St. Stephen, First Deacon and First Martyr

In art, St. Stephen is often depicted with three stones and a martyr’s palm.  In Eastern Christian iconography, he is shown as a young, beardless man with a tonsure, wearing a deacon’s alb and stole, and holding a miniature church building or a censer, a vessel for burning incense.

The first martyr and the first deacon, Stephen’s story is told in Chapters 6 and 7 of the Acts of the Apostles.  He was a deacon in the early church; and he was a persuasive preacher who led many to Christ.  The Sanhedrin, troubled by his success, accused him of blasphemy; and in court, Stephen denounced his attackers for their lack of faith.  Then, as the Jewish leaders shouted and attacked him, Stephen looked up to Heaven, exclaiming that he saw the heavens opening and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.

His hearers plugged their ears and tore their tunics–a sign that they considered his message to be blasphemous.  Then they dragged him to the outskirts of the city, where they stoned him to death.  As the stones bruised his skin and crushed his bones, Stephen knelt and prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!”  He asked God not to punish his enemies for killing him.

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St. Stephen’s Chapel – Photo by Cardinal Sean O’Malley

On December 26, the Church celebrates the feast of this first martyr to shed his blood for the faith.

From earliest days of the Church, Christians commemorated Stephen’s stoning and death.  A chapel was erected in his honor in Rome, called St. Stephen’s Chapel.  The chapel stands in the Vatican Gardens, just a short distance from St. Peter’s Basilica and near the offices of the Governatorato, the government of the Vatican City State.

Deacon Jerry Schiffer standing in front of St. Stephen’s Chapel, Vatican Gardens

Here, two photos of St. Stephen’s Chapel:  One taken by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, and the second from our visit to Rome in 2006.  My husband, now Deacon Jerry Schiffer, was a seminary student at the time preparing for the diaconate.

Prayer of Saint Stephen, Martyr

Loving God, Saint Stephen was one of the first deacons in the Church. The Apostles ordained him with six others because they needed ministers who wouldoversee the needs of the poor and the widowed. His holiness was so evident that when he preached to his enemies, his face glowed brightly like an angel’s. I ask him to pray for those who have been called to a life of service as ordained deacons. O Lord, help them to be a sign of Your love in their parishes and in the world where they live and work. Bless them with a vision of their ministry that stirs them to passion and tireless effort. Saint Stephen, pray for us. Amen.

  • Kelly Thatcher

    Saint Stephen, pray for Deacon Schiffer and all of God’s deacons!