Apollonia vs. Zenaida

In yesterday's Clash of the Consonants,  Gobnait stung Hrotsvitha 66% to 34% to advance to the Saintly Sixteen. She'll face the winner of Paula of Rome vs. Marcella of Rome.

Here at Lent Madness, we like to say we cover the saints from A to Z. Okay, we've never said that. But if we did, today's matchup would be Exhibit A (to Z). Because we have Apollonia vs. Zenaida -- two early Christian followers of Jesus -- and, in the saintly world, you don't get much more A to Z than that!


Apollonia was a Christian martyr, killed in a local uprising in Alexandria, in the year 249 ce. Scant information is to be found about her life, but her death is well-documented. Historians note that the reign of Philip the Arabian was not the most tranquil for the Roman Empire. During the celebrations of the anniversary of the founding of Rome in 248, a crowd arose in Alexandria that was overcome with nationalistic feelings. In their fervor, they began attacking local Christians as traitors to the emperor.

Dionysius, the local bishop, wrote a letter to Bishop Fabius of Antioch, documenting the attacks; the letter later became part of Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, which provides an account of the development of early Christianity. Dionysius describes a general panic in the city, with Christians fleeing to safety if they have the means. Apollonia, however, does not flee and is attacked by an angry mob who punch out all her teeth. The crowd then threatens to burn her alive if she does not echo their denunciation of Christ. Thinking quickly, Apollonia asks to walk a little ahead of her captors, in order to think about her choices, and when they let her go, she throws herself into the fire. She dies rather than give up her faith.

While the story of Apollonia is unfamiliar to us today, it is significant that Dionysius describes Apollonia as “parthénos presbytis.” It can be literally translated as “elder virgin” and seen as a descriptor of Apollonia’s agedness or an explanation for why she didn’t flee the city. Some modern scholars also think the term may denote ordained leaders of the early church. It is therefore possible that Apollonia was an early ordained leader martyred for her faith.

In art, Apollonia is depicted holding a pair of pincers in which a tooth is held. She is the patron saint of dentistry and those who suffer from toothaches because of her unfortunate dental torment right before her death. Her relics are located at the church that bears her name in Rome, as well as in Antwerp, Brussels, Mechlin, and nearly every other major city in Europe. Devotion to Saint Apollonia and fascination with her tooth-healing abilities was widespread during the Middle Ages, perhaps because of the sad lack of flossing.

Collect for Apollonia
Almighty God, by whose grace and power your holy martyr Apollonia, triumphed over suffering and was faithful even to death: Grant us, who now remember her in thanksgiving, to be so faithful in our witness to you in this world, that we may receive with her the crown of life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

-Megan Castellan


Zenaida and her sister Philonella were born of a Jewish family in the city of Tarsus around 100 ce. They were baptized into the faith following the evangelism of their brother Jason. They are known in the Orthodox Church as the earliest female physicians to follow Saint Luke in their ministry of the sick, and they were known as “unmercenary” healers, refusing to take payment from their patients for their services.

Like many early saints and biblical figures, little is known about Zenaida. She is thought to come from a well-educated Jewish family with ties to Paul the Apostle. Her brother Jason was one of the first bishops of the church in her native city of Tarsus. Truly, Zenaida and Philonella were descendants of the first members of Christ’s church. They could be considered Christian royalty, if you will. We can also deduce Zenaida was intelligent and well-educated, as she attended formal schooling to study medicine.

Upon completion of her studies, Zenaida and her sister moved their practice to the mountains of Pelion in Thessaly. The area was well-known for catering to the rich and affluent members of society, and Zenaida and her sister were expected to serve only those who could pay for their services. Bucking the prevailing attitudes of society, Zenaida and her sister opened their practice to all, refusing payment and serving the lowliest of the low. They implemented practices that were based in modern scientific principles of medicine and confronted healers in the area who tried to make money off of superstitious amulets and phony charms.

Zenaida was particularly known for her care of children, those with depression, and psychiatric disorders. The sisters combined a love of medicine with the love of God and preached Christ’s love in concert with their healing practices. They believed that salvation in Christ brought some of the most significant healing to their patients. As a result of their ministry, the church named Zenaida and her sister as “Friends of Peace.”

Some accounts say that Zenaida and her sister were stoned to death, while some say they both died peacefully in service to God. Other accounts say Zenaida died after stepping on a nail.

Collect for Zenaida
Merciful God, whose most dear Son came to heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons, and preach the gospel to the poor; Teach us by the example of your servant Zenaida to freely give even as we have freely received; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

-Anna Fitch Courie

Apollonia vs. Zenaida

  • Zenaida (81%, 6,197 Votes)
  • Apollonia (19%, 1,446 Votes)

Total Voters: 7,643

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Apollonia: By Wolfgang Sauber [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Zenaida: By AnonymousUnknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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124 comments on “Apollonia vs. Zenaida”

  1. Zenaida the generous physician
    Never charged, nor abused her position.
    She shunned medical cons
    And unmasked charlatans:
    So today I’m supporting her mission.

  2. Our musical tribute is sung to the tune of "Dentist!" from "Little Shop of Horrors" which seems apt given the circumstances.

    When Phil was Caesar, Rome was not very chill.
    Mob scenes would break out leading folks to kill.
    Like what went down in Alexandria…
    They martyred our girl, Apollonia,
    An elder virgin, she could not go
    When things got ugly, yo!

    What happened next?

    A party for Rome’s Founding Day
    The mob held sway
    And decided to make Christians pay!

    They caught Apollonia (They caught Apollonia!)
    And then proceeded to punch out her teeth. (Ow!)
    Poor Apollonia! (Poor Apollonia!)
    And then they drove that poor girl to the breach. (To the breach)
    Her temperament’s right for a martyr;
    She burned so she won’t acquiesce.
    The Patron of dentists –
    A saintly success!

    Here’s Zenaida! (We went from A to Z!)
    Watch her heal for no pay. Oh, what gall!
    She’s a doctor and she’ll never ever charge any fees,
    Like a 1st Cent’ry Medicare plan for all.


    Poor patient: Oh, I’m sick. What do I owe?
    Zenaida: Just thank God I’m not your HMO.

    She was a doctor… (She was a doctor!)
    How she loved healing the poor – but no bills. (She loved it!)
    Embracing what’s modern… (She liked what’s modern!)
    Exposed the fake cures that won’t cure your ills. (She really loved it!)

    She shared God’s love as an assurance. (God love her)
    Never denied care for no insurance. (Do-oc-tor)
    When Z saw patients who were in distress,
    She told them: Somewhere in heaven above them,
    Take comfort to know that Christ Jesus does love them.

    Praise Jesus!

    She was a doctor.
    A saintly success!

    To Apollonia: Say ow!
    Apollonia: Ow!

    To Zenaida: Say ah!
    Zenaida: Ah!

    To both: Say ow! (ah!)
    Apollonia/Zenaida: Ow! (Ah!)

    Now, VOTE!

    1. Brilliant song today!! But then again, you're amazing that way, Michael W.!! Huzzah!!

  3. I am struck by the stories of saints who stay behind when the world is falling apart, from the sack of Rome to the Martyrs of Memphis. It is such a powerful witness of solidarity. Yet, today, I find Zenaida's story more inspiring than Appollonia's. I also have a few parishioners who are so devoted to community healthcare that is really making a difference in our area, so I see today's vote for Zenaida as a vote for their ministry, too. Thank you for the opportunity to learn about to very fascinating ancestors in the faith!

    1. Your reflections mirror mine. Apollonia gave it all the hard way. Yet Zenaida also gave all she had. I hate having to choose. Both moved me. One was not "better" than the other. Being bivocational, I chose to work in community mental health myself as an LCSW for many years. The Appalachian people are mostly invisible to the larger country but their poverty is similar to other cultures. Working with them was a joy most of the time. Their survivalist spirit is something to admire and they are one of the few cultures to be truly able to laugh at themselves. Now I see a few clients for cash for what they are able to pay for at least half the cost on a sliding scale. The insurance debacle and government meddling creates unaffordable mental health care for many and places excessive burdens on therapists.

  4. Not finding many of the saints this year very inspiring. Apollonia was going to burn anyway. Zenaida seems nice. Went with Zenaida. Hope they are saving the best of the stories for later rounds, which I wish they would not do since it probably results in uninformed voting.

  5. I was touched by Apollonia's barbaric end, but went with Zenaida for her generous, "unmercenary" healing. (That said, loved that pun about the "crown" of life in the collect for the patron saint of dentistry. At least, I hope it was an intentional pun.)

  6. Zenaida, because I used to volunteer at Columbia Road Health Services, a medical clinic where anyone was welcome, and fees were based on your income. If you had no income, you paid nothing, but still received medical treatment and lots of love and care!

  7. As if "A to Z" weren't bad enough, to add to the pain, in the collect for Apollonia, the patron saint of dentistry, we pray, “that we may receive with her the crown of life.” Yes, a gold crown, or several of them, if needed. May it be so.

  8. As the daughter of an amazing woman who shocked her small Midwestern hometown (and mother) by insisting on -becoming- a doctor in a time when the appropriate goal would have been to -marry- one, I had to vote for Zenaida. (And the joke was on the pearl-clutchers in the end, since she met my father in medical school and they shared a successful practice for decades. Why Not Both?)

  9. Voted for Apollonia while waiting in the dentist's office during my wife's appointment. Asked Apollonia to be with her and comfort her.

  10. When I saw that Apollonia was popular in the Middle Ages, "perhaps because of the sad lack of flossing", I laughed and was ready to vote for her. As a physician myself, Zenaida however won out because of her service to the poor and her practice according to the available scientific principles, and calling out of charlatans.

  11. I want to vote for Apollonia. I’ve been studying Luke for a year-and-a-half, and his admiration of widows (or elderly women) and his lifting them up as leaders in the early church seems to be what is reflected in Apollonia’s story. Plus I’m a huge advocate of flossing, and though I have obtained many crowns in my later years, I attribute that to lack of flossing in my early years.

    I am sad that she went to such a fiery and painful death.

    But I went with the whopping majority for Zenaida. Anyone who treats for free the indigent mentally ill people of the world has my vote here and in November.

    Plus, it gave me chills to think that she was a 2d generation Christian!

  12. Living out their discipleship by service to the poor did it for me. I voted for Zenaida because that means I also get to acknowledge her sister Philonella. Kind of a 2 for 1 day!

    1. So glad you mentioned her sister Philonella. With her sisters help they made quite a team.

  13. My vote goes to Zenaida in prayer for and honor of those with psychiatric disorders and their families. Two millennia later, their healthcare needs are still woefully underserved and underfunded.

  14. Tough choice as always. My sentiments went for Zenaida but I was married to a dentist for 47 years and thus voted for Apollonia.

  15. Zenaida and her special care for those struggling with mental illness gets my vote.

  16. I voted for Apollonia. Dentists definitely deserve a patron saint! Plus the cathedrals are full of images that we want to see in the next round! Even Andy Warhol painted her picture! (Google it!)

  17. Since Apollonia's saintly qualifications are having her teeth knocked out and basically committing suicide (jumping into the fire on her own) I went for Zenaida's life long devotion to healing. Especially working with the mentally ill.

    Go Zenaida!!

    1. OMG! This sounds like DJT’s dismissing the value of a certain same party war hero rival! W ‍♀️

  18. Zenaida gets my vote today. My grandmother healed by faith and her knowledge of home remedies. Faith healing works and she did it for free. She was revered in the town where even today 51 years after her death people remember her healing ways.

  19. We voted for Z today, not only because she provided free medical care, as well as helping those with mental health issues. Especially poignant as one of our choir member’s 25 year old son, who suffered from depression, committed suicide and his funeral is tomorrow; they are very much in our prayers this day.

    1. So very sorry to hear of this suicide. Few things in life are as tough as when a beloved young person takes his own life.

      Christ be with his family, and your entire congregation.

      1. Or an older uncle.... Prayers for all those who despair, and those who lose them....

  20. I voted for Zenaida based on the account of her work as a physician, her care for those who could not afford treatment for their ills, and, in general, hers was a life given to service. The glimpse we have of Apollonia is the same glimpse we have of thousands of other Christians who had the misfortune to live in perilous times - she got beaten up and killed. Not a pleasant death, I agree, but what do we know about her before that dark day? If everyone who died for Christ before the Edict of Milan was issued sainthood would be cheap. Interestingly, Philonella, who is mentioned only in passing in Megan Castellan's biography of Zenaida, is co-celebrated with her sister in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and they share October 11 as their feast day. In part, then, my vote for Zenaida is also a vote for Philonella.

  21. Truly two amazing saints whose witness is relevant for us today in our own age of nationalism and for-profit health care. I had to go with Zenaida, because of her care for the very poor and those, like me, with mental illnesses. My church hosts ministries that provide health care to the very poor, the uninsured, and the homeless, so this is close to my heart.

  22. Oops, meant to say "If everyone who died for Christ before the Edict of Milan was issued became a saint, then sainthood would be cheap."

  23. Voting for Zenaida in thanksgiving for the wonderful NHS, offering free health care to all, and founded in Christian principles.

    1. Sigh. We, across the pond, when not agitating for our own affordable health care, can only look on in envy

  24. My vote for Zenaida is all on you, Anna Fitch Courie. I was all set to vote with Apollonia, thanks to my love of Eusebius and my fears that Medicare plus supplemental insurance won’t cover needed dental work when I came to your collect for Zenaida, the devout and generous phycian. It so perfectly summed up the prayers I’ve been offering this morning that I had no choice but to vote for the last (alphabetically) of this season’s saints!

  25. My involvement with the healing ministry drew me to Zenaida. However, I went with Apollonia. Her example and intercession for persecuted Christians today is needed. Also brought back memories of a wonderful statue of Santa Apolonia by Goler seen this summer at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, NM.