St. Barbara, A Martyr Who May Not Have Ever Existed

Saint Barbara ImageMy parents named me after Saint Barbara, a martyr who may not have ever existed. Though this saint was venerated by many in earlier centuries, her feast day was removed from the liturgical calendar in 1969. Even so, Saint Barbara’s story continues to survive in the present day and it will probably remain for all time.

There are some variations to Saint Barbara’s story. Depending on the storyteller, you may get more or less of her history and the gore associated with her martyrdom. According to most stories, Saint Barbara was the daughter of King Dioscorus, a pagan king who hated Christians and jealously kept his only daughter locked away in a tower. During her imprisonment, Barbara was somehow consumed with a love for God. Renouncing the gods of her father, she converted to Christianity and then refused to marry a man that her father had selected for her. After discovering that his daughter had become a Christian, Dioscorus kills her in a fit of rage. In a version of the story that has been passed down through my family, Saint Barbara’s Christianity isn’t revealed by her refusal to marry another. It is, instead, revealed when she has three windows erected in her tower in honor of the three persons in the Holy Trinity. Like all other stories, this story ends with Saint Barbara’s martyrdom. However, unlike the first version of the story mentioned her, her martyrdom begins with an outward expression of faith rather than a refusal to marry.

Saint Barbara’s story is not found in Saint Jerome’s martyrology and her existence has been difficult to prove. Even so, I believe that her story is true. I believe it to be true as G.K. Chesterton believed that fairy tales were true. As Chesterton once put it, “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Saint Barbara’s story is as real as the stories of countless Christians who have died for their faith in the past 2000 years and it is as real as the martyrdoms that continue in our present time. Like Saint Barbara, many Christians have been killed and continue to be killed for outwardly expressing their faith. As much as we would like to believe otherwise, martyrdom is not a thing of the past. It thrives even today due to our own refusal to acknowledge the religious persecution currently occurring in places like North Korea and Nigeria. As we sit in comfortable pews, complaining about the flower arrangements, Christians continue to die in church bombings in Nigeria. As we continually complain about long homilies and faulty sound systems, the Church continues to collect the names of her martyrs with the hopes that Catholics in the West will one day snap out of our complacency.

Saint Barbara, as we know her, may not have existed. However, her story is the story of every martyr who forsook the comfort and safety of this world in favor of God and faith. It is the story of a scared, poor, and pregnant woman who chooses life instead of abortion. It is the story of every individual who has ever converted to Catholicism in an increasingly anti-Catholic world. It is the story of the chaste teenager that refuses the promiscuity of the hookup culture. It is the story of every infertile couple that refuses the temptation of IVF. It is the story of every person who has ever suffered for the sake of their faith. It is the story of every person who has ever found themselves in a room full of glaring eyes whenever they defended their faith.

Though Saint Barbara’s feast day is no longer on the liturgical calendar, I will continue to venerate her. To me, she represents the countless Christians that have sacrificed their own lives for the love of their faith. As much as I complain about my own trials, the 70 million martyrdoms Saint Barbara represents are enough for me to keep fighting. As Saint Barbara’s story reminds us, we are called to fight and never back down. In a drawing I recently finished featuring Saint Barbara, I added the following:  “Fortis cadere cedere non posset.” To the best of my understanding, this translates to “the brave may fall, but cannot surrender.”

Yes, we are currently fighting an administration that turns a deaf ear to our concerns regarding religious freedom, life, human dignity, and quite a few other things. However, the story of Saint Barbara continues to serve as a reminder of just how much some of our brothers and sisters have sacrificed for choosing God over the world. Like Saint Barbara, we should be unafraid to outwardly express our faith, regardless of the consequences. Furthermore, like Saint Barbara and countless martyrs she represents, we should never surrender.

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Barbara Soares is a PhD student at Columbia University. She can best be described as a cradle Catholic whose faith has been strengthened over the years by science and a lot of reading. She holds degrees in biology, molecular biology, and environmental health sciences. When she isn’t in the laboratory doing research, she reads, prays the rosary, travels, and wears mantillas to mass. She also enjoys teaching, art, Tolkien novels, and tea. You can follow her blog at

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