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  • Festa di Sant'Agata

    By Anthony Parente

    Candelore de Sant'Agata
    Candelore de Sant'Agata - Leandro Neumann Ciuffo
    For three days the city of Catania in Sicily celebrates the Festa di Sant'Agata. In fact, it is the largest religious festival in Italy and the third largest in the Christian world rivaling Holy Week in Seville, Spain and Corpus Domini in Cuzco, Peru. More than a million people will embark on the city between February 3rd through February 5th to express their gratitude and show their devotion to the patron saint of Catania.

    Agatha was born to a wealthy and noble family around 231 AD. She was extremely beautiful and at a young age dedicated her life to God and became a consecrated virgin. As you can imagine this did not stop men from desiring her. One man, by the name Quintianus, who was a high-ranking diplomat, thought he could use his power and force Agatha to renounce her vow and marry him. Much to his dismay she refused. Quintianus had her arrested and brought before the judge. It just so happened he was also the judge. Agatha did not waver one bit. Enraged by this, Quintianus had Agatha imprisoned and brutally tortured. He even went as far as to have her breasts cut off. She did not lose her faith in God. That night she prayed and prayed, and her prayers were answered as St. Peter came to her in a vision, comforting her and healing her wounds. Quintianus was not done torturing Agatha as he ordered her stripped to be rolled over hot coals with glass shards. As her body burned her red veil was unharmed. Then an earthquake shook the city prompting Quintianus to have her returned to her cell where she died on February 5th, 251 AD. One year later Mount Etna erupted. As lava was heading for the city of Catania, the residents rushed to Agatha's tomb and grabbed her red veil praying for her help. As God answered Agatha's prayers, she answered their prayers and prevented the lava from entering the town. From that day on she became the patron saint of Catania and over the centuries her veil has been used to protect the city from numerous natural phenomenons and plague.

    On February 3rd they open the festival with a procession of the candelore (see photo to right), which are large candle shaped structures beautifully decorated. There are 11 in total each representing one of the local guilds. The candelore are carried by 8 to 12 men as they march through the streets followed by a marching band and cheering crowds. The day ends with a huge firework display over the Piazza Duomo.

    The second day starts with a sunrise mass at the Cathedral dedicated to Sant'Agata. Here is where the statue of Sant'Agata is carried out of the Cathedral on a silver carriage called a "fercolo" or "vara" to the cheers of the crowd waving white handkerchiefs. This is a daylong procession that travels to the various places that had a special connection in the saint's life. The day ends with another firework show.

    The final day following mass and a period of reflection the statue of Sant'Agata is brought out for another tour of the city. It travels up Via Etnea to the Piazza Cavour for a long-awaited firework display. A final stop prior to returning to the cathedral is the Benedictine Convent in Via dei Crociferi where the nuns sing to the devotees and pay homage to Sant'Agata.

    In addition to this three-day festival the city of Catania also celebrates Sant'Agata on August 17th. This celebration is not as extensive as the one in February. This event commemorates the day that the relics of Sant'Agata where returned to Catania. The relics were stolen in 1040 and taken to Constantinople. In 1126 the relics were stolen once again and then returned back to its rightful home.

    The fact that Catania celebrates Sant'Agata on two separate occasions should tell you just how important she is to the people of this town. You can see the devotion they have for their patron saint in how they celebrate and commemorate her life.

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