The saint to pray to if you’re scared of the dentist

A painting of St Apollonia holding pliers and a large molar (Wellcome Library)

I’ve seen fellow Catholics dramatically tremble when they hear that St Apollonia had her teeth crushed and torn out. Such is the fear of having one’s teeth ripped out that friends of mine say they think they would “much prefer” the other torments visited upon the martyrs.

St Apollonia is hailed as the patron saint of dentistry. In 249 AD everyone in the Roman Empire was ordered to perform a sacrifice to the gods. You couldn’t fudge and say you had carried out the sacrifice behind closed doors – there was an edict put in force and you had to perform the sacrifice in front of a Roman magistrate. Christians faced defying the authorities or death.

When she refused to offer the sacrifice to the gods, Apollonia was seized by the mob who shattered her teeth. Then before her eyes they built a tall pyre. They said they would fling her on the flames if she did not deny Christ and worship idols. Knowing she would not lower herself before their fake gods, she leaped into the raging flames.

I’d like to encourage people who are terrified of the dentist to meditate on the passion of St Apollonia. In our times no one can say that their trip to the dentist will be as bad as St Apollonia’s torture – unless their dentist is a raving psychopath. If any saint understands tooth-ache it is Apollonia.

St Apollonia may also intercede for the dental treatment to go well and for you to keep your teeth against all odds. She did for Caroline Farrow, the columnist for The Catholic Universe and speaker for Catholic Voice. Caroline had five pregnancies in five years and as a result needed to spend a lot of time in the dentist’s chair because pregnancy hormones cause gums to soften and teeth to loosen. As Caroline says, “the old wives tale about have a child, lose a tooth can be apt”.

Also, when the gums are softer, bacteria can slip in more easily which was a cause in Caroline developing a nasty abscess. The abscess had been brewing for two years and just last winter, Caroline was preparing for her dentist to tackle it. She feared she would lose the tooth and could get no firm assurance that she would keep it, “they said they would do their best but the tooth could be past saving. It was also extremely painful.”

A week before her appointment with the dentist, Caroline prayed to St Apollonia and everything went well at the dentist. The abscess was removed and she kept her tooth! “There were no painful complications,” Caroline says, “It cleared up beautifully! Definitely think St Apollonia was on the case!’

Now Caroline prays every night to St Apollonia, “I always cringe when I think about her having her teeth smashed out and give thanks to her for her witness and courage.”

There is a long history of seeking Apollonia’s intercession. According to TL Olsen’s Social History of Medicine, doctors in medieval times gave patients with toothache a popular prayer to St Apollonia and advised them to pray it.

I, however, take issue with the way St Apollonia is depicted in classical art and on prayer cards. She is portrayed holding tongs or pliers that clutch a large molar which is wholly appropriate (see above!). But my difficulty with such art is that Apollonia has a vacant, wan and almost insipid facial expression. I don’t think this captures her feisty spirit: she was a deaconess in a time of great persecution and a defiant rebel.