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Fabiola, the 4th century divorcée

July 30, 2014

Probably lots of women were divorced in the 4th century. But Fabiola’s story is particularly interesting. I couldn’t find her written up in any history of previously ignored Christian women. She lived at the time that Jerome was teaching Roman matrons Greek and Hebrew and studied these languages herself but not from Jerome. HOwever, she did meet him later. She was married off as a teenager to an abusive and adulterous husband. She then initiated a divorce from him under Roman law. Jerome was later to say that this man was so abusive that not a prostitute nor a slave would put up with the treatment he gave her. So, all is good for the divorce.

Since under Roman law women had the right to remarry, Fabiola married the man she truly loved, but she was then excommunicated from the church for adultery. She was cut off from the life she aspired to. As a wealthy women she wanted to participate in the studious and reflective life, and in a life of pious activity. However, her second husband died young and Fabiola became a widow, although not considered so by the church. She was naturally thought of as an adulterous woman because the abusive first husband was still alive.

However, after the death of her second husband, she paraded in penitential clothing in front of the Lateran Basilica and was eventually reinstated in communion with the church. Considering her wealth, it probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Then Fabiola carried out the plan that was closest to her heart. She built the first real hospital in the western world, and a nursing home beside it for those whose stay would be permanent. She worked in the hospital, going out herself and sending out staff to bing in the sick, who had no idea what a hospital was.

Now, she thought, now she could seek the meditative life of study and reflection that she desired. So she packed up and went to Jerusalem to stay with Paula and Jerome and study Greek and Hebrew again. She stayed a year only. There are two theories of why she left. One is that is was unsafe as there were rumours of an attack from the east. But the other theory rings true, that she just couldn’t stand the ongoing controversy about whether Origen was a heretic or not.

On her return to Rome she built a hostel for Pilgrim’s and settled down to work in the hospital, taking the most difficult cases, acting as administrator, nurse and surgeon. She is recognized here and there in books on public health but does not get much press as a Christian woman and leader. She was not associated with any great Christian man, nor was she a martyr. She was an independent, strong-willed, intelligent and productive woman.

Disclosure: I have not read the 19th century novel about her.

 

 

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2014 10:46 pm

    Thanks Suzanne – it is great to learn of Fabiola’s story.

  2. July 31, 2014 11:50 am

    She’s in the old Catholic Encyclopedia from the 19-teens; Wikipedia article takes a lot from it. She was actually made a saint in the west, but is not, to my knowledge, on the eastern calendar. At least one other (at one time) wealthy Christian, St Basil, also built a hospice.

    I have one of those gazillion copies of the Henner painting; it was my mother’s and I treasure it. It’s good to now know about the real person it is said to represent.

    Dana

  3. July 31, 2014 11:44 pm

    However, after the death of her second husband, she paraded in penitential clothing in front of the Lateran Basilica and was eventually reinstated in communion with the church. Considering her wealth, it probably seemed like a good idea at the time.

    This is actually in keeping with the penitential practices of the times, and I wouldn’t write it off as motivated by pecuniary gain. Note in particular that her second husband had died, and she was therefore no longer committing the sin of adultery — or as it is more often put today, “living in a state of sin.”

    The contemporary equivalent in the RC church is the expectation that divorced (but not annulled) and remarried Catholics are to be admitted to communion only if they live with their new spouse “as brother and sister”: thus, no longer committing the sin of adultery.

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