The account of the life of St Apollinaria goes back to the 5th century, and is rather confused in parts. Nevertheless the curious story has within it lessons of acceptance and inclusion for the church today. So let’s commemorate Apollinaris / Dorotheos (feast day 5th January).
An Orthodox website ‘God is wonderful in his saints’ gives this account
Appolinaria was a maiden of high rank, the daughter of a magistrate named Anthimus in the city of Rome. Filled with love for Christ, she prevailed on her parents to allow her to travel on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In Jerusalem she dismissed most of her attendants, gave her jewels, fine clothes and money to the poor, and went on to Egypt accompanied only by two trusted servants. Near Alexandria she slipped away from them and fled to a forest, where she lived in ascesis for many years. She then made her way to Sketis, the famous desert monastic colony, and presented herself as a eunuch named Dorotheos. In this guise she was accepted as a monk.
The story continues:
Anthimus, having lost his elder daughter, was visited with another grief: his younger daughter was afflicted by a demon. He sent this daughter to Sketis, asking the holy fathers there to aid her by their prayers. They put her under the care of “Dorotheos”, who after days of constant prayer effected the complete cure of her (unknowing) sister. When the girl got back home it was discovered that she was pregnant, and Anthimus angrily ordered that the monk who had cared for her be sent to him. He was astonished to find that “Dorotheos” was his own daughter Apollinaria, whom he had abandoned hope of seeing again. After some days the holy woman returned to Sketis, still keeping her identity secret from her fellow-monks. Only at her death was her true story discovered.
The story of Appolinaria belongs to a different age to ours. At that time a woman acting to the world as a man would be more independent and able to do what they wished. This could have been Appolinaria’s purpose. It may not, however. Whatever it is clear that Appolinaria named as female at birth chose in later life to self identify as male.
What is also significant is that the Church in history has accepted and honoured the story of one who stepped over gender lines in those distant days. There has been an official acceptance of what Appolinaria’s actions and life. Appolinaria is named as a saint. A saint who speaks to us today from the misty days of the fifth century.
To many who go through a difficult process of recognising, and accepting their identities – in terms of gender or sexuality the church has been seen as lacking in understanding and, indeed, often hostile. The story of Appolinaria stands out today as one to place before Christians especially those seeking encouragement to come to terms with who they are.