How a defiant teenager became the patron saint of artillerymen

When a member of the U.S. Army or Marine corps artillery has served in their career with distinction, they are nominated for the Order of St. Barbara. But what does a 7th century Lebanese woman have to do with howitzers?

Pre-sainthood Barbara, the story goes, had a  cruel, vocally-pagan father named Dioscorus. As is the case for many saints, Barbara’s crime against her father was her stubborn adherence to Christianity in the face of her father’s decidedly heathen ways. While no father appreciates rebellion from their teenage daughter, the most extreme punishments include telling them to go to their room. After Barbara told her father she was a Christian, Dioscorus took her to the judge.

But the story gets grittier. The judge sided with Dioscorus and subjected Barbara to torture before giving her the death sentence. It appears that the mentally-unhinged father was not content to merely sentence his daughter to death, but opted to serve as her executioner.

As Barbara’s soul was carried to heaven, so the story goes, her father was immediately struck by lightning. Because of this, Barbara became the patron saint for protection against sudden death, particularly lightning strikes and explosions. Which brings us to artillerymen.

Firing artillery requires the rapid handling of dozens of pounds of explosives, sent hurtling through the air through even more explosions. Today the process is refined and nearly automated, but in the early days of civil war cannons, the risk of explosion while mishandling explosives was high. As recently as 2008, a civil war restoration expert was killed when a naval cannonball he was restoring detonated in his driveway. To protect themselves from sudden death, the artillerymen turned to St. Barbara.

In 1969, the Roman Catholic church decided to remove her calendar day of the Month of the Holy Souls, as historical accounts of her life and the miracle proved difficult to verify. But like many, her importance persists in the hearts of those who seek her protection.

Today, the Ancient Order of St. Barbara Honors those who have conducted “conspicuous, long-term service” while serving in field artillery battalions. On Dec. 4, artillerymen around the world often hold formal military events celebrating St. Barbara and toasting to her and appealing to her to protect them from a sudden, explosive end.Editor’s note: In conjunction with the Month of the Holy Souls, the St. Charles Herald-Guide will feature a profile of a Catholic saint each week throughout November.


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