She was married twice before her conversion to Christianity – first to a cruel man who she divorced, the second time to a man who left her widowed.
With two husbands behind her and enough money to live comfortably, like so many other women of her generation Fabiola turned to the church. There was only one problem – Fabiola had divorced her first husband and remarried, something forbidden by the Roman church. She would have to prove herself worthy before being accepted.
At Easter, Fabiola dressed in a plain paupers smock and went to do penance at the gates of the Lateran basilica. Impressed, the pope welcomed her.
Fabiola got to work at once. She built a hospital and personally tended to the sick herself. Not afraid to get her hands dirty in the service of the poor, Jerome writes of Fabiola’s good works:
“She was the first person to found a hospital, into which she might gather sufferers out of the streets, and where she might nurse the unfortunate victims of sickness and want. Need I now recount the various ailments of human beings? Need I speak of noses slit, eyes put out, feet half burnt, hands covered with sores? Or of limbs dropsical and atrophied? Or of diseased flesh alive with worms? Often did she carry on her own shoulders persons infected with jaundice or with filth. Often too did she wash away the matter discharged from wounds which others, even though men, could not bear to look at.”
She also donated money to support churches and monasteries across Italy and travelled the empire sharing her wealth and caring for the sick. By 395 Fabiola felt she had not yet done enough – she decided to follow Paula’s example and travel to Jerusalem.
In Bethlehem Fabiola lived for a time with Paula and studied with Jerome. Here she threw herself into a life of penitence and contemplation of the scriptures.
“And yet this eagerness to hear did not bring with it any feeling of satiety: increasing her knowledge she also increased her sorrow, and by casting oil upon the flame she did but supply fuel for a still more burning zeal.”
Fabiola had still not found what she was seeking. The political climate in Jerusalem changed for Jerome after the Huns invaded. Between that and Jerome’s quarrel with the bishop of Jerusalem, Fabiola decided to go home.
She kept in touch with Jerome, and eventually went on to found a hospital at Portus for pilgrims travelling into Rome. She spent the rest of her life working in her hospitals caring for others, and is an example of Christian women’s early involvement in medicine and nursing.
St. Jerome wrote a eulogistic memoir of Fabiola in a letter to her relative Oceanus.