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St. Cecilia - Martyr
Feast Day: November 22
Patroness of Sacred Music

In the city of Rome, there lived a virgin named Cecilia who was a member of a distinguished Roman family. As a young girl, Cecilia had consecrated by a vow her virginity to Heaven.

The Roman poor knew her charity. Often they had seen her alone in the caves of the martyrs (catacombs) or only accompanied by a faithful servant. Her father was a pagan but he respected the religion of his good and lovely daughter. Along with beseeching the saints and angels to guard her virginity, Cecilia wore sackcloth next to her skin and fasted. Despite her desire to remain a virgin, she was given in marriage to a nobleman named Valerian. She prayed and fasted, and the nearer the wedding-day approached, the more she increased her penances and her devotions. In the hour when her sorrow was the deepest, God revealed to her that He would send an angel to guard her honor.

The young Saint obediently participated in the marriage ceremony, but when she was alone with her bridegroom Cecilia successfully persuaded him to respect her vow of virginity and converted him to Catholicism. She said to Valerian, “Know, Valerian, that I am a Christian. From my infancy I have been consecrated to God, by dedicating to Him my virginity: and He has appointed an angel from Heaven to protect me from every insult. At thy peril, therefore, do not anything to me, by which thou mayest excite the wrath of the Lord.” He said, “Dearest, if this be true, show me the angel.” “You shall see him when you are purified” said Cecilia. Valerian asked, “how shall I become so?” “Go to Urban,” said the Saint. “When the poor hear my name, they will take you to his sanctuary. He will explain to you our mysteries.”

Valerian met with Pope St. Urban who baptized him; and when he returned, he saw Cecilia praying in her chamber, and accompanied by the angel, surrounded with rays of Heavenly splendor. (The vision of Cecilia’s guardian angel greatly comforted Valerian during his future trials.)

Shortly after, Tiburtius (the brother of Valerian) entered and was told what had happened to Valerian, and Cecilia, who was present during the conversation. While she spoke, the grace of God touched the heart of Tiburtius and he also was instructed and baptized by St. Urban.

After their baptism, the two brothers devoted themselves to relieving the poor, consoling the confessors of the Faith and burying the martyrs who were slain daily by the prefect of the city. They were arrested and brought before the prefect. They were executed with the sword when they refused to sacrifice to the gods.

Meanwhile, by teaching, St. Cecilia had converted four hundred persons, whom Pope St. Urban baptized. She was arrested for burying the brothers’ bodies and was convicted of loving the poor and of adoring a crucified God. She was given the choice of sacrificing to heathen gods or being put to death. Cecilia chose to die for her Faith, as had Saints Valerian and Tiburtius.

Because Cecilia was a member of a distinguished and well-known family, Turcius Almachius, the Prefect of Rome, thought it best to execute her in private instead of in public and so it was decided that she should be placed in her bath (the caldarium) which was to be kept intensely heated until the suffocating atmosphere deprived her of life.

Cecilia entered the bath and remained there the rest of the day and night and the fires were heaped up, and made to glow and roar their fullest, but Cecilia did not even break into perspiration through the heat. Since this method of execution was unsuccessful, she was ordered to be beheaded in the same place. With a trembling hand, the executioner inflicted three wounds on the neck of Cecilia, but failed to sever her head. The executioner ran away terrified. The beautiful virgin-martyr lay dying on the pavement of her bath, fully conscious, with her head half severed. Crowds came to her and collected her blood with napkins and sponges, while she spoke of God to them or prayed. She was able to say goodbye to the poor, whom she had given all her wealth to.

At the end of three days, she died, and was buried by Pope St. Urban. The position of her fingers, three extended on her right hand and one on the left, was accepted as her final profession of faith in the Holy Trinity. Her left hand had one finger extended to show the unity of God and her right hand had three fingers extended to depict the Three Divine Persons. Christians clothed Cecilia’s body in robes of silk and gold and placed it in a cypress coffin.

In 821 there was an old church, dedicated to St. Cecilia, which had been allowed to become run down. Pope Pascal I learned in a dream that the body of Saint Cecilia lay in the Catacombs of St. Callistus, along with that of her husband St. Valerian and her brother-in-law Tiburtius. He searched for them and found them in the catacombs. He transferred the relics of the two holy brothers and the body of St. Cecilia to the church of St. Cecilia, and founded a monastery in their honor.

In 1599 an exhumation of the incorrupt body was made. A sculpture made by Stefano Maderno represents Saint Cecilia in the exact posture of her body when it was found during the exhumation and is also believed to be the position in which she died. The statue now lies slightly below and in front of the high altar. The marble slab on this altar is the one on which the Saint was placed during the attempted suffocation, and it may be the one on which she died. The body of Saint Cecilia, along with the relics of St. Valerian and St. Tiburtius, are interred in the crypt of the church.

St. Cecilia is often depicted in art with an organ to express what was often attributed to her in panegyrics and poems based on her Acts, that “... while the musicians played at her nuptials, she sang in her heart to God only.” In 1584, when the Academy of Music was founded in Rome, St. Cecilia was made its patroness, resulting in Her veneration as patroness of Church music becoming more universal.


O God, Who dost gladden us with the annual feast of blessed Cecilia, Thy virgin and martyr, grant that, as we venerate her, we may also follow her example in godly living. Through Our Lord, Jesus Christ.


Special Offer

Research for the Saint Cecilia article was collected from Little Lives of the Great Saints by John O'Kane Murray. M.A., M.D.; from Victories of the Martyrs by St. Alphonsus de Liguori; and from Secular Saints by Joan Carroll Cruz. These books are offered in Our Lady's Book Service Catalog.

Little Lives of the Great Saints: Fascinating, true stories of 32 of the greatest saints in the history of the Church. Spiritual stories that all Catholics should know. Excellent for both children and adults. Big print, easy reading. 495 pages. Price $17.95

Victories of the Martyrs: This great Doctor of the Church recreates the inspiring lives and heroic deaths of a number of great martyred saints. A gem about saints written by a saint. Superb! Imprimatur. 458 pages. Price $4.95

Secular Saints: 250 lives of saints who lived and died as lay persons. Many rose from great sins and lived with terrible problems. Written to inspire lay people to sanctity. Imprimatur. 780 pages. Price $39.95