Saint Apollonia, patron saint of dentists - 9 February in Murcia

On 9 February, Spain celebrates the day of 'Saint Apollonia', patron saint of dentists. Her story, unknown to many, reflects with intensity the passion and faith of this woman, whose remains are now scattered in many parts of the world. In any case, long before the existence of dentists as we know them today, Saint Apollonia is the saint to whom we should entrust ourselves in case of a toothache... something quite painful in times before ours, when we can enjoy ever more comfortable and quicker treatments.

If we go into detail on her history, we know that she lived in Alexandria, and that on 9 February 250, during the persecution of Christians ordered by Emperor Decius, she was cruelly tortured by having her teeth pulled out, and then burnt to death.

To find out more about it, we must refer to the only historical document that refers to it. It is none other than a letter of Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, written to Fabius, bishop of Antioch, in which he tells him about the persecutions of Decius in Alexandria, and also tells us everything we really know about Saint Apollonia, who was martyred after the death of Metras and Quinta, two other Christians who refused to renounce their faith:

Then, by common consent, they all rushed into the houses of the Christians in haste, and plundered them, setting aside the most valuable articles for themselves, and when they burnt their wooden furniture and threw it into the streets, it looked like a spectacle of a city taken by the enemy. They also took care of Apollonia, an elderly Christian, by cutting open her jaw and taking out all her teeth, after which they lit a fire in front of the city and threatened to burn her alive, unless she abandoned Christianity, ... until the fire consumed her.".

After that, we know that she was quickly canonised, and took her place among the noble army of Christian martyrs, but one can easily guess that "an elderly Christian" was not very popular among painters and writers of religious poetry and afflicted devotees. Therefore, it is not surprising that she was constantly painted younger and more beautiful in the tradition of church and ecclesiastical art, and as she became more attractive, her story became more elaborate as well.


Classic image of Saint Apollonia
Classic image of Saint Apollonia

Here it is the modern history of Apollonia:

During the first half of the third century a very wealthy magistrate, whose name is unknown, lived in the city of Alexandria. He had married a woman whom he loved devotedly, and who loved him tenderly in return. The only blot on this couple's happiness was the fact that they were childless. They addressed fervent and unceasing prayers to Juno, Ceres, Jupiter, and all the gods, that they might be granted a son or daughter to inherit their enormous wealth, but all in vain.

On one occasion, three pilgrims came to Alexandria, and went from house to house begging alms in the name of the Redeemer and of the Blessed Virgin, their mother, because they were tired and hungry. The magistrate's wife, sitting at her only window present saw them, and heard their petition in a house across the road. Her interest was aroused by their strange words, and she called to them saying, "What kind of begging is yours, and what are the gods in whose name you ask for it?"

The pilgrims spoke to her about Christ, his life and teaching, and she asked them if they could ask the Virgin Mary that she might become pregnant, and the pilgrims replied that the Virgin would certainly have mercy on her. Then the magistrate's wife fell on her knees and prayed long and fervently to the Blessed Virgin, and her request was granted and a daughter was born to her, to whom she gave the name Apollonia.

The baby grew into a maiden as fair and graceful as a flower, and as good and pure as beautiful. The family of the Roman magistrate conformed to the religion established by the State, but the mother never ceased to talk to her daughter about the wonderful circumstances of her birth, and about Christ and the Blessed Virgin to whom she had addressed her prayers.

Apollonia kept all the details in her memory, and as she grew older there arose in her heart a strong desire to be baptised and become a Christian. And heaven did not leave her helpless. An angel came to her one day and led her out of Alexandria into the desert to the cell of Leonina, a disciple of St. Anthony. Apollonia told him her story and her desire to become a Christian, and Leonina immediately baptised her. Moments later, another angel swooped down from heaven, and throwing a bright white garment over Apollonia cried out: "This is Apollonia, servant of Jesus: go, now, to Alexandria and preach the faith of Christ".

Apollonia returned home full of ecstasy and fervour. She went among the people and preached to them with marvellous eloquence, making many converts to Christianity. After this, her father, very disturbed, asked her to explain her conduct. She defended herself with dignity and fervour, and still went on with her preaching and conversions, until her father, beside himself with rage, sent her to the Roman governor to be treated as a criminal.

The governor ordered her to kneel in the temple before one of the pagan gods, Serapis, which Apollonia flatly refused to do. She advanced haughtily to the statue, made the sign of the cross, and commanded the demon within to depart. There was a terrible crash, a crash, a scream, and from the broken image the demon fled, crying out: "The holy virgin, Apollonia, cast me out of here.

This made the governor furious, and, by his order, the girl was tied to a pillar, and his beautiful teeth were pulled out one by one with a pair of tongs. He then ordered a great fire to be kindled, and, as Apollonia persisted in her faith, she threw herself headlong into the fire, and did not renounce her soul given to God.


Contemporary image of Saint Apollonia
Contemporary image of Saint Apollonia

Saint Apollonia continues to protect dentists today who, in order to find something of her, can go to many places all over the world:

- His head is in the ancient basilica of Santa Maria del Trastevere in Rome,

- Its arms are in another ancient Roman church, the San Lorenzo, on the outskirts of the walk.

- Part of his jawbone is preserved in San Basilio, also in Rome.

- There are some of his teeth or fragments of them in churches in Naples, Volterra, Bologna, Antwerp, Brussels, Mechelen, Liège, and in five different churches in Cologne.

- In Canada, in the pilgrimage church of Saint Anne de Beaupré, a part of his jaw remains.