two; or do sacrifice to our gods, or thou shalt
suffer pain and torments."
S. Agatha said: "Thou sayst that they be gods because thy wife was such
an one as was Venus, thy goddess, and thou thyself as Jupiter, which
was an homicide and evil."
Quintianus said: "It appeareth well that thou wilt suffer torments, in
that thou sayst to me villainy."
S. Agatha said: "I marvel much that so wise a man is become such a
fool, that thou sayest of them to be thy gods, whose life thou ne thy
wife will follow. If they be good I would that thy life were like unto
theirs; and if thou refusest their life, then art thou of one accord
with me. Say then that they be evil and so foul, and forsake their
living, and be not of such life as thy gods were."
Quintianus said: "What goest thou thus vainly speaking? make sacrifice
unto the gods, or if thou do not I shall make thee to die by divers
S. Agatha abode firm and stable in the faith. Then Quintianus did do
put her in a dark prison, and she went also gladly, and with as good
will as she had been prayed to go to a wedding.
On the morning Quintianus made her to be brought tofore him
in judgment, and said to her: "Agatha, how art thou advised for thy
She answered: "Christ is mine health."
Quintianus said: "Deny Christ thy God, by which thou mayest escape thy
S. Agatha answered: "Nay, but deny thou thine idols which be of stones
and of wood, and adore thy maker, that made heaven and earth, and if
thou do not thou shalt be tormented in the perpetual fire in hell."
Then in great ire Quintianus did her to be drawn and stretched on a
tree and tormented, and said to her: "Refuse thy vain opinion that thou
hast, and thou shalt be eased of thy pain."
And she answered: "I have as great dilection in these pains as he that
saw come to him that thing which he most coveteth to see, or as he that
had found great treasure. And like as the wheat may not be put in the
garner unto the time that the chaff be beaten off, in like wise my soul
may not enter into the realm of heaven, but if thou wilt torment my
body by thy ministers."
Then Quintianus did her to be tormented in her breasts and paps, and
commanded that her breasts and mammels should be drawn and cut off.
When the ministers had accomplished his commandment, then said S.
Agatha: "Over felon and cruel tyrant, hast thou no shame to cut off
that in a woman which thou didst suck in thy mother, and whereof thou
wert nourished? But I have my paps whole in my soul, of which I nourish
all my wits, the which I have ordained to serve our Lord Jesu Christ,
sith the beginning of my youth."
After, Quintianus did do put her in prison, and commanded that none
should enter for to heal her, none should give to her meat nor drink.
And when she was fast closed in the prison, there came an ancient noble
man, and tofore him a child bearing a light, and divers ointments in
his hand. This noble man said that he was a surgeon, and in comforting
her said: How well that the tyrant hath tormented thee bodily,
nevertheless thou hast more tormented him in his heart by thy answers.
The nobleman was a Christian, too -- some say he was actually St. Peter
-- and he was able to heal her breasts. Then Quintianus brought
her out of the prison once again and demanded that she make sacrifices
to his idols. She again refused, and he tortured her severely, and
returned her to prison. There she prayed, "Lord God Jesu Christ
which hast created me of nought, and sith my youth hast kept me and
hast suffered me to live well in my youth, which hast taken from mine
heart the love of the world and hast made me to overcome the torments,
and hast lent me patience among the pains, I pray thee that thou take
my spirit, for it is time that thou make me to depart from this world
and to come to thy mercy."
She then "gave up the ghost, and rendered her soul, the year of our
Lord two hundred and fifty-three in the time of Decius, the emperor of
St. Agatha is invoked against fire and lightning, by people with breast
disease, and by victims of sexual abuse. She's also the patron of
nurses and of Catania, Sicily, where she is invoked for protection
against Mt. Etna's eruptions.
A novena to St. Agatha is often
prayed starting on January 27 and ending on the eve of her feast
(February 4). This novena, though, can be prayed at any time, and often
is, especially by those afflicted with breast cancer.
St. Agatha is greatly honored in Sicily, especially in Palermo and
Catania. In the latter city a great festival is held starting at noon
on February 3 and lasting 'til her feast itself, on Februrary 5.
Another festival is held on August 17 to honor the date when her relics
were brought back to Catania after having been moved to Constantinople
The Februrary Catanianan festival begins with a great procession of two
carriages and eleven huge, Baroque candles -- each representing a guild
-- from the Church of St. Agata alla Fornace to the Cathedral, which is
also named for the Saint. This is followed by a great cross-country
race, a concert, and fireworks. On February 4, there is a procession of
a large, highly bejewelled reliquary shaped like St. Agatha. This
reliquary is carried around the city on an ornate silver carriage, and
is then taken to the Cathedral. St. Agatha's feast itself begins
with Mass at dawn and is followed by another procession of the
Throughout the celebrations, pastries called Minne di Sant'Agata (Breasts of St.
Agatha) are eaten. These pastries come in various forms -- some using
pastry dough, some a sponge cake, some a sort of shortbread as a base.
Some include marzipan, some come with a zucchini-based sort of
marmalade inside, and some include chocolate and candied fruit. Some
have a filling that is more custard-based, and some have a filling that
is centered around ricotta cheese. But what they all have in common, as
you can guess from their name, is that they are shaped like the Saint's
breasts. Many are topped with a candied cherry to form the breast's
nipple, but in others, the pastry dough itself is used for that effect.
A form of this pastry, called Cassatelle,
can be found throughout Sicily (and in some Italian American bakeries)
all year round, but during celebrations of St. Agatha's life, they are
Below is a
recipe for one version of this pastry. You'll need spherical baking
molds or some other means of making rounded pastry. Note that tradition says
that Minne di Sant'Agata must
be eaten in even numbers -- at least two, never one.
Minne di Sant'Agata (also called Cassatelle)
Makes 6 (3 servings)
2 cups almonds
1/2 cup sugar
2 egg whites
a few drops of green food coloring, optional
1 1/4 cups fresh ricotta (preferably from sheep)
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 1/2 ounces dark chocolate, chopped finely
1 ounce candied orange, chopped finely, or 2 tsp orange zest
2 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon cold butter, chopped
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
1 c. powdered sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
6 candied cherries
Marzipan: Blend almonds
and sugar together in a blender, grinder, or processor until you get a
fine powder, and place in a bowl. Mix the egg white with the food
coloring, if using, and then add to the almond mixture, kneading until
you get a pie-dough like malleable clump. Wrap in saran, and set aside.
Filling: Mix ricotta with 1/4 cup of powdered sugar and whisk
until smooth. Add the chocolate and orange. Cover and chill for 1 hour.
Dough: Mix the flour and sugar. Add the butter, and mix until
crumbly and the butter is evenly distributed. Add the egg and yolk and
mix until you have a smooth, solid dough. Chill for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375° F . Roll out the dough on a
well-floured surface until thin (about 1/10") and cut into circles to
line the molds. Fill a half-sphere mold with a piece of pastry dough
and trim so it fits perfectly into the sphere. Repeat five more times
in other molds. Then roll out the dough again to make 6 circles that
will later fit exactly over the spheres and form the flat bottoms of
the pastries. Set these circles aside for a moment.
Roll out the marzipan "dough" and cut out 6 circles to fit
over the pastry dough already in the spheres. Press the marzipan into
the molds over the dough, and then top with the ricotta mixture. Fill the
pastry-lined and marzipan-lined molds with the ricotta mixture until
the molds are totally full up to the top. Then cover each full mold
with the circles of pastry dough you'd set aside earlier. Press down
along the edges and seal further with a brushing of egg white. Bake for
20 to 25 minutes, or until the pastry is golden.
Let the pastries cool in their molds. Once cool, carefully
unmold them and place them on a cake rack which is sitting over waxed
paper or a baking sheet (i.e., something to catch dripping glaze).
Prepare the glaze:
Glaze: Whip the egg white to soft peaks and set aside.
Separately, mix the powdered sugar with the lemon juice. Bit by bit,
add the whipped egg white (around two tablespoonsful in all) to the
sugar and lemon juice mixture to make a smooth icing that has the
consistency of a medium pancake batter. Pour over the pastries, letting
the excess drip through the cake rack, and top each with a candied
cherry (some like to place the cherries on first and then glaze so they
appear more pink than red).