The role and status of women in both society at large and in the various Christian churches has changed much in the last several decades as a result of the radical feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s.1 In the light of these changes and the challenge they present to traditional ways of life and modes of thinking, much new scholarship has been produced reexamining the place of women in the history of Western culture and in the foundational document of Western culture, the New Testament.2 It seems that the most popular, or at least most influential, assessment has been to find oppression and repression of women in every nook and cranny of Western history and civilization.3 However, such views are inherently and fatally flawed for a number of rather obvious reasons; primary amongst these reasons is the rear-view perspective from which they are written, which leads to the strange position of judging the past according to standards which are quite different from those of the past but which themselves find their philosophical roots in that past. A more balanced approach is to allow the past to speak for itself and to evaluate the past based upon its own ideals and those that preceded it. With this approach in mind, this paper will discuss the role and status of women in the early medieval Church, roughly the period from the reign of Constantine I (r. 306-337 CE) to that of Justinian I (r. 527-565 CE), arguably the infancy years of what has become modern Western civilization. This paper will discuss the views of the Church Fathers on women, the ideals of Christian womanhood, and the roles that women filled in the Church during this period.
Before the role and status of women in the infancy of the Christian Roman Empire can be examined and evaluated, it is important to note, as was said above, what the role and status of women consisted of in the previous era of the pagan and pre-Christian Roman Empire. According to historian of ancient Rome Marcel Le Glay,
Freeborn women … scratch[ed] out a living as laundresses, weavers, butchers, and fishsellers, or in one of the occupations that are recorded on inscriptions at Pompeii: bean-dealer, nail-seller, brick-maker, even stonecutter. A number of poor women worked as waitresses in taverns, where they were probably expected, or obliged, to engage in prostitution on the side. In fact, for a lot of unskilled working-class women, prostitution was the only way to make a living, however inadequate. Many worked out-of-doors in the public archways (fornices). Slave women were employed mostly in the homes of the wealthy, cooking, cleaning, weaving — in short, doing whatever they were told to do, which sometimes meant submitting to the sexual demands of their owners. … It is reasonably clear also that daughters were abandoned more often than sons, perhaps because they might some day need a dowry, and could therefore be seen to be a potential drain on the family’s financial resources.4
In spite of this bleak picture, describing the role and status of women in the first centuries of the Roman Empire, roughly from the first century BCE through the second century CE, the lot of women in nearly all sectors of society, but especially amongst the upper classes, had improved significantly by the time that Constantine I, the first Christian Roman emperor, began his reign in 306 CE.5 Beginning in the middle of the second century CE, Roman women gained a number of privileges they had not previously possessed, including the rights to own property separate of their husbands and to initiate divorces.6 During this same period, the interest and interaction of women in philosophical inquiry, which had previously been the privilege almost solely of men, also increased significantly, as did the appreciation of the role of women in religious activities both at home and in the temples.7
In order to be understood and evaluated in context, however, it must be realized that these gains for women were not, as it may appear at first glance, the product of any organic growth from pagan thought or of a natural shift in attitudes amongst Roman pagans. On the contrary, these advances were made largely as a result of exposure to, and often as a reaction against, Christian ideas concerning women and the attraction that these ideas held for women.8
In the words of Thomas Cahill,
Christianity’s claim that all were equal before God and all equally precious to him ran through class-conscious, minority-despising, weakness-ridiculing Greco-Roman society like a charged current. It is no wonder, really, that the primitive church seemed an almost fairyland harbor to women, who had always been kept in the shadows, and to slaves, who had never before been awarded a soupçon of social dignity or political importance.9
Though the estimated proportions of female to male converts posited by various scholars differ, what is agreed upon universally is that in its first several centuries “Christianity seems to have been especially successful among women” specifically because, in sharp contrast with the pagan Greco-Roman civilization and all other religions and cultures of the ancient world, “Christians believed in the equality of men and women before God.”10 “It was often through the wives that it penetrated the upper classes of society in the first instance,”11 and it was through this penetration into the upper, governing classes of the Roman Empire that Christianity was eventually, in 313 CE,12 legalized and, in 381 CE,13 made essentially the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Fathers of the Christian Church of the first centuries after this legalization and official adoption of Christianity continued to emphasize the early Christian tradition, unique, radical, and unprecedented in world history, that all human beings, male or female, are inherently equal.
While various quotes and misquotes of the Church Fathers are often touted about for the apologetic purposes of those who would like to indict Western civilization for its supposed inherent sexism, most of these quotes are, if authentic at all, wrenched out of context.14 In addition, the choice of these quotes reflects a lopsided selectivity which leads to a biased and unbalanced view, unrepresentative of the rather balanced views of the majority of Church Fathers.15 While it is beyond the scope of this paper to examine each individual quote and to present the relevant counter-quotes to establish a more balanced view of the Fathers, a single example, from the writings of Gregory Nazianzen, a very important fourth century Christian bishop, is sufficient to demonstrate the views of the early medieval Church Fathers in general on women.
Gregory Nazianzen, who was Archbishop of Constantinople, the capitol of the Eastern Roman Empire and one of the most important ecclesiastical sees in medieval Christendom, during the years 380-383 CE and who presided at the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 381 CE,16 wrote on the equality of the sexes and the injustice of the unequal pagan law still in force in the Roman Empire, condemning the latter by reference to aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition,
What was the reason why they restrained the woman, but indulged the man, and that a woman who practices evil against her husband’s bed is an adulteress, and the penalties of the law for this are very severe; but if the husband commits fornication against his wife, he has no account to give? I do not accept this legislation; I do not approve this custom. Those who made the law were men, and therefore their legislation is hard on women, since they have placed children also under the authority of their fathers, while leaving the weaker sex uncared for. God does not do so, but says Honor your father and your mother, which is the first commandment with promise. … See the equality of [God’s] legislation. There is one Maker of man and woman; one debt is owed by children to both parents.
… How, though you are equally a body, do you legislate unequally? If you inquire into the worse — The Woman Sinned, and so did Adam. The serpent deceived them both; and one was not found to be the stronger and the other weaker. But do you consider the better? Christ saves both by His Passion. Was He made flesh for the Man? So He was also for the Woman. Did He die for the Man? The Woman also is saved by His death. He is called of the seed of David; and so perhaps you think the man is honored; but He is born of a Virgin, and this is on the woman’s side. The two, He says, shall be one flesh; so let the one flesh have equal honor.17
Given that this quote from a single Church Father provides an accurate summary of the views of the early medieval Patristic consensus and that it indeed represents a significant departure from Greco-Roman pagan attitudes towards women, it is safe to say that a statement like that of Norman F. Cantor that “the teaching of the fourth century church fathers on sex and marriage was the first and very modest stage in the emancipation of women in western civilization”18 is itself too modest a statement.
Gregory Nazianzen’s reference to the birth of Jesus Christ from “a Virgin” in the quote above is very significant in examining the status and role of women in the early medieval Christian Church. Elizabeth Sarah Cowie succinctly summarizes the ideals of womanhood, and the model of those ideals, held by Christians in this period:
The Mother of God is the model of married women and mothers in her life with Joseph and her bearing Christ. She is the model for monastics and celibates (as well as their abbess), in that she is ever virgin and attained to perfect spiritual union with God. … The Mother of God is the ideal of Christian womanhood for all women. She embodies every virtue.19
Even the terminology that Cowie uses here to refer to the Virgin Mary, “Mother of God,” is significant and indicative of the attitude of early medieval Christians toward women. The title “Mother of God,” in Greek Θεοτόκος (“Theotokos”),20 for the Virgin Mary, although long in use amongst Christians, was officially recognized and endorsed by the Church at the Third Ecumenical Council held at Ephesus in 431 CE.21 “When the decision was announced, whoops and cheers filled the night, and torchlight parades began, led by women chanting hymns to the Theotokos.”22 The effect of this decision, essentially an official endorsement by the Church of the popular veneration of Mary that had been an unofficial aspect of Christian doctrine and piety since the religion’s earliest days, should not be underestimated.23 By the early medieval era, Mary was nearly universally regarded by Christians as the entirely sinless Mother of God. This view of Mary, coupled with the early Christian and medieval doctrine of recapitulation, largely forgotten by Western Christians in the later Middle Ages in favor of Augustinian soteriological views,24 had great ramifications for the Church’s view of women. Even as early as 180 CE, Irenaeus of Lyons, a Christian bishop in Gaul, could write that,
The Lord then was manifestly coming to His own things, and was sustaining them by means of that creation which is supported by Himself, and was making a recapitulation of that disobedience which had occurred in connection with a tree, through the obedience which was [exhibited by Himself when He hung] upon a tree, [the effects] also of that deception being done away with, by which that virgin Eve, who was already espoused to a man, was unhappily misled,—was happily announced, through means of the truth [spoken] by the angel to the Virgin Mary, who was [also espoused] to a man. For just as the former was led astray by the word of an angel, so that she fled from God when she had transgressed His word; so did the latter, by an angelic communication, receive the glad tidings that she should sustain (portaret) God, being obedient to His word. And if the former did disobey God, yet the latter was persuaded to be obedient to God, in order that the Virgin Mary might become the patroness (advocata) of the virgin Eve. And thus, as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so is it rescued by a virgin; virginal disobedience having been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience.25
It was in the fourth and fifth centuries especially that these earlier seeds of Marian piety and doctrine, including this recognition of her role in the redemptive activity of Christ through recapitulation, began to be fully explored by the Church Fathers; the selection from the writings of Gregory of Nazianzen quoted earlier is an example of the thinking that this reinvigorated theological exploration produced.
According to the doctrine of recapitulation, Christ “passed through every stage of human growth, hallowing each and redeeming each.”26 Essentially, Christ, in being simultaneously a sinless human being as well as God incarnate, perfected each stage of human life by passing through it perfectly, undoing the sin and corruption introduced by Adam; his perfect death on the cross was the culmination of this process of recapitulation and his resurrection was the fulfillment of the process. Similarly, Church Fathers such as Irenaeus and Gregory posited, the Theotokos, in being simultaneously a sinless human being as well as the Mother of God incarnate, also served the same purposes in roles unique to women, undoing the sin and corruption introduced into womanly nature by Eve. It was this exalted view of the role of the Virgin Mary in the scheme of redemption, which included her perfection of both motherhood and virginity, that informed the roles of women in the early medieval Church, as the Virgin Mary acted as the ideal and the example for women who chose either possible course in life: the family life of motherhood and marriage or the monastic life of prayer and virginity.
Naturally, the most common course for a woman to choose was the former of the two options; the vast majority of women chose to take a husband and have children. The family life being the most frequently chosen lifestyle, the amount of material written by early and medieval Christians on the subject is enormous. It is sufficient to say that the ideal marriage was that inculcated by the apostle Paul in Ephesians 5:22-29 (NKJV):
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church.
Of course, it is no understatement to say that the reality of marriage more often than not fell far short of such a lofty ideal, as is evidenced by the regulations imposed by various Church councils as well as the frequent admonitions of the Church Fathers. It is indicative of the overall view of the Church Fathers on the relationship of men and women that these regulations and admonishments were more often directed to men than to women. For instance, the bishops gathered at the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon in 451 CE forbade the practice of kidnapping a woman and forcing her into marriage, imposing a stiff ecclesiastical penalty on violators:
The holy Synod has decreed that those who forcibly carry off women under pretence of marriage, and the aiders or abettors of such ravishers, shall be degraded if clergymen, and if laymen be anathematized.27
Another example of this attitude toward relationships between men and women, this time more specifically within a legal marriage, is the homily of John Chrysostom, a famous fourth century preacher and Archbishop of Constantinople during the years 398-404 CE,28 on the passage from Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians quoted previously. Addressing the husbands of his congregation, Archbishop John expounded:
Thou hast seen the measure of obedience, hear also the measure of love. Wouldest thou have thy wife obedient unto thee, as the Church is to Christ? Take then thyself the same provident care for her, as Christ takes for the Church. Yea, even if it shall be needful for thee to give thy life for her, yea, and to be cut into pieces ten thousand times, yea, and to endure and undergo any suffering whatever,—refuse it not. … Yea, though thou see her looking down upon thee, and disdaining, and scorning thee, yet by thy great thoughtfulness for her, by affection, by kindness, thou wilt be able to lay her at thy feet. For there is nothing more powerful to sway than these bonds, and especially for husband and wife. A servant, indeed, one will be able, perhaps, to bind down by fear; nay not even him, for he will soon start away and be gone. But the partner of one’s life, the mother of one’s children, the foundation of one’s every joy, one ought never to chain down by fear and menaces, but with love and good temper. For what sort of union is that, where the wife trembles at her husband? And what sort of pleasure will the husband himself enjoy, if he dwells with his wife as with a slave, and not as with a free-woman? Yea, though thou shouldest suffer anything on her account, do not upbraid her; for neither did Christ do this.29
For those women who did not desire the family life, monasticism was allowed by the Church as an alternative.
Although not formalized and standardized by the Church until the fourth and fifth centuries, female monasticism, a state of lifelong consecrated virginity or widowhood coupled with intense devotion and the practice of spiritual and ascetic exercises such as prayer, fasting, and charity, had been a popular, even if minority, option for Christian women since the Church’s earliest days.30 In a pagan world that attached a great deal of value to family ties and in which women were treated as the property of their fathers, husbands, and other dominant male figures in their lives, the celibate life had great appeal for many women who saw in it an escape from this tyrannical patriarchal system.31 “Their vows of celibacy served many converts as a declaration of independence from the crushing pressures of tradition and of their families, who ordinarily arranged marriages at puberty and so determined the course of their children’s lives.”32
In the fourth and fifth centuries, the period immediately following the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire, spiritual seekers, including both men and women, flocked in droves to the deserts of Egypt, establishing hermitages and communal monasteries across the landscape. “The enthusiasm for the monastic life became so great that, as a famous quip put it, the desert had become a city.”33 Many famous and venerated female monastics and ascetics belong to this period, including Melania the Elder, Melania the Younger, Sara of the Nile, Macrina the Younger, Syncletica of Alexandria, and Mary of Egypt.34
The story of Mary of Egypt in particular presents an illuminating example of the reverence with which these holy women were held. According to the sixth century account of Sophronius of Jerusalem, Zosima of Palestine, a hieromonk,35 encountered Mary, who was naked, shriveled, and sunbaked from her years of asceticism in the desert. Mary, recognizing Zosima as a priest, approached him to ask for a blessing, in accordance with Eastern Christian tradition. Zosima, however, recognized Mary’s holiness and instead begged for her blessing. According to the account of Sophronius,
Zosima threw himself on the ground and asked for her blessing. She likewise bowed down before him. And thus they lay on the ground prostrate asking for each other’s blessing. And one word alone could be heard from both: “Bless me!” After a long while the woman said to Zosima: “Abba Zosima, it is you who must give blessing and pray. You are dignified by the order of priesthood and for may years you have been standing before the holy altar and offering the sacrifice of the Divine Mysteries.” This flung Zosima into even greater terror. At length with tears he said to her: “O mother, filled with the spirit, by your mode of life it is evident that you live with God and have died to the world. The Grace granted to you is apparent — for you have called me by name and recognized that I am a priest, though you have never seen me before. Grace is recognized not by one’s orders, but by gifts of the Spirit, so give me your blessing for God’s sake, for I need your prayers.” Then giving way before the wish of the elder the woman said: “Blessed is God Who cares for the salvation of men and their souls.” Zosima answered: “Amen.”36
That Zosima was willing to break with Christian tradition and urge Mary to bless him, rather than bless her in accordance with custom, is indicative of the general attitude of Christians of all ranks and social classes to holy women found throughout the literature of the early medieval period.
So central was monasticism to the female experience and ideal in the Church that even the one ordained order that was open to women, that of deaconess, was very early on identified with monasticism. The other ordained roles in the Church, those of priest, bishop, and deacon, were viewed as the exclusive vocations of men largely because of an understanding and appreciation of the differences inherent in men and women and because of a view of the local church as a family under the presidency of a father with a unique sacramental role.37 The wives of these sacramental clergy filled the role of mother.38 The role of deaconess, on the other hand, was a sacramentally ordained ministry unique to women. Probably always an order which consisted entirely or nearly entirely of virgins and widows, the order of deaconesses, in the Late Middle Ages, faded from parish life and became identified with women’s monasteries. Eventually, probably in the High Middle Ages, it disappeared entirely, becoming united with the role of abbess, the head of a women’s monastery.39
Interestingly, the role of abbess would also come to include aspects of the prerogatives not only of deaconesses but even of priests and bishops.40 For instance, at some point in the Middle Ages, the tradition developed of asking for an abbess’ blessing and kissing her right hand upon greeting her, as had been the custom involving greeting priests and bishops; in the case of a priest and an abbess greeting each other, each blessed the other and kissed the other’s hand.
There is no doubt that the place of women in society had changed dramatically from the days of the pagan Roman Empire described at the opening of this essay. Inspired by ideas unique to Christianity, including the belief that all human beings are equal in the sight of God and the venerability of the Virgin Mary, the amount of respect for and equality granted to women would continue to increase throughout the Middle Ages. In the sixth century, Empress Theodora, wife of Emperor Justinian I, would enact a large body of legislation, the first of its kind anywhere in the world, for the protection of women.41 Still later, in the years 797-802 CE, Irene of Athens would be the first woman to reign as empress regnant in the Roman (Byzantine) Empire.42 She also convoked and presided over the Seventh Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church at Nicaea in 787. This growth in the status of women in society would eventually lead to the first wave of feminism in the nineteenth century. The role and status of women in the early and medieval Christian Church, as propounded in the writings of the Church Fathers and explicated in the doctrine and piety of the Church, forever changed the way that women viewed themselves and were viewed by men, inevitably leading to a view of womanhood, and an appreciation of its distinctive aspects, far different than that of the culture which the Church had emerged from and conquered. To say, as in the words of Norman F. Cantor which were quoted previously, that “the teaching of the fourth century church fathers on sex and marriage was the first and very modest stage in the emancipation of women in western civilization” is so vast an understatement as to be a lie. On the contrary, it was the teaching of the fourth century Church Fathers, radical and innovative in its time as well as inspirational and influential in all times since, that overturned and replaced the previous order.
2 Actually a collection of 27 distinct documents first compiled as is by Athanasius of Alexandria in his Paschal letter of 367 CE. See Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
8 ibid., 206-7.
9 Thomas Cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages: And the Beginning of the Modern World (Hinges of History) (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 44.
12 Jon E. Lewis, A Documentary History of Human Rights: A Record of the Events, Documents and Speeches that Shaped Our World (New York: Avalon, 2003), 115-6.
13 Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 120.
15 Sarah Elizabeth Cowie, More Spirited Than Lions: An Orthodox Response to Feminism and a Practical Guide to the Spiritual Life of Women (Salisbury: Regina Orthodox Press, 2001).
16 John Anthony McGuckin, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography (Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001).
19 Cowie, 251.
20 “Mother of God” is an imprecise but appropriate translation of the word Theotokos. A literal translation renders the word as “God-bearer.” See Jenny Schroedel and Reverend John Schroedel, The Everything Mary Book: The Life And Legacy of the Blessed Mother (Avon: F+W Publications, Inc., 2006), 58.
21 John Anthony McGuckin, Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy: Its History, Theology, and Texts (Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004).
22 Ted Byfield, ed., The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years; Darkness Descends A.D. 350 to 565 The Fall of the Western Roman Empire [Vol. 4] (Canada: Christian History Project), 183.
23 Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 55-66.
26 Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), 144.
27 “The XXX Canons of the Holy and Fourth Synods, of Chalcedon,” Canon XXVII, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, vol. 14 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978), 287.
28 David C. Ford, Women and Men in the Early Church: The Full Views of St. John Chrysostom (South Canaan: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1996), 5-10.
30 Chadwick, 175-7.
31 Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity (New York: Random House, 1988), 87-9.
32 ibid, 20.
33 David Bentley Hart, Story of Christianity: An Illustrated History of 2000 Years of the Christian Faith (London: Quercus, 2007), 56.
35 A “hieromonk” is a monk who is also an ordained priest. See The Orthodox Church of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, “Glossary of Terms” (2010) http://www.holynewmartyrs.com/glossary_of_terms.html (Retrieved 10 November 2010).
38 Frederica Matthewes-Green, “Twice Liberated,” in Cowie, 299-300.
39 Valerie A. Karras, “Female Deacons in the Byzantine Church,” Church History 73, no. 2 (June 2004): 272-316.
40 Protopresbyter Alexander Lebedeff, “How to Greet a Monk or Nun” (February 1999) at “Orthodox Christian Information Center,” http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/monk_greet.aspx (Retrieved 10 November 2010).
41 Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204 (London: Routledge, 1999), 11-39.
42 ibid, 73-94.
Byfield,Ted, ed. The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years; Darkness Descends A.D. 350 to 565 The Fall of the Western Roman Empire [Vol. 4]. Canada: Christian History Project.
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Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. New York: Dorset Press, 1967.
Cowie, Sarah Elizabeth. More Spirited Than Lions: An Orthodox Response to Feminism and a Practical Guide to the Spiritual Life of Women. Salisbury: Regina Orthodox Press, 2001.
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Hart, David Bentley. Story of Christianity: An Illustrated History of 2000 Years of the Christian Faith. London: Quercus, 2007.
Karras, Valerie A. “Female Deacons in the Byzantine Church.” Church History 73, no. 2 (June 2004): 272-316.
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McGuckin, John Anthony.Saint Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography. Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001.
Metzger, Bruce M. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Momigliano, Arnaldo. On Pagans, Jews, and Christians. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1987.
The Orthodox Church of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia. “Glossary of Terms” (2010) http://www.holynewmartyrs.com/glossary_of_terms.html (Retrieved 10 November 2010).
Pagels, Elaine. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity. New York: Random House, 1988.
Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.
Pelikan, Jaroslav. Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
Schroedel, Jenny and Reverend John Schroedel. The Everything Mary Book: The Life And Legacy of the Blessed Mother. Avon: F+W Publications, Inc., 2006.
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