The early church faced great persecution under the Roman Empire. Many saints were martyred for believing in Christ: Peter, all the apostles (except for John who was given the martyr's crown, although he survived the cauldron of oil) Polycarp, Cecilia and Justin. Yet history tells of another beautiful martyr who lived around the third century named Agnes.
Agnes was born into a noble and fairly wealthy Christian family, and was a beautiful woman at the age of thirteen. Young men pursued her hand in marriage, but Agnes refused all suitors. She was in love with Christ and promised him her purity, chaste and unspoiled. Because of her refusal to marry, Agnes was reported to the Roman governor and given a chance to change her Christian way. He sent her to a house of prostitution where men could do what they pleased with her. While there, Agnes prayed to her Divine Spouse for protection. As she did, she began to exude a strong aroma of holiness and men who came after her were amazed at her saintly appearance. Other stories suggest that when men dared to touch Agnes, they were immediately struck blind.
After a while the governor commanded she to be stripped of her clothing and dragged through the streets. Agnes continued to pray to the Lord and her hair grew, quickly covering her whole body. The governor finally commanded that she should be beheaded. Agnes was a virgin martyr a supreme witness for the early church. Saints Ambrose and Augustine both state that they witnessed her martyrdom and praised her heroic love of purity.
Agnes was an exemplary example of how Christianity was a life-giving religion for women in her time and culture. We know that the Roman Empire was pagan saturated with the ideology that if women were not wives or prostitutes, they were of no use and should be put to death. This type of ideology still reigns in many areas of the world today, but young women can look to Agnes as an example of courage, who shows them what it truly means to be a woman and to be a bride of the Most-High God. Today St. Agnes is pictured with a lamb in many pictures, symbolizing her virginity and purity; she is patroness of rape survivors and young women. We celebrate her martyrdom and feastday on January 21.