WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH 2016
March 1 – March 31
The New Testament of the Bible refers to a number of women in Jesus’ inner circle (notably his mother Mary and St. Mary Magdalene), although the Catholic Church teaches that Christ appointed only maleApostles. Historians write that women probably comprised the majority in early Christian congregations, likely stemming in part from the early church’s informal and flexible organization offering significant roles to women. Leadership was shared among male and female members according to their “gifts” and talents. During the early centuries of Christianity, there is evidence of a great deal of activity by women in the life of congregations as deacons and, like Lydia of Philippi, as financiers. Women probably constituted the majority of Christians. Blainey notes that by around AD 300, women had become so influential in the affairs of the church that the pagan philosopher Porphyry “complained that Christianity had suffered because of them”.
The Protestant Reformation closed convents and effectively closed off the option of a full-time religious role for Protestant women, including lives in academic study. The majority of Protestant churches restricted ruling and preaching roles within the Church to men until the 20th century, although there were exceptions among groups like the Quakers and some Pentecostal holiness movements.
In modern times, Christian women played a central role in the developing or running of many the modern world’s education and health care systems, such as Florence Nightingale, who assisted with the development of modern nursing; the Sisters of Mercy, founded by Catherine McAuley in Dublin, Ireland, whose nuns went on to establish hospitals and schools across the world; and the Little Sisters of the Poor, founded in the mid-19th century by Saint Jeanne Jugan near Rennes, France, to care for the many impoverished elderly who lined the streets of French towns and cities.
A number of Christian women are recalled as martyrs of WWII, including 8 of Poland’s 108 Martyrs of World War II and the 11 Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth murdered by the Gestapo; Swedish born Elisabeth Hesselblad is listed among the “righteous among the nations” for her religious institute’s work assisting Jews escaping The Holocaust; and two British women, Mother Riccarda Beauchamp Hambrough and Sister Katherine Flanagan, who were beatified for hiding scores of Jewish families in their convent during Rome’s period of occupation under the Nazis.
After the Vatican II, four Catholic women have been declared Doctors of the Church, including the 16th-century Spanish mystic St. Teresa of Ávila, the 14th Century Italian mystic St. Catherine of Siena, the 19th-century French nun St. Thérèse de Lisieux, and the 12th-century German nun St. Hildegard of Bingen. Barbara Clementine Harris became the first woman in the world to be ordained a bishop a in the Episcopal Church in the U.S. And among the most famous missionaries was Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in “bringing help to suffering humanity”. She was beatified just six years after her death. Many Christian women and religious have been prominent advocates in social policy debates – as with American nun Helen Prejean, a Sister of Saint Joseph of Medaille, who is a prominent campaigner against the death penalty and was the inspiration for the Hollywood film Dead Man Walking.