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In the middle of the third century, a plague spread through much of the Roman Empire. The illness was so lethal and so contagious that in just one day five thousand died from it in Rome. The plague was similarly catastrophic in Alexandria, Egypt. Frightened by the disease, many of the pagan residents abandoned those among them stricken with it, casting them into the streets to die alone. The dead were left unburied, filling the city with the stench of death. Amid these horrors, many of Alexandria's persecuted Christians, the clergy and the laity, voluntarily came forward to nurse the dying pagans as well as their own plague victims. These Christians knew the grave danger of contagion to which they were exposing themselves. Many contracted the plague from those they had tended. The bishop of Alexandria who recorded these events, Saint Dionysius, regarded the Christians who died from the plague in this manner as virtual martyrs of Christian charity in having sacrificed their lives to nurse those who had persecuted them. Their identity as martyrs was later promulgated in the Church's book of recognized saints, the Roman Martyrology.

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