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Vibiana, Virgin and Martyr, c. Third Century
In 1851, Pope Pius IX bought a vineyard located just outside of Rome. When ancient catacombs were discovered underneath the land, the pope directed the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archeology to explore the vast underground network.
About two years later, an intact tomb was uncovered which was sealed by a marble tablet. When the tomb was opened, the skeleton of a young woman was discovered. She had apparently died a violent death. The inscription on the tablet, while not revealing the exact year of her death, bore markings which indicated that the victim had been martyred. The wording, “To the soul of the innocent and pure Vibiana” also suggested that the young woman had died a virgin.
The pope ordered an investigation to authenticate the designation “virgin and martyr” for Vibiana. The favorable decision, just a few weeks later, led the pope to declare an “equivalent canonization” for this third century servant of God. With canonization, a devotion soon developed in Rome to honor this saint. Pius IX himself was a leader in this veneration and took an active hand in spreading her devotion to the universal Church.
When Thaddeus Amat, the newly consecrated bishop of Monterey in California, was received by the pope on March 18, 1854, Pius presented the relics of Saint Vibiana to him with instructions to build a cathedral in her honor. The bishop arrived in his diocese and carried the relics to Santa Barbara, where they were placed in a reliquary in Our Lady of Sorrows church. In 1856, Pius IX named Saint Vibiana as the principal patroness of the diocese of Monterey and designated a special feast day in her honor.
In August, 1863, a fire completely destroyed Our Lady of Sorrows church. The relics of Saint Vibiana, encased in a wax figure covered with silk, escaped unharmed. This apparently miraculous occurrence caused the devotion to this saint to spread even further. Since no provisions were made in the new church for the relics, they were brought to Los Angeles where they were eventually installed in the new cathedral dedicated, in 1876, in Saint Vibiana’s honor.
As the Catholic population of southern and central California grew, Los Angeles was established as a separate diocese (and later, as an archdiocese) with Saint Vibiana as its patron. The original cathedral named in her honor was closed in 1995 due to earthquake damage.
An interesting story is told of this saint’s intercession in recent years. A homeless man had found shelter in the cathedral for some time. Praying to the saint, he asked her intervention with God to improve his state. After a while, it is said, the homeless man won the lottery, moved to the mid-west and turned his life around. Each year, on the saint’s feast day, September 1, he returns to thank Saint Vibiana for her help and donates a substantial sum of money to the church to care for other homeless people.
Vibiana's message today: This saint is remarkable in that we know so little about her life and death. But what is striking is that, through her intercession with God, she has interceded on behalf of many people in our times, and helped those who need her assistance.