Agatha was early recognised by the Church as one of the most illustrious of virgin martyrs. Along with Lucy, Agnes and Cecilia, her name is mentioned in the Gregorian Canon. But nothing can now be surely established concerning her life save that she bare such witness to Christ, in about the year 251, in Sicily, as soon to fill Christendom with her praises.
The written Acts of St Agatha were compiled long after her death, like the Acts of the other three aforementioned virgin martyrs and doubtless contain such memories of her as had then survived, along with the wonders that naturally came into belief to explain how Christ's strength was made perfect in the weakness of his handmaiden.
According to these Acts, the Praetor of Sicily, Quintianus, conceived a passion for Agatha, who was of noble birth and great beauty. And when he could not make her consent to his wicked desires, he had her arrested as a Christian and turned her over to an evil woman, named Aphrodisia, to be corrupted. Of such methods of breaking down Christian hardihood, Tertullian wrote to pagans: Ye, by condemning the Christian maid to the lewd youth, rather than to the brute lion, do acknowledge that we more dread a stain to purity than any torment or death; but your cruel cunning availeth only to gain men over to our holy religion.
But the companionship of Aphrodisia in the brothel made Agatha only the more determined to live faithful to Christ. So the Praetor ordered her brought before him that he might try to turn her from Christian living, which he declared to be fit only for slaves. Then the Praetor gave her the choice of sacrificing to the gods or undergoing torture. And when beatings, the rack and branding with white-hot metal failed to shake her constancy to Christ, he ordered her breasts cut off. Whereat Agatha cried out and said that he who had suckled at a mother's breasts should feel shame to order such cruel indignity done to a woman. But that night, after she had been returned in irons and pain to prison, the Apostle Peter appeared to her and healed her wounds.
The following day she was subjected to new tortures. But an earthquake from Mount Etna, shook the town and terrified the people. Whereupon the Praetor, fearing a riot, ordered Agatha to be returned quietly to prison. And there, in the town of Catania, she died at peace, in prayer, on February 5th, and her body was taken and buried by Christians.
She is invoked against earthquake and fire and molten lava, and is accounted the patroness of bell-founders,
From the Office of Matins for the Feast of St Agatha (5th February) in the Anglican Breviary (Frank Gavin Liturgical Foundation Inc, Mount Sinai, Long Island, New York 1955)
Illustration from The Martyrdom of Agatha by Sebastiano del Piombo