Saint Porphyrius, Archbishop of Gaza, is a less well-known saint, yet his contributions to the Greek Orthodox Church and Christianity are of great importance.
He is known for Christianizing the “disobedient” pagan people of Gaza, as noted in his biography Vita Porphyrii, written by Roman Christian hagiographer Mark the Deacon.
Saint Porphyrius holds a special place in Christians’ hearts, especially those of Palestinians because he fought polytheistic religions that had followers throughout Gaza and the Levant.
Born to a wealthy family in Thessaloniki in 346, Saint Porphyrius received an exceptional education. However, from an early age, he chose to live a monastic life.
He left Thessaloniki at age twenty-five and set off for Egypt, where he lived an ascetic life in the Nitrian Desert under the guidance of Saint Macarios the Great.
There, he met Saint Jerome who was visiting the Egyptian monasteries at the time. Then he went to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage to the holy places to venerate the Life-Creating Cross of the Lord.
After that, Saint Porphyrius went on to live in a cave in the Jordanian wilderness for prayer and an additional sense of asceticism.
Saint Porphyrius in the Holy Land
After five years of living an ascetic life, Saint Porphyrius was afflicted with a serious disease of the legs. He decided to go to Jerusalem again to pray for healing.
One day, he found himself laying half unconscious at the foot of Golgotha and fell into a trance. He envisioned he was holding Jesus Christ descending from the Cross, saying to him, “Take this Wood and preserve it.”
Once he came back to reality, he felt healthy and free from pain. He donated all his money to the poor and churches of God and began working as a shoemaker.
At the age of forty-five, the words of Jesus in his trance were fulfilled. The Patriarch of Jerusalem ordained Saint Porphyrius to the holy priesthood and appointed him custodian of the Venerable Wood of the Cross of the Lord.
In 395 AD, the bishop of the city of Gaza in Palestine passed away. The local Christians went to Caesarea to ask Metropolitan John to send them a new bishop who would be able to contend against the pagans.
The pagans were predominant in Gaza and were very hostile to Christians. Emperor Diocletian’s persecution resulted in several martyrs there.
Furthermore, a brief pagan revival during the reign of Julian led to the emperor’s soldiers setting fire to Christian cathedrals and executing numerous Christians.
Metropolitan John appointed Saint Porphyrius of Gaza. With fear and trembling, the ascetic saint accepted the office of bishop. It was with tears in his eyes he prostrated himself before the Life-Creating Wood and went to fulfill his newfound obligations.
Arrival in Gaza
When Saint Porphyrius arrived in Gazam there were only three Christian churches and many pagan temples and idols. At the time, the city was suffering from a prolonged drought.
The pagan priests were bringing offerings to their idols for rain but to no avail. Saint Porphyrius imposed a fast for all the Christians and an all-night vigil. A church procession around the city followed.
According to Vita Porphyrii, storm clouds with thunder suddenly gathered over the city and heavy rain began pouring. For the pagans, it was a miracle, and many of them cried out, “Christ is indeed the only true God!”
The desired rain caused 127 men, 35 women, and 14 children to unite with the Church through Holy Baptism. Another 110 men followed soon after.
Nonetheless, the pagans continued to harass the Christians. They passed them over for public office and burdened them with taxes.
Saint Porphyrius and Metropolitan John of Caesarea journeyed to Constantinople to seek redress from the emperor. Archbishop Saint John Chrysostom received them and assisted them.
Saints John and Porphyrius were presented to Empress Eudoxia who was expecting a child at that time. “Intercede for us,” said the bishops to the Empress, “and the Lord will send you a son, who shall reign during your lifetime.”
Eudoxia very much wanted a son since she had given birth only to daughters thus far. Through the prayer of the saints, an heir to the imperial family was born.
To show her gratitude, the emperor issued an edict in 401 AD, ordering the destruction of pagan temples in Gaza and the restoration of privileges to Christians.
Moreover, Eudoxia gave the saints money for the construction of a new church, which was to be built in Gaza on the site of the chief pagan temple.
The Saint Porphyrius Church
It took several years to build the Saint Porphyrius Church which was completed in 425 AD after the holy bishop’s death.
Saint Porphyrius upheld Christianity in Gaza to the very end of his life and guarded his flock from the provoking pagans.
According to Vita Porphyrii, through the prayers of the saint, numerous miracles and healings occurred. The holy man guided his flock for twenty-five years and was reposed in 420 AD at an advanced age.
The construction of the current church was undertaken by the Crusaders in the 1150s or 1160s. They dedicated it to Saint Porphyrius.
A renovation took place in 1856. There are some cornices and bases that date back to the Crusader period, but much of the other portions are later additions
The Saint Porphyrius Church in Gaza has been a place of Christian worship for over 1,500 years. It serves as evidence of the deep Christian history of the region. Today it belongs to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
During the Israel-Hamas War, on October 19, 2023, an overnight Israeli air strike hit part of the Saint Porphyrius Church compound in Gaza, killing sixteen people, Palestinian health officials reported.