Saints of the Day – Stephen the Deacon, Protomartyr

detail from the stained glass window known as the 'Bayern Window' depicting the Stoning of Saint Stephen; date and artist unknown; Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany; photographed on 1 May 2006 by Raimond Spekking; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

Died in Jerusalem, c.35; feast day in the East is December 27; bother feast days on August 3 to commemorate the rediscovery of Stephen’s relics, and on May 7 their translation to Rome.

Stephen was the first martyr of the Catholic Church. The story of his election as one of the first seven deacons to serve the Greek- speaking Christians and his martyrdom is found in Acts 6:1-8:3. He was stoned to death by the Jews at the instigation of the Sanhedrin. The gist of his argument in support of Christianity was that God does not depend upon the Temple, because it, like the Mosaic Law, was a temporary institution destined to be fulfilled and superseded by Christ, who was the prophet designated by Moses and the Messiah the Jews had long awaited. His dying prayer obtained the conversion of Saint Paul, who was actively engaged in Stephen’s martyrdom. This is all that is known of him, but from these details certain things can be deduced: Stephen was probably a Greek-speaking Jew, perhaps educated in Alexandria, and a zealous preacher.

Stephen’s feast was kept in both the East and West at least from the 4th century. His cultus was given further popularity by the discovery of his remains.

His relics were discovered in a remarkable way, some centuries after his martyrdom. In the year 415 a certain holy priest named Lucian was awakened one night by a venerable man appearing to him clothed in white. He called him by his name and bade him go to Jerusalem and tell the bishop to come and open the tombs, in which lay the remains of several servants of God, together with his own. Through their means, he said, God would open to many the gates of his clemency.

Lucian asked who it was who spoke to him. It is Gamaliel, the figure replied, the one who instructed Paul the apostle in the law. He told the priest that the body of Saint Stephen, who was stoned to death by the Jews, would be found without the city beyond the northern gate. His body had been left exposed a day and a night, he said, without being touched, but he had exhorted the faithful to carry it away secretly at night to his home in the country. The bodies of Nicodemus who sought Jesus by night, together with others, would also be found.

Lucian fearing that he might be deceived and if he made known these things be looked upon as an imposter, gave himself to prayer, asking that if this message was from God, it would be made known to him a second and a third time.

Some days afterward Gamaliel appeared to him again as before and commanded him to obey. Still he delayed until a third message had been given him, then terrified lest some punishment should come upon him for his long delay, he went to Jerusalem. He laid the whole matter before the bishop who bade him go at once and search for the relics.

The bodies were found at Kafr Gamala, though not immediately, contained in three coffins, engraved with Greek characters, the names of Stephen, Nicodemus, and Abibas. The bishop hurried to the scene with a multitude of people. When the coffin of Stephen was opened a sweet fragrance pervaded the air, and many miracles took place at the tomb. Stephen’s relics were taken to Jerusalem, the others left at Kafr Gamala, which is about 20 miles from the northern gate of Jerusalem.

His alleged relics, together with the stones reputedly used at his martyrdom, were translated first to Constantinople and then to Rome. The day on which they were translated, the Church now celebrates the principal feast of the saint. Many of the early Fathers of the Church testify to the authenticity of this wonderful discovery.

In 444 the Empress Eudocia built a stately Church over the spot where Stephen had been stoned to death and in which the relics were enshrined.

Saint Augustine, in the last book of The City of God, speaking of the miracles which followed the discovery says: “Let us so desire to obtain temporal blessings by Saint Stephen’s intercession that we may merit in imitating him those which are eternal.”

How many countless thousands of holy men and women were to follow the first martyr Saint Stephen, who persevered in death, proclaiming that the faith that they had professed in life and thus entering with him into their eternal reward (Attwater, Benedictines, Bentley, Coleridge, Delaney, Encyclopedia, Murray, White).

In art he is shown vested as a deacon, holding a book or a palm; or carrying stones; or with stones resting on his book of the Gospels; or with stones gathered in the folds of his dalmatic. In several unusual pieces, he is shown (1) in a coffin with Abibas, Gamaliel, and Nicodemus around him; (2) his body guarded by animals; (3) preaching to the Jews 14th- Century French Illumination (Roeder).

He is the patron saint of bricklayers (due to his death by stoning) (Roeder), those in the building trades (White) and deacons (Farmer). Stephen is also the patron of several French cathedrals including those at Sens, Bourges, and Toulouse (Farmer). He is invoked against headaches (Roeder).

MLA Citation

  • Katherine I Rabenstein. Saints of the Day, 1998. CatholicSaints.Info. 21 August 2020. Web. 3 December 2020. <>