Santa Lucia of the gondoliers brought home to Sicily after a millennium

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The Independent Online

After wandering around Europe for more than 1,100 years, little Saint Lucy of Syracuse, the virgin martyr who - after an appalling death - became known as "the immovable one", has come home.

After wandering around Europe for more than 1,100 years, little Saint Lucy of Syracuse, the virgin martyr who - after an appalling death - became known as "the immovable one", has come home.

Thousands of devotees of the saint waited for her remains in Syracuse, Sicily, this week, waving white handkerchiefs to greet the arrival of the remains of what Italians call "the most kidnapped saint in Paradise". Venice had been home to her for so long that the gondoliers' song "Santa Lucia" had become part of the lagoon city's identity. But after a 12-year struggle for possession between the two cities, the patron saint of eyesight, of the blind, of lucidity and of photographers has come back to the ancient city where she was born.

Little is known for certain about the life of Lucia of Syracuse, but she was one of many Christian victims of the 3rd century Roman Emperor Diocletian. She was the child of wealthy parents but her father died when she was still young, and in adolescence she secretly took a vow of chastity.

Her mother, Eutychia, knowing nothing of the vow, arranged her marriage to a prominent pagan in Syracuse. Lucy managed for years to keep the man at bay, and finally explained why to her mother. She was in a good mood, having undertaken a pilgrimage with Lucy that led to the miraculous cure of a disease from which she had been suffering, and backed her daughter's resolution.

The young man was furious, and denounced Lucy as a Christian to the governor of Sicily.

The bitter martyrdom duly unfolded. Lucy was to be punished, like many Christian girls, by being forced into prostitution. But when the guards came to drag her to the brothel, they could not move her.

Faggots were piled up around her and set alight: Lucy refused to burn. Her eyeballs were gouged out - God presented her with a new pair (she is often depicted holding out one set of eyeballs on a plate). Finally they stabbed her through the throat. She died on 13 December 304, aged 21 and still a virgin.

One thousand seven hundred years plus a few days later, she is home again - though given her tumultuous after-life, it would be a rash person who bet on her having a peaceful future.

Her first half-millennium was the best: she rested in the church in Syracuse built in her memory. But in 878, as marauding Islamic Saracens threatened Syracuse, the relics were put in a secret place.

But not safe enough: in 1039 a Byzantine general, Maniacus, stole them and removed them to Constantinople. In 1204 the great 41st Doge of Venice, Enrico Dandolo, in his eighties and half-blind, the man who at a stroke turned Venice into an imperial power, stole Lucy's corpse from Byzantium.

She was brought to Venice and installed in the church of San Giorgio, but was to move twice more inside the city, arriving in 1313 at the city church named in her honour. But Lucy still had centuries of wandering ahead of her.

The industrial revolution arrived: in 1860 the church of Santa Lucia was demolished to make way for the railway station. Lucy shifted to the church of St Geremia. A century later, on 7 November 1981, robbers stole all her bones, except her head. Police recovered them five weeks later, on her saint's day. The priest of San Giorgio, desperate at losing her, lashed himself to one of her arms; to mollify him, he was allowed to retain the arm. Other parts of the corpse found their way to Rome, Naples, Verona, Lisbon, Milan, Germany, France.

Witnesses at the ceremony on Wednesday said she was looking good: her cranium resting on a red cushion, a silver mask over her face, her body clothed in a red garment with a golden fringe, dotted with pearls. "It's as if she was mummified," said Bishop Giuseppe Costantini, who according to Corriere della Sera newspaper, fought "like a lion" for the return.

He said: "For those who feel the universal breath of the Church, distance is of no importance. Whether Santa Lucia is in Venice, Syracuse or Sydney it's all the same." This is a fine example of Christian hypocrisy - Syracuse is glad and proud to have her back.