(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. Matrona, whose account is found in Volume 1 of the series.)
Saint Matrona of Thessaloniki
Enslavement was an accepted practice in all the societies and religions of the fourth century, but it was not so much a matter of religious principle being violated as an overlooking of moral principle by those who could afford to buy a slave, whatever the creed of the family. Even the wealthy Jew of that period, whose people had known bondage in prior centuries and whose descendants have suffered the holocausts of twentieth-century anti-Semitism, was not above buying a slave for the family household. Such was the case with Matrona of Thessaloniki, a Christian who was bought for a wealthy Jewish woman.
Matrona is thought to have been a waif without family of her own and was therefore not torn from parents or siblings when led from the auction block in the slave market. It is quite possible that her lot was considerably improved when she became the maid in a household that was far more comfortable than any she might have known previously. She might even have wished for such a household, although it is quite certain that she would have preferred a Christian family since she had been reared as a Christian. But there is no indication that the difference in religion was of any consequence to either the mistress or her maid, since the difference lay more in social standing than anything else.
It was about the year 307 that Matrona served in this comparatively affluent household where her duties extended beyond the home itself to trips to the market with her mistress, as well as escorting her to the synagogue for services. While waiting at a discreet distance from the synagogue entrance, it occurred to Matrona that she could make better use of her time by attending a Christian service. Not all Christian services were public affairs in those days of pagan persecution, but Matrona found a place nearby where Christian worship was observed in secret. It was to this hidden church that she would hurry once her mistress had disappeared into the synagogue.
One account has it that the name of the mistress was Mantilla, which was sometimes confused with Matrona, thus leading to some embarrassing situations. So while in the synagogue on her Sabbath, Mantilla was contemplating a change in her maid’s name to avoid any further confusion. She had decided on a name and left the synagogue early to tell Matrona of her plan, but the maid was nowhere to be found. To make matters worse, Matrona had tarried longer than usual with her Christian friends, and by the time she returned to the synagogue her impatient mistress had gone to authorities to report a missing slave and then returned home.
A state official had gone to the house for details about the missing girl when the thoroughly frightened Matrona came running in. An alarm had been sent out for the girl’s apprehension; when she came panting into the house, the official assumed that the girl, finding herself on report as a runaway slave, had chosen to return with the story that she had left her post outside the synagogue and had lingered with a few friends. She was not believed when she could not name her friends – she knew they would be hunted down and their church would be found out and destroyed.
The mistress was of no help to Matrona, who pleaded for her forgiveness to no avail, not only for having abandoned her mistress, but for now offering as a defense some imaginary friends, seemingly adding insult to injury. The official suspected the truth but needed the permission of the mistress to place Matrona under arrest. Thus, Matrona was given over to the authorities by an indifferent and vindictive mistress who knew what the consequences would be if the girl insisted on holding her tongue.
Taken to prison, Matrona was forced into admitting that she had been with Christian friends in worship of the Savior, but beyond that she would say nothing. No amount of torture could force the girl either to betray her friends or to denounce the Messiah. She was systematically and cruelly being drained of life, but she held out to the end, finally succumbing for Jesus Christ on March 27, 307.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Wikipedia.