St. Marcella of Rome
Ascetic, Academic, Almsgiver, Widow, Hospitaller to a Peripatetic & Verbose Monastic, and Martyr
325 – 410 AD
Feast Day: January 31st
[There does not seem to be a digitized icon image of St. Marcella available. Perhaps a reader can help me find one?]
Why did St. Marcella inspire me to start this project?
- She is a wise example of how to use one’s wealth, property, and education for the good of her community.
- She gave support to a scrappy young monk who would go on to consolidate the Latin Bible and defend the faith against heresy. She saw talent where others saw trouble.
- Fellow widows and the down & out were her first priority. She encouraged them to see there was freedom in Christ beyond what society expected of them, yet kept reverence for the hierarchical order of Christ’s Church.
- Her life bridged an incredible period of political and religious change. She saw the ascendancy of Christianity, the great debates with heresy, and the descent of the western Roman empire.
I thought I would write three paragraphs about St. Marcella. Wrong. Try six! Never give a historian a small word count limit. Or a speaking time maximum. We will blow that into the next century.
What we know about St. Marcella is quite extensive for a woman saint of her time, thanks to a posthumous biography St. Jerome wrote to one of her fellow widows, as a testament in 412.. What follows is my summary of this letter, which I hope to post in plain text in the future, because it is an excellent model of good hagiography. It may seem odd to modern sensibilities to write a letter to a close friend of the deceased with a biography they already know. As St. Jerome explains, the purpose of his dictation was, “…to set forth the goodness long enjoyed by us for others to know and to imitate.” He wrote with the intention of it being distributed widely.
Born into a patrician family in Rome, Marcella was orphaned at a young age and was duly married off in her mid-teens. After only 7 months, she was widowed. Instead of marrying again, which there was one lucrative offer from a much older consul she famously turned down, she chose to keep her widowhood as unto the Lord. Jerome drew several comparisons between her and the Prophetess Anna in this regard. In all her dealings, for the remainder of her life, Marcella strove to keep a stainless reputation in Roman society.
Monasticism was a new venture in Christianity during the 4th century. Marcella met St. Athanasius during his banishment to Rome in 338-340 and was enthralled with the stories of ascetical feats of St. Anthony and his brothers in the desert. She used this knowledge to deftly craft a version of acestical labor that acceptable to a woman of her rank; to take the name of ‘nun’ or to join a monastery was unheard of at the time. Instead, she chose plain, simple clothing, the ‘brown dress’ as it came to be known, gave away her jewelry, stopped eating flesh meat or attending banquets, and cared for the poor. Soon, like-minded women were drawn to her palace as sister-companions, who called themselves the Brown Dress Society. By the end of her life, Jerome noted that Rome had become ‘another Jerusalem’, with numerous houses for virgins and hermits in countless numbers. The term monasticism, “..which had been a term of reproach became one of honour”, thanks in large part to the influence of St. Marcella, the early adopter.
Another of Marcella’s virtues was her ‘delight in the divine scriptures’. This was high praise from the translator of scriptures himself. In fact, there are 17 letters extant addressed to Marcella from Jerome from between 384 to 385, after he departed to the Holy Land, mostly on the ideas of heresy and the Bible. Her on-going love of learning provided her with the skills to match Jerome’s penchant for debate. Church leaders in Rome would seek Marcella’s advice in ecclesiastical matters and she would always frame her responses as opinions from Jerome, thus saving face during a time when a woman outright teaching a male authority was suspicious.
After a long and venerable life, Marcella had one last opportunity to show her devotion to the true faith. In 410 AD, when she was around 85 years old, the Arian Visigoth King Alaric sacked Rome. Friends had urged Marcella to flee but she stayed with a few trusted companions. When the soldiers entered her home, they demanded gold. She greeted them without fear and pointed to her brown dress saying that she had none. “Go, look, the gold you seek is in the stomachs of the poor.” They beat her but she did not cry out in pain. Seeing that their brutality did not bring any reward, they carried the old woman and her companion to the Basilica of St. Paul. She died there a few days later from her wounds.
To learn more about St. Marcella – visit these sources:
St. Jerome’s Letters:
Letter about St. Marcella, written after her death:
About St. Jerome: