St. Olympias

(Feast December 17th)

The early Church showed great concern for widows. St. Paul recommended that they not remarry, especially if they were older women. The local churches took care of unprovided widows, and set for them the special role of praying for the needs of the whole People of God. By the fourth century, at least in the East, some widows were given a more official role in the Church, being consecrated as deaconesses. Deaconesses frequently lived together.

Olympias of Constantinople, born about 361, came to be considered a model of widows and deaconesses. Orphaned, but an heiress through her father, she married Nebridius, prefect of Constantinople. The marriage was good, but Nebridius died before very long; and Olympias, though perhaps not yet twenty years old, was left a widow. Naturally, a number of suitors were interested in marrying such a wealthy young woman. In fact, Emperor Theodosius pressed her to accept a kinsman of his own. However, Olympias declared to one and all that she intended not to remarry: “Had God wished me to remain a wife,” she said, “He would not have taken Nebridius away.” Theodosius was angry about this, and put her and her property under the guardianship of the city prefect until she was thirty. The widow then wrote to Theodosius suggesting that he go farther, and distribute her estate to the Church and the poor! That frank letter struck Theodosius. He saw that he was dealing with no ordinary young widow, but with a strongly spiritual character. So in 361 he restored her property to her.

Olympias then asked the bishop of Constantinople, St. Nectarius, to consecrate her as a deaconess. He did, and she established a large home where she invited other young women to reside who wished to serve God in a special way. Her community thus became in many ways like what a religious order would be in later centuries. It was a center of prayer and charity. An orphanage and a hospital were subsequently added. Deaconess Olympias became admired and praised throughout the Near East for her charities: “a wonderful woman … like a precious vase filled with the Holy Spirit.”

Olympias had to suffer much along the way, however, especially because of her loyalty to St. John Chrysostom. John had succeeded Nectarius as bishop of Constantinople, but in 404 he was exiled by the Emperor for political reasons. Because Olympias refused to acknowledge the interloper whom the Emperor had named to replace Chrysostom, she herself was exiled and her house of charity was padlocked. Nonetheless, she continued to act as an agent of the absent Chrysostom, who held her in the highest admiration.

Chrysostom died in the year 407, still in exile. St. Olympias died, aged about forty, in 408. She was enshrined in Constantinople where, it is said, “She had become so celebrated for her great goodness that her very name was considered worthy of imitation, parents hoping that their children would be built on a like mode.”

What does Olympias have to say to our day? That even now widows can find widowhood a second vocation for serving God and neighbor.

A contemporary illustration? A few years ago Syracuse’s CATHOLIC SUN told the story of Mrs. Julia Leppo, aged eighty-five, a parishioner of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse. Her husband, Bill Leppo, died at fifty-two, and she did not remarry.

A housing complex was opened on Burt Street in 1962, provided with a chapel. Julia moved in. Then priests from the Cathedral started coming to offer Mass for the senior citizens. They asked Mrs. Leppo to be sacristan and Eucharistic Minister to the sick. She began to take a bus to the Cathedral each day for Mass and also served as a Eucharistic Minister at one Sunday Mass. Meanwhile, back at the apartment complex, she made herself available to people with problems. For her helpfulness, Julia came to be called, “The Vicar of Burt Street.”,

Her own comment: “I just keep going.” Actually, she was no mere survivor. Like St. Olympias, she had become a model of a Christian widow.

--Father Robert F. McNamara