A fourth-century Egyptian holy woman associated with the THEBAN LEGION martyred in Switzerland (feast days: 1 September and Easter Tuesday). Verena’s unwavering faith, long life of Christian charity, and many miracles contributed greatly to the spread of Christianity among the Alemanni in what is now Canton Argau, Switzerland. Her status in the German part of Switzerland and in southwest Germany can be compared with that of Saint Ursula in the Rhineland, Saint Odilia in Alsace, and Saint Bridget in Sweden.
In addition to numerous accounts of her life in various martyrologies dating before 1000, there are two early records of Saint Verena, the Vita prior and the Vita posterior. The oldest known manuscript of the Vita prior is dated 888, and was written by Abbot Hatto of Reichenau, later archbishop of Mainz and counselor of the German king Arnulf. It served as the basis for the later and larger Vita posterior, which was prepared by a writer who was well acquainted with the region of Zurzach about a century after the Vita prior.
The only daughter of a distinguished Theban family in Upper Egypt, Verena was entrusted in her early years to a bishop named Chaeremon, who was to provide her with the necessary religious instruction for baptism. After Chaeremon perished during the persecution under the emperor DECIUS, Verena journeyed with some Christians toward Lower Egypt, where a large number of believers had been assembled for military service under the emperors DIOCLETIAN and Maximian. Among them were members of the Theban Legion commanded by Saint MAURITIUS, some of whom were her close relatives.
In keeping with an old Coptic custom whereby women followed their legionnaire menfolk to give them spiritual support and relief, Verena went with the Theban Legion into Italy as far as Milan. (It is noteworthy in this connection to mention that remains of female persons were discovered amid the graves of martyred Theban legionnaires.) In Milan she stayed at the home of a holy man named Maximus for some years, frequenting prisons and martyrdom sites to comfort the beleaguered saints.
Upon hearing of the martyrdom of Saint VICTOR OF SOLOTHURN and his Theban brethren, Verena crossed the Alps to Agaunum (present-day Saint Maurice en Valais) and went on to a place beyond the Aar River not far from Castrum Salodurum (Solothurn). She stayed at the home of a Theban fugitive, spending all her time fasting and praying, ever striving for eternal salvation. To this end, she retired to a narrow cave, where she led the ascetic and austere life of a nun, torturing her body to save her soul. She lived by means of her handwork, which an old Christian woman in the neighborhood sold for her to the heathen Alemanni.
A highly venerated virgin, Verena came to be regarded as “the mother of maidens,” to whom she devoted much of her time, trying to guide them into the paths of Christian virtue and piety, as well as to teach them proper hygienic practices. She also performed many miracles of healing and restoration of vision, thereby converting many to Christianity. At one time she was arrested by the Roman authorities for a few days, during which she had a vision of Saint Mauritius, who came to comfort her.
She was, however, released by the Roman governor, whom she had miraculously healed. When her fame spread on account of her miracles, she decided to flee from that region and sought seclusion on a small island at the confluence of the Aar and the Rhine. She freed the island from its countless serpents and nursed the sick and healed the blind and the lame.
Later Verena went to Tenedo (present-day Zurzach), where she found a church dedicated to Our Lady and decided to spend the rest of her life. She lived at the local priest’s house, but his complete trust in her aroused the jealousy of the other villagers. Even though she spent her time caring for the poor and nursing the lepers, the villagers repeatedly tried to discredit her with the priest. As a result, she begged him to build her a segregated cell where she could spend the rest of her days in seclusion.
Verena retired there for a solitary life of severe austerity, which lasted eleven years. During that time she continued to heal the sick and assisted all who sought her help. On the day of her death, she was spiritually strengthened by a vision of the Virgin. Afterward her remains were enshrined in the crypt built on the spot of her death, which became one of the most frequented pilgrimage centers in that region. Round her tomb, the first cloister of Canton Aargau was founded.
The high place that Saint Verena occupied in Switzerland is attested by the number of religious foundations and churches consecrated in her name. Though it is hard to make a precise inventory of these foundations, it is known that there were at least eighty-two scattered in the various cantons. In Germany, fourteen chapels were consecrated in her name. Her relics were honored as far away as Helmgersberg in East Prussia and in Vienna.
In modern times, the imperial house of the Hapsburgs adopted Verena as one of the main patrons of the dynasty. Her image appears in Swiss religious statuary, where she is represented with a double comb in her left hand and a water jug in the right, signifying her care for girls and her use of healing water for the sick and the lepers. The same representation appears on the arms of the city of Stäfa in Canton Zurich. Among the very popular pilgrimage centers of the saint are Saint Verena’s cavern (Verenaschlucht) between Oberdorf and Fallern near Solothurn and her chapel in Coblenz.
Contemporary Coptic sources contribute considerably to verifying the historicity of Verena’s story and confirm specific details related to Egypt. At the beginning of the fourth century, Eusebius of Caesarea confirmed, in his work on the history of the Coptic church, the existence of Bishop Chaeremon of Nilos at the place and time given in European sources. He even quoted the account of his death during the Decian persecutions given by the contemporary patriarch of Alexandria, Saint DIONYSIUS THE GREAT, in his letter to Bishop Fabius of Antioch.
Moreover, the name Chaeremon is of ancient Egyptian origin and means “Son of Amon.” The name Verena could be identified as the popular Coptic short form of the Ptolemaic Berenice. The Copts omitted the Greek suffixes ioc and ic and replaced them with e or a (according to Heuser); and the letter b in Coptic reads v when followed by a vowel. The name Verena could also be of ancient Egyptian origin, a compound of the Coptic and ancient Egyptian words vre (“seed”) and ne (“town or the town,” Thebes), that is, Seed of Thebes.
- Heusser, G. Die Personennamen der Kopten. Studien zur Epigraphik und Papyrus Kunde, Vol. 1. Leipzig, 1929.
- Reinle, A. Die heilige Verena von Zurzach. Basel, 1948.
SAMIR F. GIRGIS