Images Depict Role of Women in Early Church

Mar 08, 2003 11:42 AM EST

Dorothy Irwin, a Roman Catholic theologian and archaeologist, has discovered several images of early church women dressed in priestly vestments and has found epitaphs describing them as church leaders.

One mosaic uncovered by Irwin in the Church of St. Praxedis in Rome, shows a woman wearing the same kind of pectoral cross worn by bishops today. The woman is identified with the title "episcopa," the feminine form of the Latin word for bishop.

Among Irvin's other discoveries: a fresco in the Catacomb of Priscilla, also in Rome and dated around 100, that shows seven women apparently celebrating a memorial Eucharist; a 4th-century fresco in the catacomb that shows a male bishop wearing a wool garment associated with ordination and placing his right hand on the shoulder of a woman in liturgical garb; and a mosaic over the tomb of a woman at the Cathedral of Annaba in Algeria describing her as a presbyterissa, or priest.

In her thirty plus years of research, Dorothy has found that women played an essential part in the early church. However as centuries past, women were subjected to being denied their rights as Roman law was instilled. The suppression of woman is depicted in an image where a man pulling a woman's Shepard staff from her arms.

Dorothy is a very loyal Catholic, but she firmly believes that the Church would be better served if it rebalanced its power and authority along the original lines of the early church. As do many, she does not think that a one-gender leadership is balanced.

By Michael Moon