Their relationships with their cousins Ss. Paul the Apostle and Jason the Bishop of Tarsus opened the avenue to learn about Orthodoxy. Ss. Zenaida and Philonella were sisters born into a prominent Jewish family in Tarsus. Being extremely intelligent they advanced their education at the highest learning centers of Tarsus engaging in studies of philosophy and medicine.
Having learned the Christian faith from St. Jason, Ss. Zenaida and Philonella were attracted by the love and compassion of Christ. After their baptism, the two gave themselves over more fully to the study of medicine and began to apply Christian principles and ideas to medical philosophy. They understood that salvation is a healing process. They realized Christ's message supplied the tools for the healing of the whole person, spiritual and physical, with the goal of reaching the heavenly kingdom.
Upon completing their studies, Ss. Zenaida and Philonella moved to Thessally, where many medicinal mineral springs flowed in the caverns of the Felion Mountains. Here, Greek physicians had centers of pagan worship tied to the philosophy of medicine and the worship of Asklepios, the patron of healing. Their earnest desire was to combine scientific medicine with prayer and faith and so reveal the nature of salvation and proclaim Jesus Christ to whomever would hear the words of the glorious Gospel. The holy sisters hoped their example would bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the great crowds of people who visited them for physical healing and thus address the aspects of spiritual healing as well.
Many of the pagan physicians, to the disgrace of their Hippocratic oath, not only ignored the poor but also sought out the care for the wealthy, mixing their medical practice with magic, superstition and witchcraft. Finding a cavern with a mineral spring, Zenaida and Philonella built two cells and a small chapel for themselves. Having thus established a women's monastery, they used their wealth to create a clinic. The two sisters then opened their hearts to the poor. The sisters' love, compassion, and openness to the poor and humble attracted many to the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. The medical skill of the two sisters became renowned, and the miracles worked through their prayers established many in the gospel.
St. Philonella was a patient and careful scholar. An astute observer, she approached patient care as scientific medicine. She labored to free healthcare from the idea of magic, astrology, and superstition.
St. Zenaida, on the other hand, was more thoughtful. She was keenly interested in the suffering of children and worked to develop pediatric care. Her first love was monasticism. She became a spiritual elder for both men and women. She touched three of her spiritual children, Papias, Pateras, and Philocyrus who built a men's monastery not far from the cavern-hospital of the holy sisters.
Toward the end of her life, St. Zenaida became interested in psychiatric medicine. Many of those who came to the hospital suffered from severe depression and other psychiatric illnesses. Zenaida had the wisdom to recognize these as actual illnesses and concerned herself with their causes and cure. It is not known in what year St. Zenaida departed this life, but she left her sister St. Philonella to carry on their work and instruct others in medicine and the faith. After the death of her beloved sister, Philonella entered more deeply into spiritual life, leaving the treatment and care of patients more and more to the students and other nuns. She also became renowned as a wonderworker and reposed in peace and at a great age.
Friends of Peace
The Holy Church bestowed the title, "Friends of Peace" on the two saints because they both preached and practiced peace, serenity, and charity. Philonella often said that a peaceful and serene disposition could not only aid in healing but could even prevent illness. For her, the source of true peace was the Holy Spirit and the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. The disciples of St. Zenaida reported that her last words in this life were a prayer for the peace of the world.
Christian medicine began with holy women. Not only were Ss. Zenaida and Philonella the first Christian doctors (after Apostle Luke), but also they were the first of those saints whom we call "unmercenary physicians." Saints Zenaida and Philonella are commemorated on October 11.