Little is known of her life, and the information was received by private revelation from her. Martyred at about age 14 in the early days of the Church.
In 1802 the remains of a young woman were found in the catacomb of Saint Priscilla on the Via Salaria. It was covered by stones, the symbols on which indicated that the body was a martyr named Saint Philomena. The bones were exhumed, cataloged, and effectively forgotten since there was so little known about the person.
In 1805 Canon Francis de Lucia of Mugnano, Italy was in the Treasury of the Rare Collection of Christian Antiquity (Treasury of Relics) in the Vatican. When he reached the relics of Saint Philomena he was suddenly struck with a spiritual joy, and requested that he be allowed to enshrine them in a chapel in Mugnano. After some disagreements, settled by the cure of Canon Francis following prayers to Philomena, he was allowed to translate the relics to Mugnano. Miracles began to be reported at the shrine including cures of cancer, healing of wounds, and the Miracle of Mugnano in which Venerable Pauline Jaricot was cured a severe heart ailment overnight. Philomena became the only person recognized as a Saint solely on the basis of miraculous intercession as nothing historical was known of her except her name and the evidence of her martyrdom.
Pope Leo XII granted permission for the erection of altars and churches in her honor. Pope Gregory XVI authorized her public veneration, and named her patroness of the Living Rosary. The cure of Pope Pius IX, while archbishop of Imola, was attributed to Philomena; in 1849, he named her patroness of the Children of Mary. Pope Leo XIII approved the Confraternity of Saint Philomena, and raised it to an Archconfraternity. Pope Pius X raised the Archconfraternity to a Universal Archconfraternity, and named Saint John Vianney its patron. Saint John Vianney himself called Philomena the New Light of the Church Militant, and had a strong and well-known devotion to her. Others with known devotion to her include Saint Anthony Mary Claret, Saint Euphrasia Pelletier, Saint Francis Xavier Cabrini, Saint John Nepomucene Neumann, Saint Madeline Sophie Barat, Saint Peter Chanel, Saint Peter Julian Eymard, Blessed Anna Maria Taigi, and Venerable Pauline Jaricot.
In 1802, the bones of a female between the ages of 13 and 15 were discovered in the catacomb of St. Priscilia. An inscription near her tomb read "Peace be with thee, Philomena", along with drawings of 2 anchors, 3 arrows and a palm. Near her bones was discovered a small glass vial, containing the remains of blood. Because it was a popular custom of the early martyrs to leave symbols and signs such as these, it was easily determined that St. Philomena was a virgin and a martyr. Her popularity soon became widespread, with her most memorable devotees being St. John Vianney, St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, St. Peter Eymard, and St. Peter Chanel. After being miraculously cured, Ven. Pauline Jaricot insisted that Pope Gregory XVI begin an examination for the beatification of St. Philomena, who was to become known as the "wonder worker". After hundreds of other miraculous cures, she was beatified in 1837. St. Philomena, who the pope named as the Patroness of the Living Rosary and the Patroness of the Children of Mary, is the only person recognized as a saint solely on the basis of her powerful intercession, although pertinent revelations regarding her life have been recorded. Her relics are now preserved in Mugnano, Italy.
Story of her martyrdom
Three unrelated people in different parts of the world who had devotion to Philomena received similar private revelations regarding Philomena's life and martyrdom. They were an artist, a priest, and a nun from Naples named Sr. Luisa; by private revelation, she produced a life of Philomena, after praying before a statue of hers specifically asking for details about her life, and supposedly having a vision of the saint a few times after this.
Philomena herself was allegedly a young girl, not older than 13 at the time of her death; the inscriptions found on terracotta slabs which formed the sides of her vault (an anchor, two arrows, a lance, a palm and a lily) were considered by the discoverers to indicate that she suffered a Christian martyr's death, that she overcame, and that she was a virgin.
According to the nun's account, Saint Philomena was a Greek Princess from a city-state located in the Island of Corfu. Her father and mother were of Greek royalty, and for many years were unable to conceive a child. They prayed and offered sacrifices to false gods to no avail. Eventually, the court doctor Publius converted them, telling them that if they prayed to the Christian God he believed in, He would hear their prayer and grant them a child. They followed his advice and soon they had a baby girl, whom they named Philomena (at first thought to mean "friend of light" in Greek, but later revealed to mean "beloved" in the same language). Philomena was raised as a Christian as well, closely watched over and even pampered by her parents.
When Princess Philomena was around 13 years old, her parents were called to Rome when the Emperor Diocletian wished to inflict war on their city-state. On having witnessed Philomena's extreme beauty and being impressed by her proper manners, Diocletian asked for her hand in marriage as a sort of peace treaty, offering Philomena's parents great honors and riches along with peace. They accepted the offer to engage Philomena to Diocletian, but when she was asked about the matter, Philomena refused to become the Empress; not only had her family not asked her opinion from the beginning, but she had already vowed her virginity to Jesus Christ. Not even her parents' pleas and promises would make her change their mind.
Trying to get Philomena to accept marriage to the Emperor, her parents brought her to Diocletian's presence, who also attempted to win her favor but she still refused. She was thrown in jail and ordered to be executed. During her time in the prison, Philomena had a vision of Virgin Mary, who warned her about what would happen and promised heavenly glory and protection if she endured the tortures.
After 37 days of imprisonment, Philomena was tied to a post and flogged all over, but after she was thrown back to her cell, angels came from Heaven and healed her with a miraculous balm. Then, she was ordered drowned with an anchor tied about her neck, but the rope was rent by angels and Philomena was returned to dry land completely unharmed. Later, she was meant to be killed by archers, but not only was she healed again by the angels in jail, when she was shot, the arrows returned upon the bowmen and killed them. Now accused of witchcraft, Philomena was finally decapitated when a mob ran amok, after seeing the miracles performed on her behalf.
The incidents of this biography go far beyond the evidence found in the tomb. They strongly resemble the accounts of other Christian martyrs told in medieval hagiographies such as the Golden Legend. The anchor symbol found in the tomb was used to link her with traditional accounts of the martyrdom of Saint Clement; a 9th century narrative has him being drowned tied to an anchor; earlier accounts say he died a natural death. The arrows linked her with the story of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian; traditional accounts of his martyrdom have him being shot with arrows.
NOVENA PRAYER TO SAINT PHILOMENA
We beseech Thee, O Lord, to grant us the pardon of our sins by the intercession of Saint , virgin and martyr, who was always pleasing in Thy sight by her eminent chastity and by the profession of every virtue. Amen.
Illustrious virgin and martyr, Saint Philomena, behold me prostrate before the throne whereupon it has pleased the Most Holy Trinity to place thee. Full of confidence in thy protection, I entreat thee to intercede for me with God, from the heights of Heaven deign to cast a glance upon thy humble client! Spouse of Christ, sustain me in suffering, fortify me in temptation, protect me in the dangers surrounding me, obtain for me the graces necessary to me, and in particular (Here specify your petition).
Above all, assist me at the hour of my death. Saint Philomena, powerful with God, pray for us. Amen.
O God, Most Holy Trinity, we thank Thee for the graces Thou didst bestow upon the Blessed Virgin Mary, and upon Thy handmaid Philomena, through whose intercession we implore Thy Mercy. Amen.