Little is in fact known of St. Faith. It is believed that Faith lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries at the time of the Roman Emperor Maximilian (286-305 AD) and died in Agen in the Garonne Valley in French Aquitaine. According to Jean-Claude Foy’s ‘Visiting Conques’, ‘a young Christian girl named Foy’ (from the Latin ‘Fides’) refused to make a sacrifice to pagan gods and was put to death by the occupying Roman authorities on the orders of the Governor Dacian, who had her roasted on a brazen bed and then beheaded. Other versions of the story record a miraculous shower of rain extinguishing the fire and necessitating the subsequent beheading. Faith was just twelve years old at the time. ‘Other Christians from Agen,’ Fau relates, ‘among whom were Bishop Caprais, moved by her example, submitted in their turn to an agonising fate.’
Her body, secretly buried, was transferred two centuries later to the basilica constructed on the actual place of her martyrdom. ‘It is quite certain’, Fau says, ‘that the various accounts of her Passion related well after her death, evoke more the feeling of ‘The Golden Legend of the Lives of the Saints’ than any historical reality.’
Five centuries later, it appears that romantic legend became closer to reality when ‘the names of Sainte Foy and Conques became associated for ever.’ Towards the end of the 8th century, a hermit called Dadon settled to a life of contemplation in that remote valley, and a community of monks joined him, following the Benedictine rules. Following a grant of land from the Emperor Louis the Pious (son of Charlemagne), the community began to flourish. At a time when the worship and valuing of holy relics was growing – and the possession of relics were coming to be seen as conferring great prestige - the Conques community set about obtaining some. ‘After several fruitless attempts’, Fau recounts, ‘ they set their heart on obtaining the precious remains of Sainte Foy at Agen. The theft, obliquely referred to as the ‘discreet transfer’(!) took place in the year 866 AD.’
Other accounts tell the entertaining story of the Conques monk who apparently attached himself to the Agen community, won their confidence and was entrusted with the task of guarding the relics. Once alone, he took to the hills with Saint Faith, evaded his righteous pursuers and found sanctuary in Conques, on January 14th, 866, where our saint’s remains (if that is what they actually are) remain to this day.
The abbey was rededicated to Sainte Foy and, discreetly glossing over its highly questionable acquisition, grew and prospered. Crusaders and pilgrims going to the shrine of St James at Compostella invoked her intercession and heaped treasures and gold on the community. The celebrated reliquary jewel-encrusted statue of the saint dates from this time and has long revered as a memento of her life and death.
There were two other, more historically authenticated, dramatic episodes in Saint Faith’s journey down the centuries. In 1568, at the height of the Reformation, the Huguenot Protestants set fire to the abbey, burning the roof down and doing much damage. At the time of the French Revolution, in 1792, the monastery was suppressed and scattered, and its mediaeval treasures, including the ‘Majesty of Sainte Foy’, were taken out of the decaying abbey and hidden in villagers’ homes, walls and outbuildings to avoid being requisitioned and melted down. The monastic buildings did not survive, but the abbey was restored and its treasures recovered and reinstalled.