Olympias (also known as Olympias the Younger and Olympias the Deaconess) dedicated so much of her time and money towards good works and charity that John Chrysostom told her that she had done ‘almost too much’.
As with Marcella, Paula and Fabiola before her, Olympias began life as a wealthy noblewoman of lofty lineage. She grew up in Constantinople, at the time the capital of the Roman Empire, and was ethnically Greek.
Like every good Roman woman she was married to a man of equal status once she reached adulthood. Her husband Nebridius was Prefect of Constantinople, making her social position even more public. When Nebridius died and left Olympias widowed, she chose not to remarry, but instead focussed her efforts on supporting the church as a deaconess.
Olympias was not the first woman to be ordained as a deacon in the church. The Didascalia (a Christian treatise from the third century) encourages bishops to appoint women to these positions in the church hierarchy because women were often capable of ministering to other women while male deacons might not be appropriate:
“Appoint a woman for the ministry of women. For there are homes to which you cannot send a male deacon to their women, on account of the heathen, but you may send a deaconess … Also in many other matters the office of a woman deacon is required.”
Olympias herself personally financed and oversaw the construction of a hospital and an orphanage and dedicated much of her time to caring for monks exiled from Nitria (Egypt).
She attracted the attention of the Archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, with her good works and the two became lifelong friends. The friendship got her into trouble when Chrysostom was banished after his feud with the Roman Empress, Aelia Eudoxia. Olympias herself was exiled in 404 to Nicomedia (Turkey), where she remained for the last four years of her life.
Olympias is honoured as a Saint in the Roman Catholic (feast day 17th December) and Eastern Orthodox Church (feast day 25th July).
In the arts:
Olympias is one of the 140 Colonnade saints which adorn Saint Peter’s Square.
Catholic online – St. Olympias
This Female Man of God: Women and Spiritual Power in the Patristic Age – Gillian Cloke