St. Paula, Widow

A regimen that nuns were to develop over the Christian centuries: The wearing of habits, the routine of study, work and prayer that characterized the life of sisters up to our time. Among the women who contributed to this development was St. Paula of Rome and Bethlehem.

Paula was a member of one of Rome’s most ancient and illustrious families. Her husband Toxotius was also a scion of a premier Roman clan. Roman Christians were deeply moved by the practical faith of this aristocratic couple. Indeed, two of their five children, Blesilla and Eustochium, are venerated as saints.

Despite her good works, Paula originally retained some of the worldly traits that were characteristic of a matron of her station. The death of her husband when she was only 32 gave her a completely new sense of the meaning of life. At first, she grieved deeply, even to excess. Then, however, she yielded to the counsel of St. Marcella, another highborn Roman widow, that she embrace a life of penance. Thenceforth Paula the Widow lived austerely by herself, and gave all possible assistance to paupers and travelers. Eventually she met St. Jerome, the already noted scripture scholar and joined the cluster of devout Roman women who were eager to learn from him about the Holy Scriptures and how best to live their teachings.

Now this urban matron began to weary of city life and aspire to embrace the religious life that had become so phenomenally popular in the Mideast. After the death in 385 of her eldest daughter, St. Blesilla, Paula and her unmarried daughter Eustochium decided to move to Levant and embrace monasticism. After visiting enroute their friend St. Epiphanius, Bishop of Cyprus, the two women reached Antioch, then the capital of Syria. Jerome, already a resident of Bethlehem, greeted them at Antioch and took them on a year’s tour of the monastic centers of Egypt and the shrines of the Holy Land. Then they settled in Bethlehem, in order to be under the guidance of the scriptural saint.

At Bethlehem, Paula used up the rest of her personal fortune to build one monastery for men and one for women. (She also constructed a hospice for pilgrims and travelers, because, as she said, “Mary and Joseph had not been able to find shelter” when they came to town.) Her buildings were simply constructed, for St. Paula believed that money was best expended on the poor. Mother and daughter were the first occupants of the convent, but they were quickly joined by other women of varying social background. By 404 there were 50 women in that household.

As superior, Paula established a rigorous pattern of life, laying special emphasis on the virtue of poverty. All the sisters wore similar garb. (Was this the beginning of religious habits?) They ate plain fare and labored not only at housework but in the making of clothing, particularly for the needy. Woe to the sister who showed herself over talkative or notional or wayward; she could expect stringent punishment. Yet St. Paula never asked any of them to do what she herself had not done or was not ready to do.

St. Jerome headed the monastery of men. St. Paula took care of his needs–no easy task in the case of a man who was notoriously cranky. At the same time, she profited by his learning and advice. She became a pretty good theologian herself; and because she knew so much Greek and some Hebrew, she was able to assist him a good deal in his literary work.

St. Paula died at age 56. During her last hours she repeated by memory, as long as she could, those psalms that speak of pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem. When her voice failed, she signed her lips with the cross and slipped into eternity. Crowds from all over Palestine attended her burial in the Basilica of the Nativity. St. Jerome, disconsolate, even called her a martyr because of her daily sacrifice of herself. She was an Easter person.

St. Paula was clearly one of the great women of the early Christian Church, a true leader in charity and prayer.

--Father Robert F. McNamara