Wealth can be either a curse or a blessing. For Marcella it proved to be both.
She was born into a wealthy upper class Roman home around 325. As a girl she met Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria who almost spent more time on the run from enemies than he spent in his see. Athanasius gave her a copy of his Life of Antony, the hermit-monk who did so much to make monasticism a major force in Christianity. Antony's ascetic practices greatly impressed Marcella.
Ascetic practices were a natural over-reaction in a world where waste and dissipation ran to wild extremes. To please her mother, Marcella married. Seven months later her husband died, leaving her independently wealthy. Rather than dress so as to attract another husband, the young widow dressed so as to conceal her dazzling beauty.
All the same, her hand was sought in marriage. One of her suitors was a Consul (a high Roman magistrate) and an Uncle to a Caesar. Elderly, he promised to make over his substantial fortune to her. Although Marcella was under pressure from her mother to accept the marriage, she refused his hand, saying wittily, "had I a wish to marry and not rather to dedicate myself to perpetual chastity, I should look for a husband and not for an inheritance."
Marcella's wealth proved a boon. With it she was able to feed the poor, contenting herself with very little. She was one of several Roman women who practiced austere lives as a protest against the lawless self-indulgence of their time.
Most of what we know about this rare woman comes from letters of Jerome. Marcella met and studied with the great scholar (who made the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible). The two corresponded for the rest of their lives, exchanging thoughts on many issues, such as the Montanist heresy or the sin against the Holy Ghost. Marcella probed Jerome with pertinent questions.
When the Goths captured Rome in 410, Marcella's former possessions proved a curse. She was tortured to reveal where her supposed wealth was hidden. She showed them her coarse dress, insisting truthfully that she had given everything away. Forgetting about her own sufferings, she pleaded that the soldiers not rape Principia, her pupil. The soldiers finally took her to a church, where she died praising God.
In a letter to Principia, Jerome compared Marcella's case to Anna who lived in the temple. Jerome pointed out that Anna "lived with her husband seven years; Marcella seven months. Anna only hoped for Christ; Marcella held Him fast. Anna confessed him at His birth; Marcella believed in Him crucified..."
Churches that honor feast days remember Marcella on this day, January 31.
- "St. Paula." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- Letters of St. Jerome.
- Various encyclopedia and internet articles.