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d. c. 399

Roman Noblewoman and Hospital Founder

Fabiola was a Roman matron of noble birth who converted to Christianity and became a disciple of St. Jerome (c. 347-419/420), dedicating her considerable wealth and energies to the care of the indigent sick. She founded at Rome the first civilian public hospital in western Europe, and also cofounded at Porto the first hospice, which offered rest and refreshment to pilgrims and travelers.

Although her date of birth in Rome is not known, some facts about Fabiola's younger years are recorded. She belonged to the patrician Roman family of the Fabia and at some time in early adulthood became a Christian convert. Her first marriage was reputedly to a violent and abusive husband; she divorced him, according to her rights as a Roman citizen. Before he died she married again, a violation of Church law. After the death of her second husband, she performed public penance for this sin and was reinstated in the Church.

At this turning point in her life, Fabiola renounced all worldly pleasures and devoted herself to the care of the poor and the sick. Service to the sick, especially to the social classes held most in contempt by society, had assumed great importance in Christian teachings. It was nothing less than a religious and ethical duty for both the community and the individual, and for some a sacred vocation. It is no coincidence that the first hospitals were associated with Christian saints, healers, and philanthropists.

In 394 Fabiola financed the construction at Rome of the first civilian public hospital in western Europe. In addition, she used her country villa as a convalescent home for discharged hospital patients who needed shelter and rest, and donated large sums to churches and religious communities. Fabiola was no detached sponsor of charitable works, she tended personally to the wounded and diseased on a daily basis. St. Jerome, her teacher and spiritual advisor, remarked that there was no patient whose disease was so repulsive that Fabiola refused to nurse him herself. She is reported to have walked the streets of Rome in search of the sick, the dying, and the abandoned, sometimes carrying them to the hospital on her own shoulders. Her life became a model of Christian love and charity.

In 395 Fabiola, who was familiar with Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, traveled to Bethlehem to study the scriptures and participate in ascetic practices under the direction of St. Jerome. Following an attack by the Huns, which made life dangerous in the eastern provinces of the empire, Fabiola returned to Rome. Here she collaborated with the former Roman senator St. Pammachius (d. 409?), a boyhood schoolmate of St. Jerome and friend of Fabiola's, in another charitable project—the erection of a hospice (the first of its kind) for pilgrims coming to Rome. During the early Christian era, seafarers from Spain and Africa landed at Porto, a town close to Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber River. After the ruins of a large hospice were discovered at Porto in the nineteenth century, excavations revealed a building intelligently designed for housing travelers as well as caring for the sick. The hospice had five large wards, long connecting corridors, and large inner courts that could have held 400 beds.

For the remainder of her life, Fabiola continued her personal service to the poor and the sick, and also maintained her correspondence with St. Jerome. Following her death in 399 or 400, St. Jerome eulogized her, remembering that thousands had thronged to her funeral, and portraying her as a selfless and devoted advocate for the least fortunate members of her society.


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