Saint makes her mark from Sicily to Chicago
By Chase DiFeliciantonio
More than 1,700 years ago, a young Sicilian woman was brutally murdered. Today, she is known as St. Agatha of Sicily and her life and death are fertile ground for religious celebration across the world, even in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood.
Beginning the opening week of February, when Agatha is believed to have died, Agatha’s life and death are the inspiration for the Festival of St. Agatha, a celebration that originated in Agatha’s home of Catania, Sicily.
According to the story of Agatha’s martyrdom, St. Agatha, known as St. Agata in Sicily, was an attractive woman in her early 20s born around AD 231. Agatha was tortured and eventually died of her wounds after refusing the sexual advances of a Roman administrator named Quintian in light of her faith.
Agatha’s torture included having her breasts cleaved off, which led to her becoming the patron saint of sexual assault victims.
Catania and Chicago venerate the saint in different ways. In Catania, the Festa Di St. Agata lasts a whole week, beginning with processions through the antiquated city streets. For the first six days, 10-foot-tall golden altars called candelore that are said to contain the saint’s chest, hands, legs, and veil parade throughout the city in her honor and shouts of “Viva St. Agata!” ring long into the night.
Agata’s veil is especially important to Catania natives. They believe that St. Agata saved them from the lava flows of the nearby Mt. Etna volcano by holding up her singed veil and that the artifact was equally potent in combating the plague during the Late Middle Ages.
During the festival the city’s civic and religious leaders lead prayers and make offerings that culminate in the final night of the festival, when a jewel-encrusted statue of Agata is hoisted through the streets. White-robed men and women heft candles the size and weight of a small child, trailing the beloved saint; the procession ends at dawn the next day when the statue is returned to its resting place in the city’s main cathedral.
In Chicago at the Church of St. Agatha, a smaller and quieter affair takes place. The Church of St. Agatha sits in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood, a community that, according to Father Larry Dowling of St. Agatha’s, is “not one you want to be walking around in at night.”
According to Dowling, instead of a week of fervent processions, the faithful gather at St. Agatha’s early in February to honor Agatha’s legacy by “reading her martyology and celebrating her spirit of healing and standing up to oppressors.” A predominantly black neighborhood, the congregation at St. Agatha’s numbers no more than a few hundred.
St. Agatha’s in Chicago has an altar dedicated to the saint, unlike in Catania where Agata is adored almost as a living deity. In Chicago she sits quietly, serving as symbol around which the faithful unite. According to Father Dowling, the celebration of St. Agatha is more about, “the community coming together” than the veneration of a particular person.
Underlying the Chicago festivities there is a dark irony to the church’s story that Father Larry Dowling freely admits.
Daniel McCormack, a former priest at St. Agatha’s in Chicago, was removed from his post after sexually abusing at least one middle school student in 2002. McCormack has since been defrocked and sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty in 2007 to multiple counts of criminal sexual assault. The Archdioceses of Chicago and the defendant reached a $3.5 million settlement in the case in January of this year.
In light of Agatha’s status as the patron saint of sexual abuse victims, this seemed a crushing blow for the parish. In Father Dowling’s words, while it was a sad chapter at St. Agatha’s, “it speaks to the healing power of the saint.”
There is a dark side to the Sicilian celebrations, as well. According to Francesca Duca, 28, a high school teacher and native of Messina, Sicily, the local mafia has controlled the St. Agata celebrations for years.
“They decided where the saint stopped, where she went,” Duca said, “In special holidays, there is a strong mafia presence.”
According to Duca, mafia control also is a problem during the St. Agata celebrations in Sicily’s capital, Palermo.
“People all over Sicily come for the procession,” Duca said of the Palermo festivities. “In Sicily we know the mafia exists, we accept it.”
According to Duca, the St. Agatha celebrations are largest in Catania but similar processions occur across Sicily.
“Malta celebrates Agata too” said Duca referring to the small island south of Sicily. “Some say she escaped persecution there.”
Although the saint is steeped in Sicilian tradition, Sicilians did not found St. Agatha’s church in Chicago. An order of nuns known as the Sisters of Mercy, who just so happened to have a Mother Superior named Agatha, began the church in 1893.
According to Dowling, the North Lawndale neighborhood was not Sicilian but traditionally Irish and mixed European before becoming predominantly African-American until the ‘60s and ‘70s, with a predominantly black community still living there today.
Through all of this cultural translation, the meaning of the celebration of St. Agatha has remained the same. What has changed is how Agatha’s martyrdom is depicted.
In Chicago the violent elements of the story are toned down significantly during the yearly reading of the saint’s story in order to make them more palatable to children, according to Father Dowling, who feels the bloodier parts of the history aren’t entirely appropriate for younger parishioners.
Not so in Sicily. In Catania they are emphasized with gusto. In Catania, banners of a bare-chested Agata suffering violently adorn the city streets during the weeklong festivities and no effort is made to hide the brutality of her death. A special pastry is even consumed during the festival that consists of a small cake with a cherry on top. The pastries are consumed by adults and children and are meant to resemble Agatha’s disembodied breasts.
According to Duca, it is essentially a celebration of the people, one that cannot be fully corrupted by forces like the mafia.
“It is a religious celebration” she said, “but it is also a folk tradition.”