Saint Olympias

Feast day December 17

Saints Stories for All Ages

Throughout church history, holy widows have become friends with priests and bishops, supporting them spiritually and materially, including Olympias and John Chrysostom. A member of Constantinople’s wealthy elite, St. Olympias enjoyed a happy marriage to the prefect, Nebridius. However, when her husband died young, the lovely widow decided to remain single. She refused all suitors, including one advanced by the emperor Theodosius himself.

He punished her by placing her estate under public administration. But she made a striking appeal in 391, and he restored her control over her fortune. Olympias had already decided to live simply, and she began to divest herself, giving everything away to the needy and to the church. Her biographer described her largesse in this way:

Olympias distributed all of her immense wealth and assisted everyone simply and without distinction. She surpassed in generosity to all the Samaritan whose story is told in the gospels. Immediately after the distribution of all her goods, she gave to the archbishop, John Chrysostom, for the cathedral church of the royal city, ten thousand pounds of gold, twenty thousand of silver and all of her real estate situated in all the provinces. Then by the divine will she was ordained deaconess of this holy cathedral of God. And she built a monastery at an angle south of it. John also ordained as deaconesses of the cathedral her three relatives, Elisanthia, Martyria and Palladia. Thus the four deaconesses could stay together in the convent that Olympias had founded.

All were amazed at the holiness of these women: their constant praise and thanksgiving to God, their “charity which is the bond of perfection” (see Colossians 3:14), and their stillness. No man or woman from the outside was permitted to visit them. The holy patriarch John, the only exception, came regularly to sustain the women with his wise teaching.

Olympias, like the women who served Christ, prepared the archbishop’s daily meals and sent them to him. Only a wall separated his residence from the convent. She fed him not only before the plots against him, but also after he was banished. Up to the end of his life, she provided for all his expenses as well as for those who were with him in exile.

Olympias also constructed a hospital and orphanage near the convent. She regularly provided hospitality to Christian leaders from all over the East, including Gregory of Nyssa.

When John Chrysostom fell afoul of the empress and was banished, she supported him. He reciprocated by encouraging Olympias when officials persecuted her. Optatus, the prefect of Constantinople, twice banished her for refusing to accept Arsacius and his successor, Atticus, the usurpers who had replaced John as archbishop. Atticus finally dis- banded her community and ended her charitable works. Olympias died in exile in 408, a year after the death of John Chrysostom.

from Voices of the Saints, by Bert Ghezzi

Image credit: Deaconess Olympias by unknown artist, unknown date. Public Domain via Wikimedia.