Marcella of Rome (325–410) was dedicated to Christian service. Here’s a bit of information about this remarkable woman.
Marcella was an aristocratic, wealthy, and intelligent woman from a Christian family. The famous theologian Athanasius stayed at her family home in Rome in 338-340. After her husband’s early death, and while still a teenager, Marcella vowed not to marry again, and she began a community (like a nunnery) for Christian women who also vowed not to marry. This community became known as the Brown Dress Society because of the plain coarse brown clothing the women wore. Marcella also opened her palatial home to travelling Christians and to the poor. In 382, Jerome stayed in her home and the two became firm friends.
Jerome spent three years with her translating the Bible into Latin and she offered critiques. Marcella was a serious student of the scriptures and knew Greek and Hebrew. She held Bible studies in her home for women, some of whom went on to become prominent figures in the Christian community. During his stay in Rome, Jerome taught at her Bible studies.
Marcella strongly challenged heretics, particularly those who were teaching Origen’s theology which she and Jerome rejected. Her Bible knowledge was well-known and when Jerome left for the Holy Land, people turned to Marcella to discuss and settle interpretations of scripture. These people included priests. In a letter, Jerome makes a point of explaining that Marcella taught in a manner so as not to violate his understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12.
“. . . after my departure from Rome, in case of a dispute arising as to the testimony of scripture on any subject, recourse was had to her [Marcella] to settle it. And so wise was she and so well did she understand what philosophers call τό πρέπον, that is, the becoming, in what she did, that when she answered questions she gave her own opinion not as her own but as from me or someone else [male], thus admitting that what she taught she had herself learned from others. For she knew that the apostle had said:
I suffer not a woman to teach, and she would not seem to inflict a wrong upon the male sex many of whom, including sometimes priests, questioned her concerning obscure and doubtful points.” Letter 127.7 (Italics added) [My understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12 is here.]
Image: Jerome with Marcella, Paula and Eustochium (Paula’s daughter), painted by Jan Hovaert.
Marcella lived a monastic life until her death at the age of 85. She had renounced all luxuries and comforts, and followed ascetic practices. But she but did not go as far as her friend Paula, another aristocratic Roman woman, who injured her health with severe fasts and harsh living. (Jerome and Paula met in Marcella’s home. Paula would be a huge help to Jerome when they both lived in Bethlehem.)
The contents of seventeen letters that Jerome wrote to Marcella still survive, as does a letter he wrote to Marcella’s student and spiritual daughter Principia (Letter 127 to Principia). In this letter, Jerome consoled Principia and spoke glowingly of Marcella who had died after being beaten by Goth soldiers during the sack of Rome in 410. The brutes were looking for her gold that had long ago been exchanged for food that was given to the poor.
Marcella used all her talents and resources to serve her Christian community—some believe hers was the first monastery for women—and to help the poor. She is regarded as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church and by the Eastern Orthodox Church, and her feast day is January 31.
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Jerome’s letter (127) to Principia which is mostly a memoir of Marcella here.
“Marcella and Women in Monasticism” in Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church, by Ruth A. Tucker (Google Books)
Amma Marcella of Rome by Joshua Hoffert
The Rebel Virgins and Desert Mothers . . . by Alex Mar
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Wealthy Women in the Roman World and in the Church