The St. Philomena Story, by Msgr. Braschi
The figure of Philomena, young roman martyr, emerged after nearly seventeen centuries of silence. Since the finding of her body the extraordinary presence of St. Philomena in the Church began. Since then every Pope has venerated her with his personal devotion and millions of Catholics have felt her beneficial influence. She has been a model of spiritual life for many Saints, Blessed and Venerable. Great devotion toward St. Philomena has spread all over the world and Pontiffs have granted the Saint the “Liturgical Cult” with Mass and its own Office.
St. Philomena’s mortal remains were discovered in 1802 in Rome in a catacomb belonging to Priscilla. There are no biographic records of St. Philomena. Therefore, the first records about the Saint are the ones that start with the finding of her tomb in Priscilla’s catacombs, to the translation of her body to Mugnano del Cardinale, the beginning of her providential influence in Church life.
On the three stones that sealed the tomb, were the inscriptions:
“LUMENA – PAX TE – CUM FI”
and the following symbols:
- Don Francesco De Lucia
In 1805, Don Francesco De Lucia, a young priest of Mugnano del Cardinale of the Diocese of Nola, was in Rome. He nourished the wish of having the body of a “Saint Martyr and with a Name” to take to his oratory in Mugnano. Pius VII was moved and donated the body of St. Philomena. On the first of July Bishop Bartolomeo De Cesare and Don Francesco left Rome with the Saint’s relics. They reached Naples on July 2, 1805. Mons. Vincenzo Torrusio, Bishop of Nola, officially recognized the sacred relics, and then placed them in a private chapel.
Once the news spread, there was a massive rush of the faithful. To avoid disorder, the remains of St. Philomena were displayed for the first time to public veneration in the parish church of Sant’Angelo a Segno, where they remained for three days.
The the sacred relics arrived in Mugnano the morning of August 10th and were placed in the Church of Our Lady of Grace. Since the wonders happening were many and the number of devotees kept increasing, a new Church of Our Lady of Grace was built in Mugnano. It contains a chapel where the sacred relics were translated on September 29, 1805, and where they still remain.
In Mugnano, the three stones that sealed St. Philomena’s niche in Priscilla’s catacombs, were solemnly displayed for public veneration of the faithful on August 4, 1827. Apart from the writing, what is striking is the richness of the symbols: two anchors, three arrows, a palm symbol of martyrdom, a flower. Externally, on the tomb of St. Philomena, there is the palm symbol of martyrdom and inside the glass vase with the blood, which, as we will see in the next chapters, has been subjected to the most rigorous exams.
St. Philomena has ascended to the glory of the Altars not for what we concretely know about her brief earthly existence but for the countless graces and miracles that God has lavished through her powerful intercession. That which is missing in the veneration of St. Philomena regarding historic records, is abundantly compensated by the richness and multiplicity of all the miracles performed thanks to her intercession from the day of the translation of her bones from Rome to Mugnano, up until now. Rightly, Pope Gregory XVI defined her the “Thaumaturge of XIX century”.
In the nineteenth century the figure of Philomena, young roman martyr, conquered hearts. The cult expanded rapidly. Many devotees trusted her protection and, of these, we remember Pauline Jaricot, founder of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, and the Living Rosary; the young John Maria Mastai Ferretti, who will become Pope with the name of Pius IX and will be beatified; the shy priest John Marie Vianney, the Cure of Ars, singled out by St Pius X as the guarantor of St. Philomena. They were all seriously ill and were perfectly cured from their illnesses as a result in their faith in St. Philomena.
The latin term dies natalis (day of birth) indicates the day in which the a saint moves from the earthly life to the eternal one. An earthly life spent observing the precepts of the divine commandments leads to eternal life. For a martyr, we can affirm what St. Ambrose wrote to the young martyr St. Agnes: “Martirem dixi, satis dixi”, which means: “having said martyr, I’ve said everything”.
Mons. Anselmo Basilici, Bishop of Sutri and Nepi, was a tireless promoter of the cult of St. Philomena. Mons. Basilici had received a few relics from Mugnano and wanted to divide them between the Churches of his Diocese. He wanted to please all the applicants, but he did not know how. At this point the relics prodigiously multiplied themselves. He also declared that he received requests about relics from Cardinals and Bishops to promote the devotion and that he managed to meet the demands of everybody. The on June 17, 1835 a division of the dust belonging to the sacred Body of St. Philomena was solemnly carried out by in front of many witnesses that confirmed the prodigy.
What amazes both the ordinary faithful and the diligent researcher about the Philomena phenomenon is realizing how fast the cult of St. Philomena is spreading all over the world. For about seventeen centuries her bones had remained in the oblivion of Priscilla’s Catacombs in Rome. In a few years the devotion towards this young girl has spread in the whole world matching, and even exceeding, the devotion towards other martyrs venerated in the past.
Before the decree of the Congregation of Rites of 1961, St. Philomena was venerated and her figure was present in all the hagiography books. After 1961, not only was she removed from the liturgical calendar, but in the majority of hagiography books she was treated as a symbol for all legends. Therefore, just like the other “obscured” Saints, there were those who continued to venerate St. Philomena more than ever, while others, confused, fell by the wayside. If so many High Pontiffs have approved her cult, St. Philomena is a reality, and cannot be relegated into legend.
The importance of the cult of St. Philomena can be evinced not only from the official Church documents, but also from the personal devotions that Popes that have had towards our Martyr.
Nearly all the Popes, from 1802 to 1940, have shown a great veneration for St. Philomena. Some of them have visited the Sanctuary of the Saint when they were Cardinals of The Holy Roman Church. Pius IX, apart from having been miraculously cured by the Saint and spreading her devotion in the diocese of Imola of which he was Pastor, as a Pope he visited the Sanctuary in Mugnano to venerate the sacred body of Philomena the martyr. The devotion of the Popes toward our martyr was great, as shown by their recognitions, privileges and ex voto.
Pius VII (1800-1823). He accomplished the greatest act, donating to Mugnano the body of St. Philomena.
Leo XII (1823-1829). On the 7th of December 1827, he exclaimed: “She is a great Saint!”
Gregory XVI (1831-1846). The Pope himself donated to the Sanctuary of St. Philomena a precious medallion with his effigy, a big silver lamp with golden decorations and a golden chalice.
Pius IX (1846-1878). He was cured from his epilepsy by the intercession of our Saint. When he was Bishop of Imola even his secretary, Don Joseph Stella, was cured in 1834 by intercession of St. Philomena.
Leo XIII (1878-1903). He came in pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Mugnano when he was still Archbishop of Benevento. On December 15, 1883, Leo XIII approved the use of a red and white cord in honor of the Saint. Furthermore, on September 24, 1889 he granted the title of Archconfraternity (solely to France) to the Work of St. Philomena, and in 1902 he wanted to celebrate in Rome, in Priscilla’s Catacombs, the first centenary for the finding of the Saint martyr’s body. Furthermore, he sent two gifts to the Sanctuary in Mugnano: in 1888 a nice pastoral and on the May 25, 1902, on the centenary of the finding of the relics, a wonderful missal.
St Pius X (1903-1914). He is the Pope that in 1905 proclaimed the Curate of Ars Blessed on the first centenary of the translation of St. Philomena’s Body from Rome to Mugnano. Pius X loved St. Philomena very much and he was truly saddened by the Philomenian question about the originality of the stones found in front of her tomb. St. Pius X, on the May 21, 1912, extended to the whole Church the Archconfraternity of St. Philomena: the highest tribute from a pope who became Saint to a great Saint!
Sainted devotees of St. Philomena
St. John Marie Vianney, Curé of Ars (1876-1859). It was Pauline Jaricot who talked to him about the Saint of Mugnano and introduced her to him. It was she that gifted him with one of her relics. There is not a biography of the Curate of Ars where our Saint is not mentioned. In France he was the greatest promoter of the devotion towards the Saint of Mugnano. He had a statue of St. Philomena placed in his parish church, and then built a Basilica in her honor in Ars. This Basilica, built in the same style of the one in Fourvière, which dominates over Lyon, was terminated after the death of Saint John Marie Vianney. The Saint Curate attributed to the intercession of our Saint, all the numerous miracles performed in Ars.
St. Peter Louis Marie Chanel (1803-1841). He was missionary and first martyr (April 28, 1841) of the mysterious and wild Oceania. His mutual devotion for St. Philomena came from the Curate of Ars. When he embarked in 1836 for the Archipelago of Tonga, he had in his breviary three pictures: Our Lady, St. Joseph and St. Philomena. To the young St. of Mugnano he would turn in the difficult moments of his apostolate amongst the mistrustful and hostile indigenous. Although not expert in constructions, he started building, trustful in “a Saint for whom he harbors a great devotion”. In honor of the Saint he recited a novena every year in the period of her feast. To one of the first baptized he gave the name Marie Philomeno.
St. Peter Julian Marie Eymard (1811- 1868). His greatest merit was the foundation in 1856 of the Congregation of the Most Blessed Sacrament. He was a very close friend of the Curate of Ars whom he visited regularly. He had a great devotion towards St. Philomena. He loved to kneel down in front of the Saint’s reliquary. In 1854 he was cured by the martyr, after a novena recited in her honor.
St. Madeleine Sophie Barat (1779-1865). She founded in 1802 the Society of the Sacred Heart. In the difficult times of her life and her religious order, Mother Barat invoked with faith the Saint of Mugnano. In her biography she states that on the 11th of September 1846 Barat placed her hands on a surgery patient who was instantly healed. She attributed her healing to St. Philomena, whom she had invoked.
St. John Nepomucene Neumann (1811-1860). In 1840 he joined the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, founded by St. Alfonso Maria de Liguori. He dedicated himself to the missionary activity in the States of New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and in Christian education for youth, founding many parish catholic schools. In 1846, trustful of the help of the Martyr, “to whom God denies nothing for whomever invokes her” and without worrying about the money, he completed the building of the new Church of St. Philomena.
St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917). On her numerous journeys, especially the ones from New York to Buenos Aires and through the Andes, she always carried with her a small statue of St. Philomena. We can say that Cabrini, and the Bishop of Philadelphia Mons. Neumann, had the merit of promoting the devotion of the Saint in America more than anyone else. Pius XII declared her Universal Patroness of the Emigrants.
St. Pio of Pietrelcina (1887-1968). For her St. Philomena was the “Princess of Heaven”. After the liturgical reform of 1961, Father Pio used to imperatively reply to whoever dared to doubt the existence of the Saint: “for the love of God! It might well be that her name is not Philomena, but this Saint has performed many miracles and it is not the name that did them.” This is the wisest reply: who wants to understand, will understand!
St. Maddalena Gabriella of Canossa (1774-1835). She founded the Order of the Canossians (Work of the Charity daughters), an institution of great religious and human advancement. Mother Madeleine continuously urged her religious sisters towards the love of Christ and the Virgin of Sorrows, and she entrusted them to the patronage of St. Philomena.
St. Hannibal Marie Di Francia (1851-1927). Referring to St. Philomena he used to say: “St. Philomena has become famous for the great miracles that the Lord has worked through her.”
St. Damien de Veuster (1840 – 1889). Father Damien, Belgian missionary of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts, spent his life spiritually assisting and curing the lepers relegated to the isle of Molokai in the Hawaiian archipelago. A great devotee of St. Philomena, he dedicated to her the first chapel he built in the leper colony.
Blessed devotees of St. Philomena
The Blessed Bartolo Longo (1841-1926). Founder of the famous Sanctuary of Pompeii was a great devotee of St. Philomena. In 1896 he wrote “Life of St. Philomena Virgin and Martyr”. It was based on the “revelations” of the mystic Neapolitan Sister Marie Louise of Jesus,
The Blessed Anne Marie Taigi (1769-1837). She received the healing of one of her young nieces. The Jesuit P. Gabriel Bouffier affirms that this admirable mother invoked the young Martyr from the Catacombs every night and made her family invoke her also. She had her image displayed in her house and on death’s door, like a good Christian mother, after having given the last recommendations to her sons, she placed them under the special protection of St. Philomena, of whom she had always propagated the cult.
The Blessed Pius IX (1792-1878). This Pope’s devotion was deep and sincere throughout his whole life. In 1849 he visited the Sanctuary. When young, he was healed by intercession of the Saint. He proclaimed her Second Patron in the vast Neapolitan Kingdom.
Venerable and Servants of God who were Devotees of St. Philomena
Venerable Pauline Marie Jaricot (1799-1862). Pauline Marie Jaricot, founder of the Living Rosary and the Society for the Propagation of the Faith was highly appreciated by Pope Gregory XVI who wanted to personally receive her when she passed through Rome. She had been directed to Mugnano to invoke her healing to our Saint. The astonishing miracle of her healing, which he verified in person, induced Pope Gregory XVI to sign the well known decree of 1837. It was she that gave the relic of St. Philomena to the Curate of Ars and she was one of the promoters of Philomena’s devotion in Lyon and in the whole of France.
Servant of God Sister Marie Louise of Jesus (1799-1875). Intent on spreading of the cult of St. Philomena and by the echoes of her miracles in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, she founded the religious family of the “Oblates of Our Lady of Sorrows and St. Philomena”. However, her “revelations” on the life and martyrdom of St. Philomena, although answering the need to know more about her life, has effectively brought our Saint towards the legend, detaching her from history. In truth the cult of St. Philomena did not start from her revelations, nor has it been divulged through them. The Church, in all the official acts in relation to the cult of our Martyr, has never taken it into account. There is however the sincere devotion of Sister Marie Louise and the beneficial influence that her written work has given to the veneration of St. Philomena.
Venerable Marie Christine of Savoy (1812-1836). With her husband Ferdinand II, she came for the first time to the Sanctuary of Mugnano on April 11, 1835. Immediately after her visit to the Sanctuary, the happy news about the conception of the heir to the throne was announced. The Queen attributed her pregnancy to the intercession of St. Philomena. Many prodigies happened through her intercession. Pius IX in 1853 proclaimed her as Venerable and Pius XI in 1937 declared heroic her virtues. In numerous biographies the great devotion of Marie Christine of Savoy towards St. Philomena is highlighted.
Servant of God, Julie Colbert (1785-1864). Julie Colbert was very devoted to St. Philomena and greatly attached to her Sanctuary. She promoted the devotion of the Saint in the city of Turin. She founded the Daughters of Jesus Good Pastor. The Marchioness of Barolo visited the Sanctuary of St. Philomena in January 1834 and in February 1852, at which time she left a silver heart with a letter for the grace received. Barolo entitled a small, beautiful hospital for sick and crippled young girls to the Saint.
Servant of God Andrew Filomeno Garcia (1800-1853). He emigrated to Montevideo when he was about twenty-three years of age, became mendicant friar at the Franciscans of Santiago. For many years he travelled through the cities and the countryside of Chile, carrying in one hand a small box for offerings, in the other a big picture of St. Philomena that he would show to everybody. To the ones who would stop to listen to him, Friar Garcia would tell about the miracles of the small Saint, leaving them enriched. He also composed prayers and hymns in honor of St. Philomena. He died in Santiago in 1853. Two years later, his body, found in pristine conditions, was buried in the Church of his monastery, at the altar of St. Philomena.
Venerable Father Vito Michael Di Netta (1787-1849). He was a missionary heroic figure of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer founded by St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, Doctor of the Church, whose preaching in Nola has remained memorable. Father Di Netta nurtured a great devotion towards St. Philomena whom he always invoked in times of the danger he faced as a missionary.
Venerable Jean Claude Colin (1790-1875). Ordained priest in 1816, he founded the Society of Mary. On April 29, 1836 Pope Gregory XVI approved the Marist Congregation and in 1837 Colin was elected its General Superior. Father Colin used to turn to St. Philomena with the same love and trust of the Curate of Ars. In Belley, in an old Capuchin Monastery, he founded an oratory dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, in which he placed a statue of St. Philomena.
Distinguished and common faithful, devotees of St. Philomena.
Mother Mary Theresa (1809-1863). Foundress of the Congregation of the Healing Adoration, owes her vocation to St. Philomena. While painting a picture of St. Philomena, which is now in the Cathedral of Bayeux, she received her vocation and conversion.
Abbot Louis Petit (1852-1914). He cultivated within his family the love for St. Philomena. He was a seminarian when his parents moved to Paris, living in the area of the parish church of St.-Gervais. This church was the only one in the capital with the cult of St. Philomena well established. In 1872 he founded the periodical L’Echo de Ste. Philoméne, which he managed to publish for two years. Not yet a priest, he also published Histoire du culte de St.e Philoméne, “History of the cult of St. Philomena.” He was ordained in 1879 and two years later joined the Congregation of St. Vincent de Paoli, where he was director of the Messager de Ste. Philoméne until his death. The purpose of his life had been the spreading of the cult of St. Philomena and he created a center from which to radiate it.
In the Parisian district of High Vaugirard, he built the lovely chapel of St. Philomena in Rue Dantzig. From here his written work and his Messager reached France and the rest of the world. In 1883 he received the approval of the Cord of St. Philomena from the Sacred Congregation of Rites and spread its devotion through his periodical.
Louis Petit also had the inspiration to found the Work of St. Philomena, with the intention of giving Christian education to the working classes. He joyfully witnessed this pious association become a Universal Archconfraternity with an official act of Pius X on May 21, 1912.
The first century of the finding of St. Philomena’s bones was solemnly celebrated in Rome in 1902. He had the honor of closing these celebrations with a sung Mass.
When the Abbot Petit came to Mugnano to venerate St. Philomena in 1883 and 1902, he uses the wonderful missal donated by Pope Leo XIII for the celebration of the Sacred Mass. He died in Paris in 1914, full of merits towards our Saint whom he deeply loved and venerated.
An endless list. In the whole world, countless individuals of every social condition have venerated St. Philomena. Here are mentioned only a few:
Father Joseph Varin, one of the restorers of the Society of Jesus in France, used to pronounce at least forty times a day the name of the Saint and celebrated a mass in the Sanctuary dedicated to the her.
Father O’Sullivan spread the cult of St. Philomena in Portugal, Ireland, and USA.
Many writers and artists have had admiration and devotion towards the Saint:
Michael De St. Pierre French catholic novelist, in his biography about the Curate of Ars highlights great fondness for St. Philomena;
Jean Dupré consecrated to St. Philomena the first fruits of his works
the Italian poets Joseph Borghi and Sylvius Pellico wrote hymns in honor of the “Pure Virgin” and the “Invincible Martyr”
Many Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops, from all over the world have come to give homage to St. Philomena in Mugnano and have left their ex voto:
Card. Louis Ruffo Scilla, Archbishop of Naples, who wanted to donate a statue of St. Philomena to the Sanctuary; the English Cardinal Thomas Weld;
Card. James Philip Franzoni, Prefect of Faith Propaganda;
Card. Louis Lambruschini, Secretary of Pius IX; Card. Angelo Mai, Prefect of the Vatican Library; Card. Gabriel della Gerga Sermattei;
Card. Philip Judge Caracciolo, Archbishop of Naples.
In 1837 the Archbishop of Cesarea, went to Mugnano.
In 1852 the Sanctuary was visited by: the Bishop of Chicago, Mons. John James Oliviero Vande Velede; Mons. Vincent Spaccapietra, Archbishop of Smirne, John Hilary Bost, Bishop of Merida in the Venezuelan Republic.
Rightfully Ippolito writes: “The Sanctuary of St. Philomena in Mugnano has by now become renowned for the continuous visits and pilgrimages of foreigners who expressly come from the most remote corners of the earth. Ecclesiastics, noblemen, conspicuous dames, and people of every class and condition of all nations have all been seen here and they still pour into that fortunate village to venerate the sacred body of the undefeated Her