Fourth-century Mothers of the Church

At the origins of monastic life

 At the origins of monastic life  ING-007
16 February 2024

Religious life as we know it today, both contemplative and active, has evolved over two millennia. In this third of four articles, Christine Schenk explores the contribution of prominent fourth-century Christian women who founded monasteries, laying the foundation for the life now lived by women religious.

The fourth century began with a severe persecution against Christians especially, in the east. After invoking the Christian God and a protracted power struggle, Constantine became emperor in 324 ad. The Church then rose to unprecedented heights of worldly power and influence, thanks to the imperial favor of Constantine, his sons, and his mother Helena. Churchmen also received extravagant benefices from aristocratic Christian women such as Olympias, Melania the Elder and Younger, and Paula. Christian communities that had formerly met in large homes or buildings, now found themselves in sumptuous public surroundings. These changes exacerbated tensions about the public ministry of Christian women.

Changing role of women in the Church

The fourth century also saw a distressing tendency to symbolically associate the female sex with heresy, even though both Christian men and women were involved in the disparate interpretations of Christianity eventually labeled heretical. Women were especially at risk of being labeled heretics and suspected of unchastity if they assumed the role of teacher. This is the ecclesial context within which fourth-century “church mothers” lived and witnessed. What follows is a brief but significant chronology of their lives and the ways they — and their communities — exercised ecclesial authority in the early church.

Texts written by women

Literary information about fourth-century women such as Marcella, Paula, Macrina, Melania the Elder, and Olympias comes primarily from learned churchmen (Jerome, Gregory of Nyssa, Palladius, and John Chrysostom) who wrote about them. We do have two texts written by women: Proba and Egeria. Proba adapted Rome’s much-loved Virgilian prose cento and retold the Christian story to evangelize aristocratic young men. She created a cross-cultural evangelizing tool that influenced Christian men and women for generations. Egeria wrote a travel diary for her sisters describing her journey to sacred sites in the East. On the way, she writes of meeting her “very dear friend, the holy deaconess Marthana,” who governs a double monastery near St Thecla’s shrine (in Turkey). Marthana is a rare example of a female deacon exercising governing authority over both Christian men and women.

While Basil in the East and Jerome in the West are frequently credited for the rise of monasticism, two women — Macrina and Marcella — began living this new Christian lifestyle well before the men.

Macrina (327-379 ce ) founded a monastery at Annisa in Asia Minor, which became the prototype for a monastic rule written by her brother Basil. Basil was later credited as the father of monasticism, yet Macrina is certainly its mother. Her authority as a spiritual director profoundly influenced her theologian brothers, Gregory and Basil, who crafted the doctrine of the Trinity.

Marcella (325-410) gathered women to study Scripture and pray in her aristocratic home on the Aventine Hill fully 40 years before Jerome arrived in Rome. After Jerome returned to Jerusalem, Rome’s priests would consult Marcella for help in clarifying biblical texts. She also engaged in public debate over the Originist controversy.

Paula (347-404) founded two monasteries in Bethlehem, one for women, and one for men. She turned the male monastery over to the monks where, thanks to her patronage, Jerome completed his translation of the Greek Bible into Latin. Jerome tells us that Paula’s expertise in Hebrew exceeded his own.

Melania the Elder (350-410) led a prominent churchman (Evagrius) back to his vow of celibacy and taught and converted men. She was instrumental in resolving a schism involving 400 monks at Antioch, “winning over every heretic that denied the Holy Spirit.” She funded and co-founded a double monastery on the Mount of Olives where her communities engaged in scripture study, prayer, and charitable works.

Olympias (368-408). Ordained a deacon by Bishop Nectarius in Constantinople, Olympias used her vast family fortune to support the church and serve the poor. She founded a large monastery close to Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) where three female relatives were also ordained deacons. Roman women of senatorial families soon joined, and the number of women monastics grew to 250.

These are just a few examples of fourth-century women whose communities are precursors to contemporary religious life. Their ecclesial witness and authority greatly influenced Christian communities of their time as well as those in times to come. At a time when some churchmen forbad them to speak or teach publicly, and preferred they stay at home, there is evidence that there were Christian women in the fourth century who exercised authority, spoke up about important ecclesial issues, taught both men and women, and witnessed freely about the Christ with whom they had thrown in their lot.


By Christine Schenk, csj