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Saint of the week

The 20-year-old beheaded after being denounced by her fiancée

St Lucy (December 13), a martyr of the Diocletian persecution, was one of the most well-known saints in early modern England

By on Friday, 13 December 2013

St Lucy holds her eyes in this painting by early Renaissance artist Francesco del Cossa

St Lucy holds her eyes in this painting by early Renaissance artist Francesco del Cossa

Perhaps the most famous of the martyrs of the Diocletian persecution, St Lucy died in AD304, aged 20, and is one of just eight women (including the Virgin Mary) commemorated by name in the Canon of the Mass.

One of the most well-known and honoured saints of early modern England, her feast day declined from the public consciousness following the Reformation, although she is also venerated by the Anglican Church.

Born to a noble Roman family in Sicily, her father died when she was young, leaving Lucy and her mother Eutychia without protection. Lucy had decided to consecrate herself to Christ and give all their money to the poor, and her mother, understandably displeased with the idea, arranged for a marriage with a young pagan family.

While on a trip to Catania, on the eastern side of the island, she was visited by St Agatha, who had been martyred 50 years before, and told her that her mother would be cured of her mysterious bleeding illness. With her mother cured, Lucy tried to persuade her to let her give her money to the poor, and when her mother objected, told her: “Whatever you give away at death for the Lord’s sake you give because you cannot take it with you. Give now to the true Saviour, while you are healthy, whatever you intended to give away at your death.”

When Lucy’s pagan fiancée found out that she was giving away her money he denounced her to Paschasius, the ruthless Governor of Syracuse. Lucia refused to make a sacrifice to the emperor, and he sentenced her to be sent to a brothel, but when the guards found themselves unable to take her away they instead set her on fire and then beheaded her.

Her cult was established by at least the sixth century and had reached England by the late seventh century. A cult developed in Metz, eastern France, after the German emperor Otho had captured the island of Sicily and taken away her relics.

The story of the eye-gouging only emerged in the 15th century, and followed her telling the governor that the pagan emperor and his minions would soon be overthrown.

As for the relics, they were removed to Venice, where in 1861, they were moved because the Church of San Lucia was demolished and a railway station built in its place. The Church of San Geremia remained her last resting place until 1981 when thieves stole all her bones except her head.