Saint Pelagia lived at Antioch in the second half of the fifth century, where she was the best-known harlot of that great city. Her devotion to dancing and unchaste pleasures made her a great fortune that she spent entirely on adorning her body with costly raiment and voluptuous perfumes, in order to attract new victims into her net. She had many slaves and servants who escorted her whenever, seated in a luxurious chariot, she went about the city.
One day, the Archbishop of Antioch invited Nonnus, the holy Bishop of Edessa (10 Nov.), to address some of his bishops in the Church of St Julian, for he was a man of inspired utterance, able to bring those who heard him to repentance and love of virtue. It so happened that Pelagia, with her usual retinue, passed by the doors of the church near where Nonnus was speaking. While the other bishops and pious folk averted their eyes, Nonnus looked upon the women and wept, saying to them, ‘Woe unto us lazy and careless people, who will have to give account at the day of Judgement for not having been as zealous and careful to please God as this poor women has been to adorn her body for fleeting pleasure!’ And he prayed fervently to the Lord for her conversion.
Pelagia was among those who listened to Nonnus as he preached on the holy Gospel at Divine Service the next day. What he said about the last Judgement and everlasting punishment struck her like a rapier thrust to the heart and awoke in her a love for the heavenly Bridegroom, which is the only true love. On her return to her palace, she wrote to the holy Bishop asking him to receive her and not to scorn her for her depravity, if he were a true disciple of Him who came to call, not the righteous but sinners to repentance (Matt. 9:13). Nonnus answered that if she had truly resolved to repent, she should come to church and confess her offences before the whole congregation of clergy and people. Pelagia seized the opportunity and hastened to the church, forgetful of all her pride and pomp. She threw herself at the feet of the Bishop and begged him for regeneration to eternal life in holy Baptism, lest the Devil and habit draw her back again to sinful ways. The whole city of Antioch rejoiced at the baptism of Pelagia. A nun called Romana undertook to guide her first steps in spiritual warfare and the life of repentance. And so, by prayer and the sign of the Cross, Pelagia overcame the temptations to return to her sinful life, that were not slow to make their appearance.
Some days after her baptism, she gave away all her wealth to the poor and freed her slaves. Then, free of every worldly tie and clad like a poor man in rough clothing, she departed for the Holy Land, unknown to all, to lead the ascetic life on the Mount of Olives. She remained for many years in a little cell, struggling each day against the passions that were deeply rooted in her body, and devoting all the care she had once taken over her outward appearance to adorning her soul for everlasting life. Despite her solitary life, Pelagia’s valiant spiritual struggle became well-known to the other ascetics of Palestine; they did not know, however, that she was in fact a woman. When the holy penitent gave up her soul in peace to God, all the monks thereabouts gathered to venerate her holy relics. And they gave great glory to God when a disciple of Nonnus told them the true story of Pelagia’s life, for it teaches all who are engulfed in the darkness of sin not to despair, but to set out courageously on the road of repentance.