Marcella and Paula, now remembered as disciples of St. Jerome, were monastic leaders and Biblical scholars whose social positions allowed them to deepen their spiritual lives. Both were born into wealthy, well-connected families, and as widows, both established religious communities.
The two knew Jerome's praises of the eremitic life before he came to Rome as secretary to St./Pope Damasus I, and they were eager to include him in their circles. Marcella and Paula had been well instructed in Greek, and Jerome taught them Hebrew. In elegiac letters (108 and 127), he comments that each surpassed him quickly. Many, no doubt, will interpret his remarks as mere rhetorical modesty. He describes both as excellent students of language and as admirable teachers of virtue.
Marcella was young when her father died; she was widowed at 17, after seven months' of marriage. Cerealis, a consul, proposed marriage, and Marcella refused him to lead a monastic life. When she was a child, she met St. Athanasios, a visitor to Rome, who gave her a copy of his life of St. Anthony, which she had studied it with great interest. She continued, as a widow, to live in her mansion with her mother, Albina, who consented to her daughter's austerities on the condition that certain items remain in the family. These were given to relatives, and the remainder of Marcella's fortune went, as Jerome notes, into the stomachs of the poor, not into purses (Letter 127).
Marcella changed her dress from those of a woman of position to the plainest of garments. She dressed to conceal, in contrast, says Jerome, with the usual widow's weeds which aimed to attract men and to gain another husband. Marcella spent her days in study, in visits to the churches of the martyrs, in prayer, and in good works. She gathered around her a circle of like-minded women, and Jerome says that she educated Eustochium, the youngest of Paula's children, another female scholar. Marcella's example, asserts Jerome, was responsible for the growth of monasteries in Rome, where the number of such houses began to rival the number in Jerusalem (Letter 127).
Jerome praises Marcella for her virtue and intelligence; he tells her spiritual daughter, Principia, that Marcella did not accept blindly his scriptural exegeses but argued with them. She asked questions to learn more. She took in quickly what he had gained through long study. Because he valued her comments, he continued to submit his work to her judgement before he made them public. He adds that she frequently rebuked him for his hasty temper.
Marcella was an outspoken critic of Origen's First Principles, and she was among the first in Rome to seek its condemnation because of its heretical content. She brought back to Orthodoxy many who thought the book good theology.
When Alaric of the Goths seized and sacked Rome in 410, his troops gathered as much booty as they could. Soldiers from this army invaded Marcella's mansion on the Avertine Hill in the hopes of gaining her treasure. These men whipped and beat her. She begged that they not violate Principia. Relenting, the soldiers took both women to sanctuary in the church of St. Paul, where Marcella later died from her injuries.
Paula, although married to a pagan, Toxotius, was a Christian. She led a study circle at her mansion, which served as a home church. She invited Jerome to participate, and he remarks that she easily memorized Scripture and was interested in the historical meaning of it. The grief following the sudden deaths in short succession of her husband and eldest daughter led Paula to greater devotion to God and to greater friendship with Jerome.
When Epiphanius of Cyprus and Paulinus of Antioch had visited Rome, Paula was their hostess. Inspired by their accounts of desert monasticism, she longed to settle in the Holy Land and live as a monastic. Jerome persuaded her to stay in Rome.
Years later (385), Paula and Eustochium undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Paula renewed on this voyage her acquaintance with Epiphanius, and her social position insured that high-ranking members of church and state received her as she travelled. The proconsul of Palestine offered her a room in his mansion, which she refused. She stayed in a simple cell, which was more in keeping with her simple dress and austere habits.
Jerome praises Paula for her humility and generosity (Letter 108). She gave so freely to anyone in need that she had no earthly inheritance for her children. She insisted that the legacy of Christ is more precious.
Paula and her daughter settled in Bethlehem, where they built a hospice and established a double-monastery over which Paula was abbess until her death in 404. In addition to overseeing the monasteries, Paula assisted Jerome with his translating and cared for him as he aged. Eustochium inherited these tasks.
Consigned now to the shadow of Jerome, Marcella and Paula were noble women whose wealth allowed them education and alms-giving. They were leaders in Christian Rome, much in accordance with their social rank Their love of Christ, however, led them to voluntary poverty and into the ranks of the saints.