February 28, 2021

Holy Martyrs Who Died in the Great Plague in Alexandria

The Plague in Rome, Jules Elie Delaunay. Art: Minneapolis Institute of Art

According to the Roman Martyrology under February 28th, there is a mention for the commemoration of the following Holy Martyrs:

"In Alexandria, in the reign of the emperor Valerian, the commemoration of the holy priests, deacons, and other Christians in great number, who encountered death most willingly by nursing the victims of a most deadly pestilence then raging. They have been generally revered as martyrs by the pious faithful."

In other words, these Christian victims of this pandemic are considered martyrs, out of their selfless love for others, putting themselves in harms way in order to help others in their time of need, and in order for others to not face death alone in their suffering.

Nicolas Poussin, Plague Striking Ashod
Regarding this, the Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73) writes:

"A violent pestilence laid waste the greater part of the Roman empire during twelve years, from 249 to 263. Five thousand persons died of it in one day in Rome, in 262. St. Dionysius of Alexandria relates, that a cruel sedition and civil war had filled that city with murders and tumults; so that it was safer to travel from the eastern to the western parts of the then known world, than to go from one street of Alexandria to another. The pestilence succeeded this first scourge, and with such violence, that there was not a single house in that great city which entirely escaped it, or which had not some dead to mourn for. All places were filled with groans, and the living appeared almost dead with fear. The noisome exhalations of carcasses, and the very winds, which should have purified the air, loaded with infection and pestilential vapours from the Nile, increased the evil. The fear of death rendered the heathens cruel towards their nearest relations. As soon as any of them had catched the contagion, though their dearest friends, they avoided and fled from them as their greatest enemies. They threw them half dead into the streets, and abandoned them without succour; they left their bodies without burial, so fearful were they of catching that mortal distemper, which, however, it was very difficult to avoid, notwithstanding all their precautions. This sickness, which was the greatest of calamities to the pagans, was but an exercise and trial to the Christians, who showed, on that occasion, how contrary the spirit of charity is to the interestedness of self-love. During the persecutions of Decius, Gallus, and Valerian, they dared not appear, but were obliged to keep their assemblies in solitudes, or in ships tossed on the waves, or in infected prisons, or the like places, which the sanctity of our mysteries made venerable. Yet in the time of this public calamity, most of them, regardless of the danger of their own lives in assisting others, visited, relieved, and attended the sick, and comforted the dying. They closed their eyes, carried them on their shoulders, laid them out, washed their bodies, and decently interred them, and soon after shared the same fate themselves; but those who survived still succeeded to their charitable office, which they paid to the very pagans, their persecutors. “Thus,” adds St. Dionysius, “the best of our brethren have departed this life, some of the most valuable, both of priests, deacons, and laics; and it is thought that this kind of death is in nothing different from martyrdom.” And the Roman Martyrology says, the religious faith of pious Christians honors them as martyrs.      

In these happy victims of holy charity we admire how powerfully perfect virtue, and the assured expectation of eternal bliss, raises the true Christian above all earthly views. He who has always before his eyes the incomprehensible happiness of enjoying God in his glory, and seriously considers the infinite advantage, peace, and honour annexed to his divine service; he who is inflamed with an ardent love of God, and zeal for his honor, sets no value on anything but in proportion as it affords him a means of improving his spiritual stock, advancing the divine honour, and more perfectly uniting his soul to God by every heroic virtue: disgraces, dangers, labour, pain, death, loss of goods or friends, and every other sacrifice here become his gain and his greatest joy. That by which he most perfectly devotes himself to God, and most speedily and securely attains to the bliss of possessing him, he regards as his greatest happiness."

St. Dionysios of Alexandria

Information about this plague comes to us from Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History (Bk. 7, Ch. 22), where he records for us a letter of Saint Dionysios of Alexandria, who was Archbishop of Alexandria from 248 to 264. During his time, the Church of Alexandria suffered horrible persecution. Just as that was dying down, the pandemic which ravaged the Roman Empire broke out in his city, just as Easter was approaching. St. Dionysius described the plague, and the Church’s response, in a letter to some of his flock outside of Alexandria. He wrote:

"To other men the present might not seem to be a suitable time for a festival. Nor indeed is this or any other time suitable for them; neither sorrowful times, nor even such as might be thought especially cheerful. Now, indeed, everything is tears and every one is mourning, and wailings resound daily through the city because of the multitude of the dead and dying.

For as it was written of the firstborn of the Egyptians, so now 'there has arisen a great cry, for there is not a house where there is not one dead.' And would that this were all!

For many terrible things have happened already. First, they drove us out; and when alone, and persecuted, and put to death by all, even then we kept the feast. And every place of affliction was to us a place of festival: field, desert, ship, inn, prison; but the perfected martyrs kept the most joyous festival of all, feasting in heaven.

After these things war and famine followed, which we endured in common with the heathen. But we bore alone those things with which they afflicted us, and at the same time we experienced also the effects of what they inflicted upon and suffered from one another; and again, we rejoiced in the peace of Christ, which he gave to us alone.

But after both we and they had enjoyed a very brief season of rest this pestilence assailed us; to them more dreadful than any dread, and more intolerable than any other calamity; and, as one of their own writers [Thucydides] has said, the only thing which prevails over all hope. But to us this was not so, but no less than the other things was it an exercise and probation. For it did not keep aloof even from us, but the heathen it assailed more severely."

Farther on he adds:

"The most of our brethren were unsparing in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness. They held fast to each other and visited the sick fearlessly, and ministered to them continually, serving them in Christ. And they died with them most joyfully, taking the affliction of others, and drawing the sickness from their neighbors to themselves and willingly receiving their pains. And many who cared for the sick and gave strength to others died themselves having transferred to themselves their death. And the popular saying which always seems a mere expression of courtesy, they then made real in action: ‘Your humble servant bids you farewell.’

Truly the best of our brethren departed from life in this manner, including some presbyters and deacons and those of the people who had the highest reputation; so that this form of death, through the great piety and strong faith it exhibited, seemed to lack nothing of martyrdom.

And they took the bodies of the saints in their open hands and in their bosoms, and closed their eyes and their mouths; and they bore them away on their shoulders and laid them out; and they clung to them and embraced them; and they prepared them suitably with washings and garments. And after a little they received like treatment themselves, for the survivors were continually following those who had gone before them.

But with the heathen everything was quite otherwise. They deserted those who began to be sick, and fled from their dearest friends. And they cast them out into the streets when they were half dead, and left the dead like refuse, unburied. They shunned any participation or fellowship with death; which yet, with all their precautions, it was not easy for them to escape."