“If all the members of my body were to be converted into tongues, and if each of my limbs were to be gifted with a human voice, I could still do no justice to the virtues of the holy and venerable Paula.” – Saint Jerome
One of the early ‘desert mothers’ – women who relocated to the holy land to work for the church – Paula of Rome was a key figure in the formation of Christianity.
She came from one of the most prestigious Roman families and inherited immense wealth. Married in her teens to a nobleman of equal standing, Paula had five children. As a young matron of Rome she enjoyed her privilege; Saint Jerome writes that she wore silk dresses and was carried about the city by eunuch slaves.
Paula’s husband died when she was only thirty-two, plunging her into grief. Her mourning drove her desire to learn more about religion and eventually led her to the brown dress society, led by Marcella. Inspired by this monastic style of living, Paula became devoted to the church, giving away much of her material wealth.
When her family and friends complained that she was giving away her children’s inheritance, she simply dismissed them, claiming that she was exchanging their earthly inheritance for a heavenly one.
It was after she met Saint Jerome in 382 that Paula decided to make a pilgrimage to the holy land. Though she was doing good work in Rome, she was unhappy with the life she had because of her familial ties and social status and felt she would be free from these burdens in the desert.
Paula’s journey was an epic one by the standards of the time. Her children accompanied
her as far as the Roman port of Portus at Ostia, and once she was on board the ship she refused to look back at them on the shore in case seeing them there drew her back.
Only her daughter Eustochium chose to make the journey with her. They stopped at the island of Pontia to visit the exiled martyr Flavia Domitilla, who further strengthened Paula’s resolve to reach Jerusalem.
Later she stopped at Cyprus to visit the bishop Epiphanius. Here she travelled to at every monastery on the island to leave behind a donation of money. Paula continued on her journey through to Seleucia, then Antioch, stopping at a number of holy places in modern day Syria, Lebanon and Israel to see the sights and worship, before eventually arriving in Bethlehem.
After seeing a number of important places from the bible, including the cave in which Jesus was said to have been born, Paula decided that she would stay in Bethlehem. Immediately she set to work building a monastery for monks and a convent for the women who joined her.
For the rest of her life, Paula dedicated herself tirelessly to working for the poor, the sick and pilgrims who passed through Bethlehem. She may have had some basic medical knowledge as she is described as tending to the sick personally.
She also assisted Jerome academically, helping his Bible translation into Latin and later (with her daughter Eustochium) making copies to circulate the gospel.
After Paula’s death, Eustochium continued running the convent she had left behind. Her final resting place is beneath the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the spot thought to be Jesus’ birthplace.
Paula is honoured as a Saint in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox church and her feast day is celebrated on 26th January.
Geoffrey Chaucer played upon the relationship between Jerome and Paula in the Wife of Bath‘s Prologue.