Images of a crucified and sometimes bearded female saint have been around for years. As such, she is a popular image in the santero art of the American Southwest.

Called Librada, or Wilgefortis, some maintain that she is imaginary and never existed. Devotees in Spain, France, Panama and Mexico tell a different story. They have her relics, the bones of this early Christian saint, as proof.

The legend

In 2003, Attilio Bislenghi, a young Italian author, explored and exploded the myth of the myth. His book, "Luces y Sombras," tells of the lights and shadows that surround the real Librada, as he examines a thousand years of devotion to the young virgin martyr.

Legend says Librada was one of nine royal daughters martyred during the persecutions of an early Roman emperor. When their pagan father insisted they give up Christianity, they refused and were eventually martyred.

In one corrupted version of the story, Librada's prayers to avoid marriage were heard and she grew a beard, causing her father to have her crucified. The image of the bearded and crucified saint, also called Wilgefortis, is the result of a mix-up between the cult of the real saint and the cult of a famous crucifix during the late Middle Ages. Pilgrims from Northern Europe had never seen a crucifix where the corpus was dressed, so they took it for the figure of a female and bearded saint, and the imaginary legend of Wilgefortis grew up.

Sadly, the story of the two saints, one real and one imaginary, became intertwined. Restrictions were placed on Librada's cult in 1962, but her feast was re-established in 1967, and it is celebrated in the Diocese of Sigüenza, Spain, on July 20.

The truth

Since the early 1980s, a number of studies have been done for more clarification on the real Librada. Father Felipe Peces Rata, the canon archivist of the cathedral in Sigüenza, has carefully studied the historical documents and written a clear account of the openings of the saint's sepulcher and the translations of her relics. Bislenghi studied all the available evidence to set straight the tangled labyrinth of misinformation about this well-loved saint.

The real Librada was martyred in Aquitaine, France. Even today, her name is honored with devotion in the many towns and villages in the area. Her major relics, however, rest in an altar in Sigüenza's cathedral.

Although the story of her life is largely unknown, archeological and documentary evidence show the existence of the early cult of the young virgin martyr. Her relics were used for the consecration of the church of Sant-Martin de Montmart (in Saint Livrade sur Lot, France) built on the ruins of an earlier Roman villa.

Like many other early Christian martyrs, she was beheaded. The oldest known images of St. Librada are the first and second seals of the priory of St. Librada from the 13th and 14th century. These depict a crowned martyr holding the palm branch and with a sword, indicating the instrument of her martyrdom.

In the first half of the 12th century, during the Reconquest, Librada's major relics were carried to Spain when the Diocese of Sigüenza was re-established. The first five bishops who served there were from France, so it is logical that their beloved saint would have accompanied them. Documentary evidence shows that her remains were translated to the cathedral in 1181, where they remain until this day.

During the dark days of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, the cathedral was occupied by the republican forces. Many churches were burned and profaned, and the bishop was tortured and assassinated. Parts of the cathedral were damaged, but miraculously, the reliquary of St. Librada was not harmed.

Flourishing devotion

In 1899, Archbishop Jacinto Lopez attended the plenary council of Latin America in Rome. On his return, he brought a relic of St. Librada's skull to be installed in the new church of Our Lady of Light in Monterrey, Mexico. A lively devotion to the saint grew there over the last century. In 2004, a devotee was miraculously cured of a tumor of the neck and, in gratitude, paid to have copies of the novena to the saint and a brief history printed.

In 2006, a relic was sent from Spain to Las Tablas, Panama. The saint has been honored there since the 18th century, and she is the patroness of the town. The relic was brought to replace a previous relic that was destroyed when the church burned in 1958.

Ann Ball was a longtime writer for Our Sunday Visitor, as well as an expert on saints and a well-known authority on Catholic culture and devotions. She died June 8, 2008, at the age of 64. This is the final story she wrote for OSV newsweekly.