For more than fifteen hundred years, Philomena was an unknown martyr, joining the numbers of beautiful but nameless souls who had died for Christ. But it seems that God wanted to share her with the world and have her story be known.
In 1802, a worker’s pickax struck the surface of a tomb in the darkness of an underground cemetery, within the catacombs of Priscilla. A Vatican overseer was notified and came with several other witnesses. Sand was cleared away and the tomb of a martyr was unearthed. Three funeral tiles bore the words PAX TECUM FILUMENA. (Peace be with you, Philomena) The letters were painted in a vermilion-red lead and were still easily legible.
When competent authorities examined the remains found within, they discovered them to be the bones of a young woman between the ages of 13 and 15.
With due reverence, the remains were taken to the treasury of Sacred Relics, and placed with care; but nothing at all was known about the saint, and it seemed that this would always be the case. But Philomena’s legacy had just begun.
Some years after her relics were discovered, the saint revealed her story to three different people. These three people had never met each other, lived in different places around the world, and yet reported accounts of Philomena’s life that were eerily identical.
The best-known account was given to Venerable Mother Maria Luisa di Gesù, a Dominican tertiary. In August of 1833, Mother Luisa was praying before a statue of Saint Philomena, and felt a keen desire to know the details of Philomena’s life and martyrdom. Later, when she was in her cell, her prayerful desire was granted and the gentle voice of Philomena spoke to her.
According to Mother Luisa, Philomena told her she was a Greek Princess — the daughter of a king in Greece who, with his wife, had converted to Christianity. At the age of about 13, she took a vow of consecrated virginity. When the Emperor Diocletian threatened to make war on her father, her father went with his family to Rome to ask for peace. The Emperor fell in love with the young Philomena and, when she refused to be his wife, subjected her to a series of torments: scourging, from whose effects two angels cured her; drowning with an anchor attached to her (two angels cut the rope and raised her to the river bank); being shot with arrows, (on the first occasion her wounds were healed; on the second, the arrows turned aside; and on the third, they returned and killed six of the archers, after which, several of the others became Christians). Finally the Emperor had her decapitated.
Philomena's decapitation occurred on a Friday at three in the afternoon, as with the death of Jesus. The two anchors, three arrows, the palm and the ivy leaf on the tiles found in the tomb were interpreted as symbols of her martyrdom. She is the Patron Saint of infants, babies, and youth.