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Women Church Leaders: Prisca to the Present

“These women have something to teach us in our struggle to be just people in an unjust society and an unjust Church.” said Sr. Christine Schenk who listed seven “learnings” gleaned from the lives of Prisca, Mary Ward and Henriette Delille in a FutureChurch workshop given on November 7 at Call to Action.

Prisca and Aquila


Prisca - “It is not an exaggeration to say that Prisca and her husband Aquila functioned as a kind of “advance team” and stabilizing influence for Paul’s preaching mission,” Schenk said. Financially independent tentmakers, they founded and directed house churches in three of the most important centers of early Christianity: Corinth, Ephesus and Rome. Many scholars believe eucharistic table sharing was often led by the woman in whose home the community gathered. In Romans 16:3 Paul says “all the churches among the Gentiles owe them a debt of gratitude” and sends “greetings to the church that meets at their house.”



Mary Ward

Mary Ward - In the 17th century, English Catholics were denied pastoral care because their priests were imprisoned and persecuted by the Anglican reform. Inspired by devout female forebears, Mary Ward established a community of women to meet the need. In only fifteen years her work spread to Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Bavaria, and Italy. The independent women’s community was supported by some priests but opposed by others. In 1631 her institute was suppressed because of objections from some English priests who felt the women should be enclosed. But, said Schenk “the grace of God and the long memory of her sisters could not be denied.” Over 200 years later, Mary Ward was publicly recognized as founder of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Sisters of Loretto) which now has thousands of sisters serving on every continent.


henrietta delille
Henriette DeLille

Henriette DeLille - In early 19th century New Orleans, the needs of those born into slavery were great. Henriette DeLille was a free woman of color who forsook a life of culture, privilege and systematized concubinage, to provide health care, education and religious instruction as the “servant of the slaves.” With the help of Fr. Etienne Rousellon and two childhood friends Juliette Gaudin and Josephine Charles, she founded the Sisters of the Holy Family. The new community faced many challenges from a racist culture and a racist church. Schenk cited biographer Clarissa Estes Hicks: “Recruiting her early followers from among the quadroons slated for concubinage, Henriette made a bold frontal attack on the sexual prerogatives and privileges of white male society, transforming their sassy sirens into sacred sisters. Against palpable historical odds, Henriette founded and nurtured her religious foundation.” This led Schenk to conclude: “While the people of New Orleans await new miracles to advance her cause to sainthood, the most important one may already have been given.”

What can we learn from the lives of these women?

1. In every era of Christian history, women’s leadership and ministry arose because of the pastoral needs of the people of God for teaching, evangelization and healing.

2. There were prominent married women who evangelized, taught and helped establish the earliest Christian communities and they probably presided at eucharistic table sharing as well.

3. Throughout history, women leaders found highly creative ways to minister despite traditional constraints on women’s activity. They were often successful because some men in church ministry supported their work and found ways to sidestep gender and racial bias.

4. Women leaders in the church identified with the poor and the marginalized leading them to resist societal and patriarchal expectations and norms that were not life-giving.

5. Women’s leadership was often rooted in the prior example of strong female forebears and family members who valued God, spirituality and the Gospel.

6. Women exercising Church leadership threatened the clerical and societal status quo. This led to political opposition and persecution within decision-making structures in Church and society.

7. Awareness of their absolute dependence upon God helped women leaders in the church to survive, thrive and eventually overcome persecution and marginalization.


Organizing a Parish Women Witnesses Celebration

lisa frey
Lisa Frey tells about her parish Celebrating Women Witnesses program.

Cleveland pastoral minister Lisa Frey outlined her experience of organizing a parish day of reflection for over 150 people using women’s stories found in the two Celebrating Women Witnesses prayer and resource packets developed by FutureChurch and partnered with Call to Action.

“Oddly enough, the inspiration for our day came from one of our Mom’s groups who asked us if we would put on a May crowning,” said pastoral minister Lisa Frey. “We thought it might be an interesting way to do some catechesis...look at who our role models are ...who are the women who inspire us?”

The Cleveland program included a keynote, presentations and workshops from local academicians and women leaders. A highlight was Joan Southgate, a 70 year old grandmother, who walked the underground railroad from southern Ohio to her grandmothers birthplace in St. Catherine, Ontario. “We wanted to find out what this had to say to us about taking our own steps to making a difference,” said Frey. Another unexpected gift was the original artwork of Debra Wuliger whose seven silk banners depicting Sophia on the seven days of creation adorned the gathering space. Wuliger’s artistry was later featured in the diocesan newspaper.

“Not only was it a powerful day for the people who came and who were inspired with hope for our future in the church, but among the many gifts of the day, the best was being able to do it in the first place,” concluded Frey.


Order Celebrating Women Witness resources here.

Winter 2004



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