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Catholic Activity: St. Barbara, December 4



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A short biography based on the Acts of St. Barbara. December 4 was the universal feast of St. Barbara, until the revision of the General Roman Calendar. She was a saint that presented historical difficulties. Her feast is still December 4, but only celebrated locally in various areas.


The name Barbara, many centuries ago, meant something foreign, unknown, savage, something which came from far-off places: a symbol of the new forces which threatened the power of the enormous Roman machine. And that is pretty much how she must have appeared, all things considered, to her father Dioscorus, a rich pagan who gave his only daughter all possible comfort and luxury, the better to bind her to him selfishly. In his magnificent palace, surrounded by marvelous gardens, Barbara played at being the spoiled child, then at being the princess. The high tower which dominated the palace was exactly to her rather uncommon tastes. Madame ascended her tower and kept her heart there, where all the charlatans off the world held forth: the philosophers, the orators, the poets. Her father was delighted to see in his daughter the intelligence that he himself lacked and he prided himself on making her learn the secret of things. But the young girl was more intelligent than her father realized, and, from the height of her tower, she judged the verbose vanity of all these good spirits.

Another train of men followed the first: Barbara's beauty attracted suitors who filed to the palace, their horses' manes curled and with glowing eyes and chests thrown out like Spanish dancers. The beauty paid no attention to them. Then her father, to protect her from all the men, locked her in the tower. Silence and solitude are worthwhile consulting. The Holy Spirit, who had not been invited, blew on the tower, going from one window to another, and started up one of those drafts from which there is no escape. Doubt and disgust invaded Barbara: what was the use of all that philosophy? Where was this absurd world leading? Where does life go, and why death? Her brain was ready to burst, but her empty heart thirsted for the living God.

By what miracle had this new Danae heard about Origin, the great Christian teacher of Alexandria, whose literary output kept three scribes busy and as many copyists? By what means did he come to send Valentinian, one of his best students, to her side? No one will ever know. Little by little, the teaching of the master appeased and filled Barbara's anxious heart. In the salon, which had become a hermitage and prayer room, she savoured these lines, given to her by the disciple:

"Souls which are holy and unblemished, when they vow themselves to God in all affection and in all sincerity, when they put themselves out of all danger of infection by the devil, when they are purified by great penitence and are penetrated by pious and religious disciplines, in this way become participants of divinity and deserve the divine gifts . . .

"It is not enough to pray; one should pray properly and ask for what one needs. . . . It is not necessary to use many words, nor ask for unimportant things, nor request the goods of the world, nor come to prayer when angry or troubled.... It is necessary to envisage the whole life of the saint as one great prayer, of which what we generally call `the prayer' is nothing but a part; and that itself should not be done less than three times a day.

"Let us see if we are bearing our cross and if we are following Jesus: this is what happens if Christ lives in us. If we want to save our soul in such a way as to recover it better, we must lose it by martyrdom. If we lose it in the cause of Christ, throwing it at his feet in death for him, we shall attain true salvation.

"There is just one road open to those who follow God. But on this road there is a tower. What tower? The one the Lord speaks of in the Gospels: `For which of you, wishing to build a tower, does not sit down first and calculate the outlays that are necessary, whether he has the means to complete it?' (Luke 14, 28) This tower is the very high and arduous dwelling of virtue.

"You who seek Christ and want to imitate him, if you dwell in the Word of God, if you meditate on his law day and night, if you strive to follow his Commandments, you will always be among the saints and you will never move away from them. For it is not in a place that one must search for holiness, but in actions and in life.

"When it comes to loving God, there is no measure, no method other than giving him all you have. For in Christ Jesus God must be loved with all one's heart, with all one's soul, with all one's strength. Then there is no measure."

Strengthened by such doctrine, Barbara received baptism and consecrated herself to Christ. The tower was now useless; what is guarded by God is well guarded. At least it preserved the privacy of the young Christian whose faith was fortified day by day.

When Disocorus, with cruel inconsistency, proposed a rich match for her, she didn't want to hear about it; paternal caresses and threats followed without result. Why make sacrifices for your children! There is certainly no reward! Then the prison became narrower, but the tower always looked up at the sky, toward which, secretly, a very fervent prayer ascended.

One day Disocorus returned from a long journey and instead of seeing his daughter, as he had expected, overcome by boredom, he found her radiant and more resolved than ever. She had had a third window cut into her tower in honor of the Holy Trinity; inside, the sign of the cross was displayed as a proclamation and a provocation. Now it was clear that Barbara was a Christian; the mystery of the third window was soon to turn into tragedy.

The pagan, blind with rage, drew his sword; Barbara jumped out of the window and fled. He followed her. She ran fast. So did he. She was out of breath. He was going to catch up with her. She tried one last sprint. He reached out to grasp that hard-hearted daughter. Suspense . . . she disappeared into a great rock. Ouf! She was saved ... But see who reappeared at the bottom of a gorge on the other side of the mountain. Some shepherds carried the secret of her retreat to her father. The man grabbed hold of his daughter, kicking, beating, slapping her; then, calmly, he brought her back home dragging her by the hair along the cobblestones.

His friend, Prefect Marcian, was in charge of seeing that the imperial ordinances of a certain Maximian were observed. Marcian showed himself more civilized at first and began by gently trying to bring the fugitive around to sacrificing to idols. Wasted effort. Then they brought out the usual tortures: the switches, lashes, iron hooks, rack, red-hot iron, torches, red-hot pincers, hammers. So many cures for youth for the young girl. To finish, for it is necessary to put an end to this, the father claimed the honor of executing this daughter who scorned the gods, and in one blow he cut off her head. One stroke of the sword, quite simply. The God of Sinai answered blow for blow; a flash of lightning pierced the cloudless sky, pulverized Disocorus, who was on his way back home, and struck Marcian too, as he was seated in the tribunal. Meanwhile, God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ welcomed to his paradise the virgin wounded by love, and the Christians in prayer sang in chorus:

"Barbe, how could you call yourself that? He who killed you, he is the real Barbarian!"

But what has given this saint a special popularity is the final thunderbolt on which she entered eternity and the memory of men at the same time. All the dangerous professions, all those who use powder or play with fire, all the apprentices of Prometheus, appeal to her patronage: fireworks makers, saltpeter miners, foundry workers, artillerymen, gunners, cooks, and military engineers. She barely leaves to Good St. Eligius the blacksmiths, goldsmiths and boilermakers.

Her name is popular in Germany, in the Balkans, in Russia and Spain. Her cult flourishes in Switzerland and Austria, Cyprus and Belgium, Italy and Egypt, after having been all the way to Finland. Her body is venerated in Constantinople, Cairo, Venice, Rome and Plaisance. One can find her head in Pomerania and, closer to us, in the priory of Sainte-Barbe in Auge, in the diocese of Lisieux. All over, chapels, altars, confraternities attest to the devotion of our forefathers toward "Madame Sainte-Barbe." The sailors invoke her against storms, the peasants against thunderstorms, and everyone against lightning and fire. The great bell which is tolled to ward off storms and on which the alarm is given for public disasters has been dedicated to her. She is also the patron of bell-ringers and carillon-players. In the old sailing ships, her name was given to the store-rooms and munitions magazines; also placed under her protection are powder boxes and powder magazines. Who knows if our modern plastics makers do not look to her for success of their exploits?

Activity Source: Encyclopedia of Catholic Saints, Volumes 1-12. by Various, Chilton Books, Philadelphia., 1966