Olympiada was born about the year 368, in Constantinople . Her family was one of the most illustrious of the capital: her father was a senator and her mother was a high-ranking aristocrat. She was orphaned early in life and placed under the care of her uncle. When she was 18 years old she was betrothed to a man named Nebridius, treasurer of the Emperor Theodosius the Great, and Prefect of Constantinople. (The Prefect of Constantinople supervised the administration of the city: police, commerce provisioning, prices, trades, morals, spectacles, civil and criminal court and an appellate jurisdiction.) Nebridius died a couple of weeks after the marriage. Olympiada decided to remain single and to devote her whole life and her sizeable inheritance to serving God and her neighbor. Olympiada was not drawn to comforts or luxuries. She lived a Spartan existence. She disciplined herself to fast strictly, to wear plain clothing; to be generous to the poor and the sick, to finance the building of churches, to support hospitals, to ransom people out of slavery, and to send aid abroad.
A relative of Emperor Theodosius the Great — Elpidius, a Spaniard who ruled the Eastern portion of the Byzantine Empire at that time — desired to marry Olympiada and asked the Emperor’s support in the matter. But even Emperor Theodosius himself was not able to persuade Olympiada to agree to the proposal. Her mind was set. She declared, “If the King of Heaven had desired me to be married, He would not have allowed my first husband to die… But He laid on me the gentle yoke of chastity.”
Frustrated by her refusal, the conniving Elpidius accused her before the Emperor of squandering her inheritance. The result was that her wealth was ordered to be held in trust by the Prefect of the City until Olympiada should reach the age of thirty (recall that she was only 18 at the time.) In his efforts to force Olympiada’s consent, the executor exceeded the imperial decree; not only did he deprive Olympiada of the right to distribute her funds as she pleased but he restrained her personal freedom, placing her virtually under house arrest and even forbidding her to attend church.
Olympiada put up with this treatment for a while, regarding it as a trial sent by God to test her character. She did not complain about the personal grief she suffered, but she felt sorry (and prayed) for those poor people who were deprived of her help.
Eventually, she wrote a letter to Emperor Theodosius: “You granted me a favor, in freeing me from the burden of managing my estate; but may I request that you order the one to whom it has been entrusted to give it to the poor. If you do this, you will save me from pride.” (…apparently she referred to the possible pride of being persecuted for Christ’s sake).
Having read the letter, Theodosius decreed that Olympiada’s inheritance be returned to her, and she recommenced her charitable activities. Her benevolence earned her great respect from all quarters. Patriarch Nektarios ordained her as deaconess well below the canonical age of forty — and this vocation was one that bore with it a responsibility she joyfully fulfilled. In the 5th century a deaconess was a full-time church worker, assisting the bishop in the baptism of women, visiting Christian women in their homes, managing the charitable work of the Church, and tending to the pastoral and spiritual needs of the women in the Church.
Her charity knew few bounds. St. John Chrysostom (who in 398 succeeded Patriarch Nektarios) compared her charitable acts to a river that is accessible to all and whose waters flow over the earth and eventually into the ocean. The most distant towns, isles and deserts received plentiful supplies from Olympiada. She bought whole estates and gave them to remote destitute churches so that they would receive the revenue as income. St John Chrysostom asked her to moderate her charity — or at least be more cautious and reserved in bestowing it — so that she might be able to help many others whose need was greater.
At one time, Patriarch Theophilos of Alexandria set out to persecute Olympiada. She had taken in some notorious monks whom he had expelled. The Church historian Palladius claims that in her actions she was actually imitating her Lord, hinting that Theophilos’ wrath against her had more to do with her refusal to send him some of her money than it had because she had sheltered his renegade monks. (The monks actually were defended by St. John Chrysostom as well.)
Among Olympiada’s close friends were the great bishops Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, Peter of Sebaste, Epiphanius of Cyprus and Amphilochius of Iconium — with all of whom she maintained an ongoing correspondence. She was especially devoted to St. John Chrysostom on whose account she would soon suffer persecution.
He was permitted to visit Olympiada and her sister deaconesses in their monastery, and did so regularly. Olympiada prepared daily meals for him and sent supplies to him throughout the rest of his life. This included care packages when he was in exile.
Upon assuming the patriarchal throne, St. John had tried to reform the corrupt clergy, the court and the populace of Constantinople . His reputation for being a charismatic speaker — but very outspoken — was well known in Byzantium . He eventually become so critical of the luxurious and sensuous excesses of Emperor Arcadius and Empress Eudoxia (who he called a latter-day Jezebel) and of many of his brother-bishops that he brought down upon himself their combined wrath. He was condemned by the local councils, removed from his hierarchial see, deposed and exiled, and eventually died of exhaustion and exposure in Armenia .
Like so many of the populace of Byzantium , Olympiada was grieved by St. John’s sentence of exile. The night before he was sent into exile, St. John called her and the other deaconesses of Constantinople together in the Baptisry of the cathedral and entreated them not to abandon their labors, “Come here my daughters. I see that the things concerning me have an end. … This is what I ask of you, to remain in the Church and accept the legitimate successor, whoever that might be.” He left the city on June 20, in the year 404.
On the 21st there was a great fire in the cathedral of Agia Sophia and the adjacent Senate Chambers. This fire spread through the city. Enemies of the exiled John Chrysostom accused his followers of arson. Olympiada was among those brought to trial before the Prefect Optatus (who was a pagan and had no interest in Christian “issues”). In answer to the charges she replied, “My past life ought to avert all suspicion from me, for I have devoted my large property to the restoration of the temples of God.”
Even though her good deeds attested to her innocence, she was still required to pay a stiff penalty. She continued to be harassed — even after being forced out of Constantinople , living in exile across the Bosphorus in Nicomedia . From his own place of exile, St. John consoled Olympiada with his active correspondence. He encouraged her to maintain a courageous spirit, not to give in to excessive grief, and to bear patiently her temporal misfortunes. Seventeen of the letters he wrote to her during the three years of his exile (404 to 407) still exist.
He wrote: “Do not be anxious on my behalf, nor rack yourself with anxiety, on account of the severity of the winter, the weakness of my digestion, and the hostilities of the locals. For the winter is only what it is wont to be in Armenia ; nothing more need be said about it; and it does not very seriously injure me. In anticipation of these things I have devised many plans for averting the mischief which might arise from them; keeping up a constant fire, setting screens about the room in which I live, using a large number of rugs, and staying always indoors. This indeed is irksome to me, but as long as I remain indoors I am not severely distressed by the cold. If I am compelled to go out a little, and come in contact with the outer air, I suffer much damage to my health.”
“Only one thing is truly terrible,” he continued, “and that is sin …. No matter how severe any misfortune might be, remember that no earthly misfortune is everlasting; these exist only in relation to our mortal bodies; they do not affect the strong in spirit.”
Olympiada became embroiled in an ecclesiastical controversy between certain bishops. In addition to maintaining her close relationship with the exiled John Chrysostom and because she supported other Orthodox hierarchs (in the face of schism and heresy) Olympiada’s goods were seized and sold at a public auction; she was often dragged before public tribunals; her clothes were torn by the soldiers, her farms were rifled. Her whole community of nuns was disbanded by imperial decree.
In another letter, St. John commended Olympiada for bearing her trials peacefully, as a true Christian and encouraged her to rejoice under her sicknesses, which she ought to place among her most precious crowns, in imitation of Job and Lazarus.
“Now I am deeply joyful, not only because you have been delivered from sickness, but even more because you are bearing adversities with such fortitude, calling them trifles—a characteristic of a soul filled with power and abounding in the rich fruits of courage. You are not only enduring misfortune with fortitude, but are making light of it in a seemingly effortless way, rejoicing and triumphing over it—this is a proof of the greatest wisdom.”
“It’s amazing,” he concludeded, “You don’t make speeches in the middle of the city; you simply sit in your little house; you sit in bed, sick; and nevertheless you manage to give your visitors courage; you anoint them for warfare. The sea is so rough; the waves rise so high; everywhere there is danger of unseen rocks, abysses, fierce sea monsters. But you stand on the deck of your ship as if it were a clear day with a favorable wind. Unfurling the sails of patience, you glide along smoothy, peacefully. The harsh storm of contemporary events has no power to capsize you with its waves; even their spray does not reach you.”
St. Olympiada fell asleep in the Lord at Nicomedia on July 25, 408 , around the age of 40. Her incorrupt relics were later transferred to Constantinople and placed in the convent that she founded. Since her death, her relics have given rise to many miracles.
St. Olympiada has become a patron of “Lay Ministries” in the Church — an example to all as to what one can do with one’s personal resources, whether those resources are of time, or talent or personal treasure.