Saint of the Day – 17 December – St Olympias of Constantinople (c 361-365 – 408), childless widow, Diaconess, friend of St John Chrysostom, Apostle of charity and Founder of a Convent, hospital and an orphanage, Defender of the true faith – also known as St Olympias the Younger and St Olympias the Deaconess – born at Constantinople and died in exile on 25 July 408 at Nicomedia following a long illness.
St Olympias was born sometime between 360-365, this pious, charitable and wealthy disciple of St John Chrysostom came from an illustrious family in Constantinople. Her father (called by the sources Secundus or Selencus) was a “Count” of the empire. One of her ancestors, Ablabius, filled the consular office in 331 and was also praetorian prefect of the East.
Her parents died when she was quite young and left her an immense fortune. In either 384 or 385 she married Nebridius, Prefect of Constantinople. St Gregory of Nazianzus, who had left Constantinople in 381, was invited to the wedding but wrote a letter excusing his absence (Ep. cxciii, in P.G., XXXVI, 315) and sent the bride a poem (P.G., loc. cit., 1542 sqq.). Within a short time, Nebridius died and Olympias was left a childless widow. She steadfastly rejected all new proposals of marriage, determining to devote herself to the service of God and to works of charity. Nectarius, Bishop of Constantinople (381-97), consecrated her Deaconess.
On the death of her husband, the emperor had appointed the urban prefect administrator of her property but in 391 (after the war against Maximus) he restored to her the administration of her large fortune. She built beside the principal church of Constantinople a convent, into which three relatives and a large number of maidens withdrew with her to consecrate themselves to the service of God. When St John Chrysostom became Bishop of Constantinople in 398, he acted as spiritual guide of Olympias and her companions and, as many undeserving approached the kind-hearted Deaconess for support, he advised her, as to the proper manner of utilising her vast fortune in the service of the poor (Sozomen, “Hist. eccl.”, VIII, ix; P.G., LXVII, 1540). Olympias resigned herself wholly to Chrysostom’s direction and placed at his disposal ample sums for religious and charitable objects. Even the most distant regions of the empire received her benefactions to churches and the poor.
When St Chrysostom was exiled, at their last interview, Olympias clung to his feet with such desperation that she had to be torn away by force. But, even in his absence, Olympias supported him in every possible way and remained a faithful disciple, refusing to enter into communion with his unlawfully appointed successor. St Chrysostom encouraged and guided her through his letters, of which seventeen are extant (P.G., LII, 549 sq.). These letters are a beautiful memorial of the noble-hearted, spiritual daughter of the great bishop.
Olympias was also exiled and died a few months after Chrysostom on 25 July 408, at Nicomedia. After her death, she was immediately venerated as a saint. A biography dating from the second half of the fifth century, which gives particulars concerning her from the “Historia Lausiaca” of Palladius and from the “Dialogus de vita Joh. Chrysostomi”, proves the great veneration she enjoyed. During he riot of Constantinople in 532, the convent of St Olympias and the adjacent church were destroyed.
Emperor Justinian had it rebuilt and the prioress, Sergia, transferred the remains of the foundress from the ruined church of St Thomas in Brokhthes, where she had been buried. We possess an account of this translation by Sergia herself.
Another Father and Doctor of the Church, St Gregory Nazianzen, called her “the glory of the widows in the Eastern Church”.