Matrons of the Early Church, by Father Hugh Francis Blunt


During the ages of faith there was nothing remarkable in the fact that women of royal birth lived a life that was patterned after the cloister. In times when kings and queens patronized the religious houses, when the monastery was at the gate of the palace, it was not strange that the children who were educated by the religious received a training they never forgot. No wonder that many of them, seeing the peace, the charm of a life hidden with Christ in God, left the court and followed My Lady Poverty as their queen. And many there were who, while their duty kept them in the royal halls, made the life of regal splendor compatible with the simplicity of the Gospel.

We are apt to think that sanctity and nobility of birth do not go together. But sanctity is possible everywhere. The millionaire can be poor in spirit. How evident that is as we read the lives of many noble women! They had all that this world can give of wealth and glory, yet amid it all they preserved simplicity of soul. They did not presume on their worldly position, for they knew that the greatest empress might be the lowest in the Kingdom of God – yea, not even fit to enter that kingdom. There have been great queens who have become great saints. But besides these there have been other great women of noble family who, in spite of their dwelling in the houses of kings, living the busy life of the court, found time to do much for God. Some of them have been canonized; others have not. But all are worthy to be remembered inasmuch as they are shining examples of virtue.

We hear continually the plea to us to advance in virtue, to aspire even to holiness, yet so often our answer is, How expect us to be saints when we have so much to do, so little time for church and prayer, so little opportunity to do charity? The answer to that argument – which is no argument at all – is the life of every one of these noble women who might more justly have advanced that reason for a cold, indifferent life in the service of God. They were wives and mothers, with all that that means of labor and sacrifice, yet their earthly duties never stood in the way of their duty to God.

So has it been through all the ages of the Church. The Christian motherhood of the first century is the same as that of the twentieth. The same Gospel governs all our lives. The same Mother of God is the never-changing example of motherhood. The good Saint Ann is still a pattern. So, too, Saint Elizabeth, “just before God, walking in all the commandments and justifications of the Lord without blame” (Luke 1:6). With true motherhood, God is always first.

We see that in the life of a wife and mother of the very first years of the Church, Flavia Domitilla. She was of the highest station; she belonged even to the imperial family of Rome. Her grandfather was the Emperor Vespasian, and her mother’s two brothers, Titus and Domitian, also wore the purple. She was married to a nephew of Vespasian, Titus Flavius Clemens, and they had two sons who were chosen by Domitian to be his successors. It was a great honor for the young mother to be able to look forward to the day when her children would be the Emperors of Rome, even though, as events turned out, they never attained to that honor.

But she had given them a greater honor even than the royal purple, inasmuch as she had made them Christians, and that, too, at a time when the new religion was a despised thing in cultured Rome. Both she and her husband had become Christians. He had been a consul under the Emperor, but he resigned the honor, perhaps because it interfered with the practice of his faith. After his resignation he was put to death on the most trivial charges, and may almost be considered a martyr for the faith.

Flavia was then banished from the empire because of her religion, and retired to the island of Pandataria. Her property at Rome was used by the Christians as a place of burial, and was known as the Cemetery of Domitilla. We know very little of the life of this woman, save these few facts. And yet they are enough to enable us to picture her as a great wife and mother, a woman who gave up all rather than deny her God, preferring banishment to a life of ease and luxury, even in the imperial household, when that life meant a denial of her faith. What was even the throne itself compared with the dignity of Christian matron?

A striking example to husbands and wives is the life of Saint Melania and her husband, Pinianus. She was the second famous woman of that name, her grandmother Melania, though not a canonized saint, being worthy of mention in the history of the early Church. Melania the elder, as she is known, was very rich and belonged to a noble Spanish family. She had been left a widow at the age of twenty-three, with one son, Publicola. After she had placed him in the care of good tutors, she went to Palestine, where she built a monastery, and there lived a life of penance, wearing a coarse habit and sleeping on the floor. She led this kind of life for twenty-seven years. Meanwhile her son had married a woman named Albina, of which union a son and daughter were born. The daughter was the younger Melania, known now as Saint Melania, born in Rome about 383.

We know very little of her childhood; in fact, she was scarcely more than a child when, at the age of thirteen, she was married to one of her relatives, Pinianus, who also belonged to a noble family. She lived with him as his wife for seven years and was the mother of two children. But the children died young, and then Melania got her husband’s consent to live a life of chastity. He, too, was a man of great sanctity, for we find him taking part in all the efforts of his wife towards sanctity. When the elder Melania heard of this, she returned from Palestine after an absence of thirty-seven years, and was welcomed by all the nobility of Rome. She advised her granddaughter and husband to give their goods to the poor and retire to a life of solitude. They took the advice of one who herself had led such a holy life for so many years. Gradually they gave away their wealth, and at the time that the Visigoths invaded the country they left Rome and for two years lived at Messina in Sicily, where, in company with some of their former slaves, they led a monastic life.

In the year 410 the elder Melania returned to her monastery in Palestine and died there that same year at the age of sixty-eight. The young husband and wife, together with Melania’s mother, Albina, and many of their relatives who had been converted by them, went to Africa, where they lived seven years, and where Melania came to know Saint Augustine. Here she gave herself to a life of prayer, and founded a nunnery of which she became superior, and also a monastery which was presided over by her husband. Later on, in 417, she and her husband and her mother went to Palestine and lived in a hospice, where they became friends of Saint Jerome. They had freed some eight thousand of their slaves, had given away or sold their property in Spain, and what money they now had was used in furthering works of religion. Melania traveled in Egypt, visiting the various monastic houses, and then retired to Jerusalem, where she lived twelve years in a hermitage near the Mount of Olives. She built a new series of monasteries, which she supported.

This was the way she used her wealth. In her own life there was absolute poverty. She lived on bread and water. One would never guess that she and Pinianus were of noble families, so humbly did they live. Their occupation was to copy good books, and Pinianus could also be seen tilling his little garden – he that at one time had thousands of slaves under him. After his death she built a cloister for men and a fine church, and then went to Constantinople, where she succeeded in converting her pagan uncle, ambassador at the court of Theodosius II. She also helped in the conflict of the Church against the heresy of Nestorius. She died in 439, at the age of fifty- seven.

Saint Melania was an active woman, a builder, a founder of convents, a traveler; yet always was she animated with the love of God. She might have lived in luxury and worldly happiness, but in her contempt of these things she showed that the greatest happiness in life comes from the despising of all that keeps the soul from God. She, her mother, and her grandmother were a noble line of Christian women.

One finds at this same time another group of noble women, also grandmother, mother, and daughter, in the famous Proba family. Anicia Faltonia Proba belonged to one of the noblest families in Rome, a family unbounded in its wealth and influence, and in which the consulate seemed hereditary. The family had been Christian from the time of Constantine, and perhaps longer, even from the time of the persecutions. She was married to Sextus Petronius Probus, who was Prefect of Italy from 368 to 375. His riches were so abundant that some Persian noblemen who had come to Milan to see Saint Ambrose continued on to Rome to witness the grandeur of Probus. Proba was a learned woman, a poet of no mean ability, besides belonging to the highest aristocracy. But religion was more to her than wealth and position. She succeeded in converting her husband to Christianity.

In the life of Saint Melania we have seen that the Visigoths plundered Rome in 410. Proba and her house suffered. Her home had always been a centre of Christianity. Many of the holy virgins had taken refuge there, but all fell into the hands of the barbarians. At last they all obtained their liberty, and Faltonia, her daughter-in-law Juliana, and her granddaughter Demetrias, with a number of widows and virgins, went to Africa, then the centre of so much fervent faith. It was the time of the great Saint Augustine, and Proba, seeking to sanctify her soul, wrote to him, asking for instructions as to how she should pray. We have his answer to her, in which he wrote that she must despise the world and its pleasures, and strive for the true happiness of divine grace and charity, which is to be the object of all our prayers; to pray without ceasing; to have regular hours for devotions; and to raise her heart to God in all her actions. It is a practical, common-sense letter, such as we would expect to find from the practical Saint Augustine to a practical woman like Proba.

The exiles lived some time at Carthage and later on they returned to Rome. The granddaughter, Demetrias, gave all her great wealth to the Church and entered a life of religion. We know little, after all, about Proba except the poetry she wrote on sacred subjects, but we may well believe that she followed the advice of Saint Augustine and devoted herself to a life of prayer. And her influence was felt in the other members of her family. She was a great wife and mother.

Those were days in which we find more than one saint in a family. Particularly evident is this in the life of Saint Macrina, who may be called the founder of a long line of saints. She was born at Neocaesarea in Pontus in the middle of the third century. Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus was the first bishop of her native town, and in her childhood she knew him, and had received from him, no doubt, her first inclination to a holy life through his example. He was a great man and had converted almost all of Neocaesarea to Christianity.

Macrina had to suffer for the faith. At the time of the persecution under Diocletian she had to flee, together with her husband, from her native town and endure many privations for professing Christianity. It was the last storm that broke over the Church, and she may be regarded as a confessor for the faith. She was the mother of Saint Basil the elder.

Basil was a professor of rhetoric, and wealthy. He married Emmelia, afterwards Saint Emmelia, who was also of fine family. On both sides there were high functionaries, both civil and military. Both had reason to be loyal to the faith. Emmelia’s father was a martyr, and Basil’s parents had lived seven years in the woods and mountains during the persecution; and the faith they had received in so full a measure they handed down to their children. The family has well been called a “nursery of bishops and saints.” They had ten children, of whom three were bishops, and of whom four became saints – Saint Basil, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Peter, and Saint Macrina. The younger Saint Macrina was the eldest, and she exerted a wonderful influence on the other members of the family. She was an intellectual woman, and besides had been well trained by her mother and her grandmother. When she was twelve years of age a marriage had been arranged by her father with a young lawyer of fine family. But he died suddenly, and she resolved to devote herself to a life of virginity.

On the death of the father, Basil took Macrina and his mother to the family estate in Pontus, where they led a life of retirement, penance, and prayer, consecrating themselves to God. Macrina induced her mother to help her in founding two monasteries on the estate, one for men and one for women. Here were gathered to them other saints, and Saint Emmelia presided over the community till her death, when Macrina took her place. What a blessed mother was Emmelia to raise up four children to be canonized saints! A mother of ten children – how much that means of hard work; how easily such a mother could excuse herself for a life of coldness in the service of God; yet Emmelia, with all her cares, found time to develop in the hearts of her children the love, above all else, for the things of the soul. She surely deserves to be remembered as a great wife and mother.

Another remarkable woman of the early ages was Saint Fabiola. She belonged to the patrician Roman family of the Fabia. She had made an unfortunate marriage, for her husband led such a wicked life that she became disgusted with him and got a divorce. So little inclination did she have then towards sanctity, that we soon find her marrying another man even while her first husband was living. It was, of course, a serious sin on her part; but soon grace touched her heart.

On the day before Easter, following the death of the second husband, she dressed herself in penitential garments and appeared before the gates of the Lateran basilica, and there did public penance for her offence. Considering the high social position of Fabiola, this act of penance made a great impression on the Christians of Rome. The Pope received her back into the Church. To show the sincerity of her repentance, she renounced the world and devoted her immense wealth to the needs of the sick and the poor. She built a fine hospital in Rome and tended the patients herself, even when their diseases were most repulsive. Besides that, she gave a great deal to the churches and religious houses all over Italy. In 395 she went to Bethlehem, and lived there in the hospice directed by Paula, the friend of Saint Jerome. She studied the Scriptures under him and interested herself in works of piety and charity.

Fabiola returned to Rome some time afterwards and kept up a correspondence with him. At Rome she joined with the former senator, Pammachius, in erecting at Porto a large hospital for the pilgrims who used to come to the Eternal City even in those days. In a word, she was a woman whose whole life was filled with charity, and when she died (400) there was universal sorrow, and her great funeral showed the love and veneration in which she was held by the people of the city where once she had given scandal.

Saint Jerome, while at Rome, was universally loved and esteemed on account of his piety and learning. Many among the chief nobility, clergy, and monks came to him for instruction. Besides these, there were many devout women who looked to him for advice in regard to the duties of their state in life. Among them we find such women as Saint Marcella, her sister Asella, and their mother Albina, also Melania the elder, Marcellina, Felicitas, Lea, Fabiola, Laeta, Paula, her daughters, and many others.

Saint Marcella was styled by Saint Jerome as “the glory of the Roman ladies.” Her husband had died seven months after their marriage. Cerealis, the ex-consul, had sought her hand then, but she refused him and then retired to a country-house near Rome. She had heard of the life that Saint Anthony was then living in the desert, and she decided to embrace the monastic life. She was a charitable woman, and directed a great many of the Roman ladies in the higher life, being looked up to by them on account of her own holy life. So also Saint Lea, also a wealthy Roman lady, who gave up her social position to lead a life of mortification, often spending whole nights in prayer.

But the most illustrious of these women was Saint Paula. She was born in 347, and was the leader of all the Roman ladies of her time, because of her riches, her noble blood, and her fine intellect. At the age of thirty-two she lost her husband. Her heart was broken, but her friend Saint Marcella encouraged her to devote the rest of her life to God. At once she began to lead a life of penance, sleeping on the ground, mortifying herself in other ways, and giving all her property to the poor. When Saint Jerome came to Rome she induced him to accept a lodging in her house, so that she and her family might consult him as their spiritual director. At the request of Marcella, Saint Jerome used to give readings in the Scriptures to a group of patrician women. Paula studied hard. Saint Jerome tells us that Marcella and Paula and her two daughters, Blesilla and Eustochium, spoke, wrote and recited the Psalter in Hebrew as perfectly as in Greek and Latin. They all sought Christian perfection. After three years of residence in Rome, Saint Jerome returned to the East.

But, learned as she was, Paula did not neglect her home. She married her daughter Pauline to the senator Pammachius. Her daughter Blesilla had also married, but her husband died soon after and she wished to enter religion. But she died before she was able to accomplish her purpose. Another daughter, Rufina, died a couple of years later. And there was still another daughter, Eustochium, who later became her mother’s companion in the East.

After the death of Blesilla and the departure of Saint Jerome, Paula also determined to go to the East where she longed to lead the monastic life. So with Eustochium she made a pilgrimage to the holy places, and finally came to settle at Bethlehem.

It was not an easy task. It broke her heart to leave her other children. When she was sailing her little son came to the shore and pleaded with her not to go. But the call of God was even stronger than the call of her children. In Bethlehem she helped in the founding of two monasteries, one for men and one for women, and besides that work, she and her daughter helped Saint Jerome in his exegetical studies.

It was a holy life, yet not without its trials. One of these trials was her need of money, since she had ruined herself by her generosity. In the midst of these cares she died in 404, at the age of fifty-six. After her death, her granddaughter, Paula the younger, the daughter of her son Toxotius, came to Bethlehem. It was she that had the honor of closing the eyes of Saint Jerome in 420.

Just as Appia, the wife of Philemon, must have been a consolation to Saint Paul, who called her his “sister,” so were these noble women to the early bishops of the Church, helping them in their works of charity, building churches, monasteries, and hospitals, content to be the humble servants of the servants of God.

So do we find it in the case of Saint Olympias (360- 408), a disciple of the great Saint John Chrysostom. She has been called the glory of the widows in the Eastern Church. She came from an illustrious family of Constantinople, her father being a Count of the Empire. Her parents died when she was very young, leaving her an immense fortune, and she was brought up by a great woman, Theodosia, sister of Saint Amphilochius. She married Nebridius, treasurer for the Emperor Theodosius. Saint Gregory Nazianzen was invited to the wedding, but he wrote a letter excusing his absence, and also wrote a poem in honor of the occasion, both being still in existence.

But the happiness of the marriage did not last long. Nebridius died twenty days after the wedding. The Emperor tried to induce her to marry a relative of his, but she refused, and then the Emperor took her great fortune to put in trust until she should be thirty. She thanked him, and asked him to give it to the Church and to the poor. He was so struck by her life that he gave her back her estate. But she received it only to give it to religion and to charity. She had herself consecrated a deaconess, and built with her own money the chief church of Constantinople, and besides that a convent into which she, with some of her relatives and a great number of young ladies, withdrew to lead the religious life. When Saint John Chrysostom became Bishop of Constantinople in 398, he acted as her spiritual guide and advised her as to the distribution of her property. She always had the greatest confidence in him, and put at his disposal great sums of money for the use of the Church and for charity. Everywhere her charity extended. Then, when Chrysostom was driven into exile, she remained faithful to him, refusing to have anything to do with his successor, who had been unlawfully appointed. She gave herself up to a life of poverty, penance, and prayer. Her dress was mean, her furniture poor, and yet she was a woman of vast wealth. More than that, she suffered from sickness, and was even slandered and persecuted. Concerning these sufferings Saint Chrysostom wrote to her:

“As you are well acquainted with the advantages and merit of sufferings, you have reason to rejoice, inasmuch as by having lived constantly in tribulation you have walked in the road of crowns and laurels. All manner of corporal distempers have been your portion, often more cruel and harder to be endured than ten thousand deaths; nor have you ever been free from sickness. You have been perpetually overwhelmed a hundred pieces of gold, saying that “her luck was greater than that of all women.” Athenais, however, was not content with that kind of inheritance, and so she went to Constantinople to contest the will. She was very beautiful. In Constantinople she was seen by Pulcheria, the elder sister of Theodosius II. Theodosius was still under age, and Pulcheria was ruling as regent. He was twenty years of age and wished to be married. As soon as he saw Athenais it was a case of love at first sight, and Pulcheria, too, had the greatest admiration for the girl. So she was instructed in the Christian faith, as she was a pagan; was baptized by the Patriarch Atticus; and took the new name of Eudocia. In 421 she was married to Theodosius. Pulcheria was still devoted to her, and instructed her in her duties as empress. Eudocia had one daughter, Eudoxia by name, who later on married the Emperor of the West, Valentinian III.

But at length there was a falling out between Pulcheria and the new Empress. Pulcheria was jealous of her whom she had virtually made. It was the beginning of trouble. Eudocia made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and on the way stopped at Antioch, where she made a speech that so delighted the citizens that, they erected a golden statue in her honor. From this first pilgrimage she brought back Saint Peter’s chains, and sent half of them to her daughter in the West, who gave the relic to the Pope. Twenty years after her marriage she suffered a terrible trial, being unjustly suspected of infidelity with one of-the officers with slanders, insults, and injuries. Never have you been free from some new tribulation; torrents of tears have always been familiar to you. Among all these, one single affliction is enough to fill your soul with spiritual riches.”

Her virtue was the admiration of the whole Church. Great saints corresponded with her. After Chrysostom’s banishment, she, too, was persecuted. Her goods were sold at auction, she was dragged before tribunals, her clothes torn and herself insulted, and the community of nuns which she had governed dispersed. In a word, she endured a living martyrdom.

Saint Olympias died in exile, and after her death was venerated as a saint. She was, indeed, a great woman. The world held out many attractions to one of her wealth and position, but she preferred to put all aside, or rather to use it all, in order to extend the glory of God.

In the lives of the women who are noted in the history of the Church one finds many a romance. But none is stranger than that of the poor little girl who became an empress. It is similar to the romance of the Empress Helena, who from being the humble keeper of an inn became the mother of the great Constantine and the first woman of the world. The poor little girl mentioned above was Eudocia. Her original name was Athenais, and she was the daughter of Leontius, a pagan, who taught rhetoric at Athens. When he was dying he left nearly all his property to his two sons. To his daughter Athenais he left only of the court. He was murdered and Eudocia was banished. She went back to Jerusalem and remained there till her death, nearly twenty years after.

Eudocia fell away from the faith into heresy for a time, but was finally brought back through the efforts of Pope Saint Leo I, who wrote to her. Her husband and Pulcheria died, and Eudocia was forgotten by the great world in which she had once been a leader. But she did not mind that. She spent her last years in the holy places of Jerusalem, devoting herself to piety and charity and to the writing of religious poetry. She built the Church of Saint Stephen, and there she was buried after having for some years lived the life of a mystic.

The next great woman among the matrons of the early Church was Saint Galla, who lived in the sixth century. Her father had been a learned and virtuous patrician of Rome and had been unjustly put to death. She was made a widow before the end of the first year of her married life, and then, refusing to marry again, she gave up the world and chose for her dwelling a little cell near the tomb of the apostles, where she prayed and did charity. There is a tradition that the Blessed Virgin appeared to her. For two years she suffered from cancer of the breast and led a life of extreme suffering by which she sanctified her soul.

The last woman of this period is Saint Silvia, the mother of Pope Saint Gregory the Great. We know very little about her. But she belonged to a distinguished family, as did her husband, and they had two sons, to whom she gave an excellent education. When her husband died she left the world and devoted herself entirely to religion. But little as we do know of her, she deserves mention as having raised up a son who was a great Pope and a great Saint; and yet a greater honor even than that is hers in that she obtained the crown of personal sanctity.

They were a noble line of women. They had all the cares of the world; they had wealth and family position, yet counted all but little in comparison with the service they gave to God. Truly the matrons of today may well look to them as the models of what constitutes true womanhood.

– text taken from the book Great Wives and Mothers by Father Hugh Francis Blunt, 1917