Sts. Zenaida and Philonella
The Charitable Physicians
— October 11th —
The story of Zenaida and Philonella is not well known in the Catholic Church, but it really should be. These two early Christian saints were bright, intelligent women who are the first canonized medical doctors for their work as physicians in the church. Through them we see Christ as a healer beautifully embodied through their ministry in their lives and work. And, at a time when the role of medical institutes is undergoing so much change in the US and Canada, their example and intercession are badly needed.
Zenaida and Philonella were sisters living in Tarsus in the first century AD. Like their cousin, St. Paul, they were exceptionally bright, leading them to study at the local academy. At first, these studies were philosophical in nature, but as they progressed, both sisters found themselves drawn to the study of medicine. About the time of their graduation, their brother, Jason, a convert to the new Christian religion, was named bishop of the city. Soon after, Zenaida and Philonella were also baptized and became Christians.
Both sisters were deeply impressed that Christ had linked the whole person—spiritual and physical—with the presence of the Heavenly Kingdom and healing sickness with the path to salvation. With their training complete and eager to put their studies to work, these two young physicians began to set up their clinic. Sailing west from Tarius, they travailed to northern Greece to Demetriada in Thessaly, where the famous healing Felion Mountains stood outside the city. From ancient times this place had offered healing to the rich and powerful because of its healing mineral springs and the sale of magical amulets. Zenaida and Philonella purchased one of these caves using their family’s wealth and set to work opening their clinic.
However, unlike the other doctors whose success meant they could charge vast sums for their expertise and access to the springs, the sisters looked to Jesus as their example. He had glorified God through his actions and freely healed the sick and infirmed. In the same spirit, Zenaida and Philonella welcomed both the rich and poor without charge and sought to disentangle medical understanding from the pagan mysticism of the age. They built simple dwellings on site and set up a small chapel in their new clinic to do this. By living simply and dedicating themselves to prayer, both women also healed the souls of many visitors through their conversion to Christianity.
Although the two women would work together for their lives, they also developed specific interests and expertise. Philonella was a careful scholar focused on practical experimental medicine—using methods similar to modern scientific methods—working hard to separate treatment from superstition. Zenaida was more contemplative and became particularly interested in pediatrics, caring for babies and children needing medical attention. She was also a spiritual elder to many men and women. Later in her life, her attention shifted to treating psychiatric disorders, including depression, and helping those suffering from mental disorders. In doing so, she had the wisdom to recognize such disorders as actual illnesses, treating their causes when searching for a cure.
The most reliable accounts tell us that Philonella survived her sister, living to a great old age after Zenaida died. It was during this period, Philonella deepened her prayer life. As Christ had promised, those who followed him would work great miracles, and her work of healing became occasionally miraculous during this period, leading to her being named a “Wonderworker.”
The church has given these two extraordinary women many titles over the centuries. They have been called the “Mothers of Modern Medicine” and the “Unmercenaries,” because of the work they did, but perhaps their most beautiful title is that of the “Friends of Peace.” This is because both women preached peace, serenity, and charity in their life and work. Philonella often told her patients that a peaceful disposition aided in healing and could even prevent illness. And the disciples of Zenaida reported that her last words in this life were a prayer for the world’s peace. Throughout these two extraordinary women’s lives, both emulated Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.
This icon of Sts. Zenaida and Philonella was made for a dear friend, wife, and mother of two young boys after her cancer diagnosis. During the next six months of chemotherapy and treatment, it is hoped that these saints will intercede for her, and she will feel the comfort of their presence especially closely.
Puhalo, Lazar. Lives of the Saints. vol. 11, Syaxis Press.
“Zenaida and Philonella.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 7 Aug. 2022, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zenaida_and_Philonella. Accessed 10 May 2023.
DeCou, Christopher. “The Ancient Doctors Who Refused Payment.” Welcome Collection, 20 Nov. 2019, wellcomecollection.org/articles/Xc6-2REAACgABY_t. Accessed 10 May 2023.