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

Loading ... Loading ...


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


* indicates required

Recent Posts



124 comments on “Apollonia vs. Zenaida”

  1. Zenaida for free health care. Anna Fitch Courie for her book review and because she uses those little sticky tabs to mark her favorite pages.

  2. Tough vote today. Accomplished women (ordained leader) vs. physicians. Went with Zenaida, for her long life of ministry to the poor and mentally ill.

  3. My vote went to Zenaida today as I have seen so much suffering from mental health issues in children and adults.

  4. Oh, dear! I remember sitting in my dentist's chair and looking out his second floor window at the top of an electrical pole that made a cross. . . praying fervently to St. Apollonia that the visit would be short and sweet. (It often was not!) I was SURE she would get my vote today but thought I'd give Zenaida a cursory reading just to be fair. With so many young folks and others dealing with depression and health issues how could I not vote for Zenaida? Truly a woman for our times! (Apollonia, you are still in my prayers!)

  5. “Scant information is to be found about [Apollonia’s] life, but her death is well-documented.” “Little is known about Zenaida,” but apparently a whole lot more than about Apollonia; on the other hand, accounts of her death are all over the map. For me, what is reported about her life carries the day, for all the reasons mentioned above by others.

    Then, too, it is written that the last shall be first. True, “Z” is the sixth letter of the Greek alphabet; but, as we Anglicans know, the language of the Angli is also that of the Angeli. (With apologies to Gregory the Great.)

  6. All power to the zed. I vote for the early women physicians. I especially like that they treated the poor and attended to children with depression. I assume that means they drove out demons. Given today's ghastly phenomenon of parents refusing to give their children vaccinations, with the most recent horror of the parents who refused to vaccinate their son for tetanus at a cost of $800,000 to the community to save his life--and they still refused to vaccinate him (some demons won't be driven out)--I accept the story of Zenaida's unfortunate nail in the sole as an exemplary lesson to get vaccinated. I shudder at Apollonia's story, because it smacks too much of suttee: burning inconvenient single women. Sublimating the story by saying she voluntarily threw herself into the fire so as not to repudiate Christianity would be exactly the same if she didn't repudiate Hinduism. So I'll none of it. Humans have to stop burning women. I go for the women physicians today (without the "Christian royalty" theme, please; we are having enough problems with entitlement in our politics today). The Zed sisters for the win.

    1. Thank you so much, St. Celia. These days, any woman who pushes back and refuses to do men's bidding--religious or political--is considered "inconvenient." Zenaida and her sister get my vote for a whole slew of reasons, their compassion and their skepticism chief among them. (And "Christian royalty" is an oxymoron that should be avoided!)

  7. Zenaida for me today. Her gift of healthcare for those in need who otherwise would suffer their illnesses because they were unable to pay falls right in line with my position that everyone deserves to have medical attention when needed.

  8. I think Apollonia threw herself into the fire because a) she knew it was inevitable that she was going to end up there under the circumstances & b) by throwing herself in, it prevented the nationalists from committing the sin of murder. Talk about loving your enemies.

    As for anyone apart from the King of Kings being called "Christian royalty" . . . as Christ our King said Himself, the first shall be last and the last shall be first in His Kingdom.

    I have rarely had any good dental experiences, so I'm voting for the physician who with her physician sister practiced medical care for all.

  9. Zenaida ‘s life meets all that we strive to be as Christians. Nothing more to say except God bless Apollonia also. Funny thought , Apollonia I believe was the name of Micheal Corleone’ s first wife in Sicily in the movie, The Godfather.

  10. Before reading the bios I assumed I would vote for Appolonia, since I worked as a dental assistant for many years. But, Zenaida's story compelled me by her true calling to serve the needy. That will always be decider for me.

    1. Sorry for mistyping Apollonia's name. It's early and my new glasses are not working so well !

  11. Great and tough choices! Where can I report that my votes have not registered on my screen for three days now?

  12. Zenaida. I have a family member recently released from her second go round in a psych hospital. Gotta go with the patron.

  13. No contest. I vote for the woman who defended science and reason against scam artists and hucksters and cared for the entire community.

    1. I love the Madness fan who pointed to the heroics of Christians who stayed behind. I loved the neat connections Zenaida had to Paul (perhaps) and to Luke (well, do they say). I’m also amused that a physician, who did not charge, was in itself, a virtue that comemded one to sainthood.

  14. As one who has suffered much from the care of dentists, I could easily have voted for Apollonia. However, the last part of my working life was spent as a hospital chaplain, often serving in the adult psych unit, and ministering to patients from both psych units when a nurse brought them to the services I led in the chapel. I have to go with Zenaida, in memory of my most-loved profession, and also of my grandmother and her mother-in-law, who were herb doctors and spiritual healers. I still live in healing prayer for all I hear of who need it. I am so grateful for Medicare, and for the Medigap insurance that picks up where that leaves off, who have treated my broken hip and other problems from that fall at very little expense to my husband and me. Note to those about to retire, or in retirement, DO take Medicare, and DO look for a reliable company for Medigap. It is really worth it, though not free.

  15. I choose to believe that Zenaida died after stepping on a nail. "Modern" as her 2nd century medicine was, she didn't have a tetanus shot! But universal health care wins my vote for today.

  16. So good to learn about both these remarkable women! I am moved by Apollonia’s story, but find Zenaida irresistible, for all the reasons previous commenters have cited. Is her sister and partner a saint too? It sounds like she she should be.

  17. Having gone through some serious dental procedures recently, I have to vote for Apollonia. Had I known of her before the procedures, I would have prayed to her.
    I bet no medical insurance company would choose Zenaida as its symbol.

  18. I voted for Appollonia out of respect for my husband and his career in dentistry. I pray to
    Appollonia to watch over the wonderful young people who work for us.

  19. Went for Zenaida mainly for providing medical care to those who couldn't afford to pay and partly because I used to work for a splendid woman named Zenaida.

  20. I read the limerick, sang the song,
    But chuckles failed to guide me,
    So tossed a coin, Zenaida won!
    Now don’t you all deride me —

  21. Child psychotherapist here. Zenaida was the obvious choice for me. I will adopt her as my person saint!

  22. I was, at first, enchanted with the story of Apollonia. I had a great Aunt Apollonia and was always thankful I wasn't named after her. My father was a dentist.....so she was in the running, until I read about Zenaida. Zenaida's story was much more compelling.

  23. There re several dentists of various types in my family, including my daughter. I also want to support the concept of ordained women in the early church, so am voting for Appollonia today. Zenaida is a most worthy opponent, for all the reasons given.

  24. As a retired pediatrician Zenaida was my choice--medically available and an interest in children.

  25. Where can I find a list of the winners in sweet sixteen bracket, so I can fill in my score card?