Feast Day : Formerly August 11
Patronage: Children of Mary; Living Rosary
Philomena came to public attention in May 1802 when some interesting remains were found in a sealed shelf tomb in the Catacomb of St. Priscilla in Rome. The coffin contained the remains of a girl aged 12 to 13, along with a broken ampule containing dried blood. Her skull was fractured at the base. The tomb had been sealed with terra-cotta tiles in a manner usually reserved for noble martyrs. The tiles were inscribed with the words LUMENA PAXTE CUMFI and the symbols of virginity and martyrdom: a lance, arrows, anchor and a palm or lily. The words made no sense until rearranged, and then they spelled out PAX TECUM FILUMENA, or “Peace be with you, Philomena.” The assumption was made that the remains were that of a young virgin martyr. The remains were sent to the Vatican and stored away. In 1805, a priest, Don Francesco di Lucia of Mugnano (near Naples), visited Rome and prayed for guidance. He was inspired to obtain the body of a known saint to enshrine in his chapel. He especially wanted a virgin martyr to set as an example of purity and strength for girls. In Rome he was taken to the Treasure House of Relics, where he was immediately attracted to the relics of Philomena. Don Francesco was successful in obtaining these first-class relics, and he enshrined them in his church in Mugnano. A papier-mâché corpus was made for the bones. The arrival of Philomena stirred great interest. It was not long before signal favors, graces and miracles of healing were happening, attributed to the intercession of Philomena. Her popularity exploded, and a separate chapel was erected just for the relics. A statue of her exuded manna, a miraculous oil, from the face and neck on August 10, 1823. Don Francesco collected stories and in 1826 published them in a book, The Story of the Miracles of St. Philomena. The book helped to spread her fame even more, and a case was built for her canonization. In addition, Philomena was championed by illustrious people, among them SS. John Vianney, Madeleine Sophie Barat, Peter Eymard and Peter Chanel. John Vianney (known as the Curé d’Ars) was Philomena’s greatest devotee. He learned about Philomena from Pauline Jaricot, a French aristocrat whose father had been given a piece of her relic in exchange for hospitality. When Pauline fell seriously ill, she traveled to Mugnano and was miraculously cured after praying to Philomena in her chapel. So moved was Pauline by the power of Philomena that she gained an audience with Pope Gregory XVI (r. 1831–46) to urge him to open the cause for canonization. The pope was so moved that he did so. Calling her “the Wonder Worker of the Nineteenth Century,” Gregory XVI canonized Philomena in 1837. Vianney, who had obtained a splinter of Philomena’s bone from Jaricot, built a chapel to honor the saint. A miracle worker himself, he would protest, “I do not work miracles. I am but a poor ignorant man who once upon a time attended sheep. Address yourselves to St. Philomena; I have never asked anything through her without being answered.” Vianney’s own popularity helped to establish devotion to Philomena throughout Europe, and at the peak of her popularity, she became known as “Powerful with God.” Canonization had been granted solely on the strength of the intercessory miracles that were claimed. The historical authenticity of the remains was never established beyond doubt, and controversy continued into the 20th century. The argument was made that the bones and the tiles were not related, but that the tiles had been reused from another tomb. The girl buried in the Catacomb of St. Priscilla may have been merely an ordinary, unknown child. The controversy did not dampen popular belief in Philomena, or in the miracles attributed to her intercession. Shrines devoted to her were built around the world. At Mugnano, her papier-mâché corpus is said to have miraculously shifted position several times. On February 14, 1961, the Congregation of Sacred Rites dropped her feast day from the calendar and her cult was officially suppressed. Some, but not all, shrines closed. Though no longer officially a saint, Philomena continues to be a popular saint and receive personal devotions. She is venerated in the external feast and Mass from the Common of the Martyrs. Her relics are still enshrined at Mugnano. In art she is often portrayed with her symbols from the tomb: a lance, arrows, lily and anchor.