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Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Saint Verena of Egypt and Switzerland

This week marks the anniversary of Saint Verena, an Egyptian who made her name in Europe. Ahram Online remembers the woman who healed bodies and souls

Mahmoud El-Dossoki , Wednesday 9 Sep 2015
St. Verena
Mercy of St. Verena of Zurzach, 1524 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
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This week the churches of Egypt celebrated Saint Verena's day. Saint Verena is known in the Coptic tradition as the mother of nuns and as the person who taught Europe the basics of general health and hygiene.

clay
courtesy of Mahmoud El-Dosokki

The stories of saints often involve grave danger and immense pain, miracles of victorious survival and the shunning of pain for the light of hope. That, in a nutshell, is the life of Saint Verena, born an Egyptian girl in the Upper Egypt village of Garagous, south of Qena governorate.

During the pagan reign of Roman emperor Maximian (286-305 AD) there was no tolerance for Christians, especially in Upper Egypt where the regime burned Christians alive in clay incinerators. Located in Qena, they would drag Christians from all over Egypt and torture them to death, researcher Nour El-Din El-Qefty told Ahram Online.

Verena, whose name means 'the good fruit', was brought up against this vicious backdrop. However, known for her skills in herbal medicine, she was ordered to join a medical battalion travelling to Europe to assist combat battalions fighting unrest in Switzerland.

On their arrival the medical battalion was asked to pay their respects to the pagan deities, and they unanimously declined because it was against their beliefs as Christians. The decision was fatal for the men, who were all killed as a result. She was let go.

"In Europe she refused to return to Egypt and sought out the Alps to live in seclusion, in a cave on the Germany-Switzerland border with other young women who accompanied her from Egypt," explained Mohamed Abdel-Shafi, professor of Byzantine History in Ganoub Al-Wadi College in Qena.

Whilst there she had a major impact on healthcare and hygiene practices, especially among the young women around her. They were touched by her piety, faith and knowledge of herbal medicine. Slowly she and her companions introduced the teachings of Christianity locally.

Despite being imprisoned by a ruler for being a Christian, she was the only person who managed to stop that ruler's fever and was released. She died in Switzerland on 1 September 344 AD at the age of 64.

"Seventy churches were built in her name in Switzerland and 30 in Germany, as well as a statue of her carrying a comb in one hand and a jar in the other, with the following engraving: 'The girl who taught Switzerland hygiene and the Swiss girls chastity and purity'. A replica of the statue is found at the Swiss Embassy in Cairo," he added.

Her miracles were documented in many Christian books and Egypt managed to bring home part of her remains in 2012 on the anniversary of her death.

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