Women in Church History: St. Hedwig of Silesia and Others

 “Catholic saints are holy people and human people who lived extraordinary lives. Each saint the church honors responded to God’s invitation to use his or her unique gifts. God calls each one of us to be a saint.”

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” -1 Peter 2:9, NIV

A few weeks ago, Deb introduced us to the topic of women in church history. She wrote about Mother Teresa, Lottie Moon, and Mary Slessor, women who pioneered missions by stepping into the unknown and uncomfortable, compelled by the love of God. She also introduced us to Hildegard of Bingen, a nun who was a prolific author. Today I want to introduce you to some women in church history who were part of the laity–members of the church who are not ordained or committed to exclusive full time ministry. These are women who held positions of influence outside the church who made great contributions to the church.


St, Olga, burner of cities

St. Olga of Kiev “Equal to the Apostles”

Olga was the wife of Igor of Kiev in the early tenth century, ruling as regent on behalf of her son following Igor’s death. She refused a marriage proposal from Prince Mal, a member of the tribe that killed her husband. Instead she crippled their military power and killed their strongest and wisest leaders. Then burned their village, using pigeons to spread the flames She was converted to Christianity and baptized by the Emperor Constantine VII in 945 or 957. After her conversion she requested missionaries be sent to her country. She was successful in converting her grandson Vladimir who brought Christianity to Russia. Olga’s legacy is muddy to be certain. She was influential in spreading the church to Russia, but she was also known for her barbaric rule. Did she use a new religion for political gain? Or did her relationship with Christ give her a true change of heart? Perhaps we’ll never know. We do know that the church spread throughout Russia and Europe because of her influence.

A Deviant Art imagining of Matilda. I think it's exactly the expression she would have had.

A Deviant Art imagining of Matilda. I think it’s exactly the expression she would have had.

Matilda of Tuscany “The Great Countess”

Matilda was a powerful political and military leader in the eleventh century. She was a key player in the conflict between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope as they both struggled for power over the Church. Matilda, deeply religious, supported the Pope and was later sainted by the Catholic Church for her efforts. Though her position as ruler does call into question her sincerity of faith, she did make other contributions to the church, namely donations of land and money for developing religious communities and building a school of law. Whether for noble or selfish reasons, Matilda’s influence on the direction of the church was significant and is felt even today as the Catholic Church still recognizes a papal leadership.

St. Hedwig was known for her care for the poor and sick

St. Hedwig was known for her care for the poor and sick

St. Hedwig of Silesia

Hedwig was married to Harry I, Duke of Silesia and Poland, with whom she had seven children. Together they ruled Silesia in the 13th century and used their wealth to fund monasteries in the area, contributing to the spread of German culture through the monks. They founded the convent of the Cistercian Nuns at Trebnitz with their own money, built on land they donated. They also built hospitals where Hedwig would personally visit to care for the sick. She is known for her piety, caring for the poor, visiting hermits and prisoners, washing the feet of lepers on Holy Thursday, and giving her money to such causes up until her death, leaving nothing as an inheritance. Following the death of her husband, Hedwig took up residence in the Cistercian Convent they had built and lived under the direction of her daughter, Gertrude, abbess of the monastery. She was known to walk barefoot, even in winter. Hedwig is an example of the great good that can be done with political leadership and wealth. She was not a nun, but she built and expanded the convents and monasteries where many nuns and monks would dedicate their lives to the cause of Christ and the betterment of humanity.

Many women throughout church history have made a lasting impact on the direction of the church and the spread of the Gospel. Some through complete devotion to God as nuns, missionaries, or ordained ministers, and some through political leadership and financial contributions. God desires to use all of his children, regardless of gender, occupation, gifting, economic level, or anything else. He chooses to build his kingdom on earth with us humans. The question is: are you willing to be used by God where you are?









Women Who Changed the Course of Church History: Hildegard of Bingen

When we think of monks, we usually think of a man in St. Francis of Assisi’s attire, chanting, gardening, studying the Word of God, explaining theology, and held up as someone who is wise.  In more modern pop culture, we may think of Friar Tuck from “Robin Hood” who was a noble man.  In general, we think of educated and astute men, and if we are going to mock them, we will draw attention to their vow of silence.  When we think of nuns, we get a much different picture.


We generally think of nuns as ones who wear habits, and slap children’s hands with rulers in school when they misbehave.  In pop culture, their vow to celibacy is the punchline to several jokes (but monks are never made a joke for the same vow), or they are portrayed as comics as with the “Flying Nun”, a sitcom that starred Sally Fields, or the comedy movie, “Sister Act” starring Whoopi Goldberg.  If anything positive is portrayed of a nun, they are either nurses in a hospital, Mother Theresa, or Maria from the “Sound of Music”.


In fact, I challenge you to do a Google image search for nuns, and then do a Google image search for monks.  You may be surprised the different attitude and reputation that are portrayed in each of them.

However, as we look back in history, women in monastic history played a large part in Church History, but they still somehow get lost behind Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome (with all due respect to these monks).

When a woman became a part of the monastic practices, she was held in high regard.  Her vow to celibacy was to be praised, because it was a reflection of the influence of the Virgin Mary.  Women who were in the monastic practice held several advantages over women who chose to be married with/without children.  These women were able to write, teach, preach, and contribute to theology.


Hildegard of Bingen (who lived 1098-1179) has become one of my favorite nuns to learn about in history.  She did work that we wouldn’t typically imagine for a nun or a woman in her day.  For example, she was the founder of the first abbess of Benedictine.  She was known for her mystical visions, her various writings, music, and her letters to various people.  Hildegard preached sermons and was requested on several occasions to write them down.  James E. Kiefer says that Heldegard was like the “Dear Abby” of her day, answering letters from people of all economical classes, and her presence would be requested for advice on various topics.  Did you catch that?  She led both women AND men!

Throughout her life, Hildegard wrote 70-plus songs, and 70 poems.  She also wrote 9 books: 2 which were filled with medical and pharmaceutical advice, also, she wrote a commentary on the Gospels, a commentary on the Athanasian Creed, as well as three books about theology and visions.  Kiefer states, “Although she would have rejected much of the rhetoric of women’s liberation, she never hesitated to say what she thought needed to be said, or to do what she thought needed to be done, simply because she was a woman.  When the pope or emperor needed a rebuke, she rebuked them.” (Biographical Sketches)

I think it’s time for us to redefine our cultural prejudices against nuns we have in America.  Women have done some great things in Church History and it’s certainly something for us to start talking about in a positive sense!


Women Who Changed the Course of Church History: Mother Teresa, Lottie Moon, and Mary Slessor

Throughout this month, Ruth and I will be writing about various women who have made a GREAT difference in Church History!  The following is part of a paper I wrote for my Church History class. 

If I were to ask someone to list some influential men in Church History, I’m sure I would hear some popular names, such as: Billy Graham, C.S. Lewis, Martin Luther, Saint Augustine, or Saint Lawrence. However, if I were to ask someone to list some influential women in Church History, I’m sure I would hear Mother Teresa if I was lucky.  I’m not sure many of us could think of women who made great contributions to the Church.  The truth is that there were several women who made a difference in missionary journeys, writing, and theology, but unfortunately they are a well-kept secret, and frankly, I’m tired of them being a secret.

First, let’s start off with the one woman everyone knows: Mother Teresa.

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Macedonia.  Mother Teresa received her calling to serve at the young age of 12.  Six years later, she joined an Irish group of nuns.  One year later she was sent to Calcutta to be a teacher at an all-girls school, where on the weekends, she had her students serve the poor.  In 1948, she stopped teaching and left the convent and started to work solely with the poor and dying in Calcutta.  In 1950, Mother Teresa started the Missionaries of Charity, and she worked there until her death from a heart attack on September 5, 1997.

However, Mother Teresa wasn’t the first of women to serve as a missionary to those less fortunate. Several years before Mother Teresa, there was Lottie Moon.

Lottie Moon

At a young age, Moon was declared defiant, and she used that defiant attitude to make great strides for women in the Church and in Ministry. Moon went to China in 1873 teaching at an all-girls’ school.  She felt this job wasn’t what she wanted to do with her life, so she asked to be reassigned to planting churches.  When they refused to support her, Moon decided to go on her own to Ping-tu without the church’s support.  Moon did a variety of work throughout her life: evangelism, training of missionaries, wrote to Baptist Americans asking for support, organized relief work after disease and famine, and started a Christmas fund that still continues today.  Unfortunately, Moon fell into depression, stopped eating, and died, Christmas Eve in 1912.  Today, in 2015, we wouldn’t think much of the work Moon did as a woman, but in her time, it wasn’t work thought of as highly for a woman to do.  Her ministry was flat out radical!

Mary Slessor was also a woman who made great strides for the Church.

Mary Slessor

Slessor had grown up poor and she was often left to provide for her family.  God took that devastating childhood and used it for His good.  Slessor bravely went where her counterpart men wouldn’t even go in fear for their own safety!  Slessor lived in a mud hut and did several different tasks while in Africa: supervised education, adopted several abandoned children, and evangelized to villages.  She lived over two decades in rat and bug infested huts, endured boils and other bad conditions, adopted seven abandoned children, and escaped death that was practiced in a way that whenever a man felt like killing a woman, he simply could.  Slessor died in 1915.

A situation that has arisen in the Church has been to overlook the important roles women play/have played in the church due to gender roles, whether this is in regards to women as missionaries, women in pastoral office, or women’s public Christian activities. Several churches are seeing a need to liberate women and empower them to do great things, because of what assets women have been to the Church in the past.  Throughout the centuries women have done great things for missionary work and working cross-culturally, as well as during the Middle Ages, the women were important to the building, learning, and teaching theology.  Also, as we look throughout history, it is far more likely for women to be involved in ordinary participation of Church and its activities.  Women are absolutely vital in the Church and have helped kept it going throughout the centuries!

I’m sure there will always be those like Mark Driscoll, John and Stasi Eldredge, and John Piper who will want to see traditional gender roles continue in the Church, but one thing that is becoming apparently clear: although men have been highly regarded with Church History, they have also contributed to a lot of violence, fighting, and hatred as well.  Just because a person is a male doesn’t mean he’s the best person for the job.

Something that is vital for us to acknowledge is that it is important to give credit where credit is due, and to understand that not only have men played a valid and important place in history and in the church today, women have had an equally valid and important place in history in the Church as well. Both are absolutely vital!  We would not be where we are today if it hadn’t been for BOTH the men AND women of the past working throughout Church History.  ALL people are needed equally for God’s glory!