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The Role of Women in Church History

What do we know about the women during the Church history? We know that they were forbidden to hold any significant post in the church hierarchy and their functions were reduced to the role of mothers, wives and daughters. It is a well known fact that such a religious situation was traditionally paralleled to the secular role, which demanded from women staying at home, being a caring wife mother and daughter.

Hence the situation was not as poor as it is could be seen from the first look. From the very beginning of the church history women played a significant role in the whole process, being very important for the movement. According to the New Testament, women were among the significant participators and the reduce of their role belongs to men, who have written the book itself and interpreted information as they wanted it to be. Contemporary scientists investigating frescoes, inscriptions and mosaics of that period have come to pretty different conclusions (MacHaffie, Barbara, 2006 ).

When the Church was on its cradle, the Christianed organized in groups at homes of the belivers and Christian Gospels (belonging to the New Testament) have acknowledgments to women, who were among the earliest followers of Jesus Christ. Their Names are well known in the Present day Church especially the name of Mary Magdalene: “In this gospel, Mary Magdalene appears as a disciple, singled out by Jesus for special teachings. In this excerpt, the other disciples are discouraged and grieving Jesus’ death. Mary stands up and attempts to comfort them, reminding them that Jesus’ presence remains with them. Peter asks her to tell them the words of Jesus which she remembers. To his surprise, she does not reminisce about past conversations with Jesus, but claims that Jesus spoke to her that very day in a vision” (Harper Colins, 1998) Mary Magdalene was not the single women that followed Jesus, there were the others – Johanna and Susanna were the Jewish women, accompanying Jesus and supporting him [Lk. 8:1-3]. Mary Magdalene was the first who bright a message of the Christ Resurrection and has very special role among the other Saints.

The Blessed Virgin (The Virgin Mary), mother of Jesus Christ is also among the mostly highly honored Saints by the Church, since it was created.

We see that women were also intended to leave their homes and bring the light of lively faith in the hearts of the human beings and their contribution in the development of church is also very significant.

Time passed and religion became stronger and stronger. The power belonged to monasteries and there were established a number of cloistered orders, for men and women separately. Probably one of the most significant female figues of that times is Catherine of Sienna (1347-1380) regarded also as a Doctor of Church. She did not know how to write and dictated all her works and letters to the secretaries. She was a women of a big heart and treated ill-people: “Catherine cared for the sick and dying even during the outbreaks of the plague. She followed the Lord’s commands to write letters to and to intervene with politicians and even to speak to the Pope to try to resolve the thorny problems of the day. Many people begged her prayers when they were in great need” (Mark and Louise Zwick, 1995). Investigators of her work activity, noted her persistence in in providing good treatment for sick and poor. Her letters addressed to Popes and bishops show the woman of a stong character and powerful will to help: “It was a horrible time. The Black Death had reduced Europe’s population by two–thirds. Catherine began a lifetime of traveling around Italy nursing the sick and plague–stricken, mediating family and political disputes, attracting a ragtag entourage of male and female followers (including an English monk), and through a series of impassioned letters (among more than three hundred that survive) succeeding in persuading Pope Gregory IX to bring the papacy back to Rome” (Charlotte Allen, 1999)

Another noticeable figure Teresa of Avila, also known as Teresa of Jesus, was a significant figure in the Renaissance times: “Her great work of reform began with herself. She made a vow always to follow the more perfect course, and resolved to keep the rule as perfectly as she could (V 32.9). However, the atmosphere prevailing at the Incarnation monastery was less than favorable to the more perfect type of life to which Teresa aspired. A group assembled in her cell one September evening in 1560, taking their inspiration from the primitive tradition of Carmel and the discalced reform of St. Peter of Alcantara, proposed the foundation of a monastery of an eremitical type” (The Teresian Carmel, 2010).

And such cases are not the single ones. Women played really significant role in the Church history. The next important figure is surely, St. Joan of Arc (1412–1431), who led the French Army at the age of 17. According to the investigators of her biography, she began to hear voices when she was 13: “A barely literate peasant girl from Lorraine, Joan began to hear “voices” at the age of thirteen that she attributed to God and the saints; at age seventeen she led a French army whose exploits helped end the Hundred Years’ War; and at age nineteen she was burned at the stake after a heresy trial engineered by the occupying English that was a legal travesty by anyone’s standards” (Charlotte Allen, 1999).

During the era of Reformation the noticeable figure was Anna Maria van Schurman (1607–1678), deep religious believer of Dutch Reformation, who published a tract “Whether a Christian Woman Should Be Educated?” which was almost a significant step at this times, that could be hardly imagined. Every era could be noted by the figures who played a significant role in the development of Church and seriously influenced on it.

In the Modern era, women are still active participants of the activities provided by Church. During the Victorian era they actively participated in charitable activity patronizing orphans’ homes and helping poor people. They also took part in christian trade fairs and made serious donations for the church needs. Many of them worked in the hospital’s during the military conflicts patronized by Church.

Probably one of the most significant figures of this time is Saint Therese of Lisieux, who became an orphan at a very early age and devoted all her life to caring sick and patronized a number of missions: “At age 22 she was ordered by her prioress to begin writing her memories and ideas, which material would turn into the book History of a Soul. Therese defined her path to God and holiness as The Little Way, which consisted of child-like love and trust in God. She had an on-going correspondence with Carmelite missionaries in China, often stating how much she wanted to come work with them. Many miracles attributed to her. Declared a Doctor of the Church in 1997 by Pope John Paul II” (Terry Jones, 2010).

In the end I would like to tell about extraordinary woman who also devoted her life to God, honored by Noble Peace Prize Mother Teresa (1910 – 1997). This woman, Albanian and Indian citizenship founded the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta and all her life treated sick, orphans and dying: “The whole of Mother Teresa’s life and labour bore witness to the joy of loving, the greatness and dignity of every human person, the value of little things done faithfully and with love, and the surpassing worth of friendship with God. By 1997, Mother Teresa’s Sisters numbered nearly 4,000 members and were established in 610 foundations in 123 countries of the world” (Vatican News Service, 2002). After her death she was canonized.

This list could be endured for many pages and it goes without saying that all these women as well as many others, played a significant role in the history of the Church. The did not took the high positions, some of them were poorly educated, but it did not prevent them from active social work and helping people all over the world. In early Christian times, they were bringing new hope to those who believe, later they assisted in medical treatment of the sick and dying, helping the male leaders in their difficult work. They took care about orphans and protected their land, dying for their motherland.

All these women are worth admiration, for their strength, faith and willing to help people. There should be mentioned another women who assisted their strong leaders, and participated actively in charitable and medical treatment. I think that all these women had produced a significant contribution in the development of the Churhc and Christianity and their honor is gained by hard working.


1. Vatican News Service (2002). “Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910–1997)”. 02.12.2010. Vatican News Official Web site <http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/saints/ns_lit_doc_20031019_madre-teresa_en.html>
2. The Teresian Carmel. (2010). “St. Teresa of Avila”. Teresian Carmel in Austria Web site <http://www.karmel.at/eng/teresa.htm>
3. Harper Collins. “The Gospel of Mary”. The Frontline. April 1998
4. Charlotte Allen. “The Holy Feminine”. First Things 98 (December1999): 37-44.
5. Mark and Louise Zwick. “Saint Catherine of Siena: A Woman who Influenced her Times”. Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XV, No. 6, Sept.-Oct. 1995.
6. Terry H. Jones. (2010). Saint Therese of Lisieux. Saints.SQPN.com Official Web site <http://saints.sqpn.com/saint-therese-of-lisieux/>
7. MacHaffie, Barbara J. “Her story: women in Christian tradition”. Fortress Press, 2006
8. MacDonald, Margaret. “Reading Real Women Through Undisputed Letters of Paul” in Women and Christian Origins, ed. by Ross Sheppard Kraemer and Mary Rose D’Angelo Oxford: University Press, 1999