St. Apollonia and Friends

(d. 249 A.D.)

The ancient Roman persecutions are commonly numbered ten, but that number is mostly symbolic. Because Roman law forbade Christians to exist, any gang could start its own little pogrom without police interference.

For example, in 250 A.D., the Roman Emperor Decius issued an empire-wide decree of persecution. It was a real exercise in genocide, for everybody – man, woman, child- -was ordered bureaucratically to line up and offer pagan sacrifice. It was something like lining up to get your auto license or to turn in your income tax. In Alexandria, Egypt, as elsewhere in the Roman Empire, Christian people, scared out of their wits, rushed up to comply with the law, and worry about their sin of apostasy later.

Now, just before this national persecution began, a mob of pagans in Alexandria, Egypt, had started a volunteer local purge of Christians, in which St. Apollonia and others were victims. Whether out of zeal, or just as likely, out of boredom, a lynch-gang fell brutally upon the local Christians. Rounding them up, they demanded that they offer sacrifice to the pagan gods, or else blaspheme the true God. First the ruffians collared an old Christian man named Metras and demanded that he denounce God. When he refused, they beat him up, stabbed his face and eyes with sharp reeds, and finally stoned him to death. Next they dragged a Christian woman named Quinta into a temple to offer sacrifice. Quinta turned away from the altar with disgust. They therefore tied her feet together and dragged her feet-first over the rough pavements of the street and out through the city walls. There they stoned her as they had stoned Metras.

In an ecstasy of violence by now, the rioters attacked the homes of known Christians, harried the residents, plundered all they considered valuable, and burned the rest in the streets. Day and night they ran amok about town. Alexandria became a veritable hell. Things calmed down a little only when the pillagers started fighting among themselves. The Christians had meantime kept calm and stood their ground when commanded to apostatize.

But to get back to those who had been lynched. After the stoning of Metras and Quinta, these courageous “vigilantes” had laid hold of a Christian woman whom St. Denis of Alexandria would later call “That marvelous aged virgin named Apollonia.”

We know nothing about her in detail, but those six words of praise show that she had long since won the high esteem of Alexandrian Christians by her life of self-denial, prayer, and good works. When Apollonia refused to offer pagan sacrifice, her oppressors struck her mouth with a heavy bludgeon so as to break all her teeth. Then they took her outside the city wall, and built a huge fire into which they intended to throw her.

Before they had a chance to do so, however, Apollonia asked to be released for a moment. Thinking that she might have had a change of heart, the gang complied. Once unbound, to their great surprise, she leaped voluntarily into the flames. Death followed quickly.

Normally, we are forbidden to seek our own death. From ancient times, therefore, Christian writers like St. Augustine have tried to figure out why she jumped to her own death. But all have agreed that she was indeed a martyr. She was doomed to die, anyhow, they say, hence she must have acted on divine inspiration. In other words, she was something like the Old Testament saint, Samson, who, when captured and blinded, brought down the roof of the Philistine temple upon himself and the assembled enemies of Israel (Judges, 16).

St. Apollonia, Virgin and Martyr, died in the East, but is venerated only in Western Europe. She is identified in pictures and statues by the tooth she bears in an extractor’s forceps, or the gold tooth she wears in a necklace. Popular devotion recognizes her as patroness of those who suffer toothache or other diseases of the mouth. For the same reason, dentists honor her as their patron saint.

--Father Robert F. McNamara