Saints Philonella, Hermione, and Zenaida | owhm.org/saints.html

Unmercenary Physicians

By Charles Hoffacker

The April 14 commemoration of Zenaida, Philonella, and Hermione in Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2018 marks the first time an official liturgical book of the Episcopal Church has mentioned “unmercenary physicians.” This category of saint is, however, well known in Eastern Orthodox churches.

An extraordinary resource on these figures is Saints Who Were Physicians and Healers: An Activity Book for Orthodox Children and Parents, available as a free download from the Department of Christian Education of the Orthodox Church of America. Philonella, Hermione, and Zenaida appear on its cover as “The Mothers of Modern Medicine.”

Saints Who Were Physicians and Healers provides detailed accounts of more than 30 saints, from Luke the Evangelist and Antipas of Pergamum mentioned in the New Testament, to Matrona of Moscow and Luke of Simferopol and Crimea, 20th-century canonized saints of the Russian Orthodox Church. The witness of these holy ones is presented in ways that can engage both children and adults.

Who are the three unmercenary physicians now on the Episcopal Church calendar?

Zenaida and Philonella were sisters, born into a well-educated and wealthy Jewish family in the early first century and said to be cousins of the apostle Paul. After studying philosophy and medicine at Tarsus, they relocated to Thessaly, an area renowned for healing springs and shrines to Asclepius, god of medicine. The physicians already established there charged exorbitant fees and sold magical charms. In contrast, the sisters set up cells for themselves and a chapel and clinic. Together with other women who joined them, Philonella and Zenaida devoted themselves to prayer and medical practice, treating everyone who came to them, regardless of ability to pay. Many were healed. Many were brought to Christ.

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 servants, Zenaida, Philonella, and Hermione to freely give even as we have freely received; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Zenaida was especially interested in pediatrics and the treatment of psychological disorders, in particular depression. She became renowned as a spiritual director. Philonella devoted herself to gynecology and experimental treatments for diseases thought to be incurable. She worked to separate medicine from superstition. Philonella and Zenaida may have been stoned to death by a jealous mob. Where they are buried is unknown. The Orthodox Church refers to them as the “Friends of Peace.”

Hermione was born in Caesarea of Palestine early in the first century. She was one of four women mentioned in Acts 21:8 who had the gift of prophecy and were daughters of Philip the deacon and evangelist. After studying medicine in Caesarea, she bought a house where she established a medical clinic with her sister Eukhidia, adding rooms to shelter anyone in need.

This may have been the first Christian hospital and the first Christian hostel. Hermione welcomed all who sought treatment and did not accept payments, but told her patients to pray and give thanks to God for their healing.

She also made startling predictions about what would happen to the Roman Empire if it continued to defy God’s will. She was summoned to meet with the Emperor Trajan, who wanted to use for his advantage what he believed was her magical power. Hermione refused his demands and was whipped. In 117, the Emperor Hadrian had her tortured and beheaded for her faith. Hermione’s tomb at Ephesus has drawn many pilgrims over the centuries.

Spiritual treasures are sometimes rediscovered just when they are needed.

The memory of the unmercenary physicians Zenaida, Philonella, and Hermione can transform our moral imaginations as we wrestle with the ethics and economics of health care in our time.

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest who lives in Greenbelt, Maryland.

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 servants, Zenaida, Philonella, and Hermione to freely give even as we have freely received; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.