Last week saw the Coptic Church in the southern town of Garagos in Qena, some 500km south of Cairo, celebrate the feast day of St Verena, the fourth century saint who came from Garagos.
At the church of Mar-Girgis and the Theban Legion in Garagos in the parish of Qous and Nagada, the relics of St Verena were taken out of her shrine during the raising of incense in Vespers on the eve of her feast on 4 Thout which corresponds to 14 September. Anba Karas, Bishop of Mehalla al-Kubra, who was there for the celebration, presided over Vespers service. To praises and chants sung for St Verena by the deacon choir and the congregation, Anba Karas anointed the wooden box containing the saint’s relics with perfumed oils, and placed the box in the new traditional red velvet covering embroidered with Christian motifs and a picture of St Verena. The relics were then carried in a procession that marched around the altar and in the nave of the church amid joyful singing and ululations from a jubilant congregation.
The following day, Holy Mass was held on the altar consecrated to St Verena in the same church. After Mass, the relics were carried in a procession back to the shrine of the Theban Legion at the Garagos church.
The relics of St Verena had been brought to Garagos from her church in Zurzach, Switzerland, by Anba Pimen, Bishop of Nagada and Qous, in October 1998.
St Verena was the sister of St Maurice who was an officer with the Theban Legion—Thebes, present-day’s Luxor, was the capital city in Upper Egypt—that was in the third century assigned to fight for the Roman empire in Rhaetia which is today Switzerland. She accompanied her brother on the Theban Legion’s expedition to the Swiss Alps, to serve the soldiers and care for them. Being Christian, St Maurice and several of his Egyptian colleagues were martyred for their faith. They are today the patron saints of Zurich.
Verena stayed on in the Alps near present-day Zurich after her brother’s death, living a life of prayer and worship in a cave in the mountains. She used to go down to the nearby villages to serve the poor and sick; it helped that she had extensive knowledge of herbal healing. She was especially interested in caring for girls and young women, and gained a reputation for teaching them practices of health and personal hygiene. She is usually depicted caring for the sick, or standing with a pitcher of water in one hand and a typical Egyptian double-comb in the other. It is said that she performed many miracles. She died in Switzerland in 344 at age 64.
Today, St Verena is venerated as a saint in Egypt and in Switzerland, by the Coptic Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Churches.
17 September 2016