Saint Olympiada or Olympias, whose memory we celebrate on July 25, was a deaconess in the early church. The office of deaconess is described in the New Testament and Phoebe was called a deaconess in Romans 16: 1. This office is codified in the "Didascalia" written in the first half of the 3rd century and in the "Apostolic Constitutions" written in the later part of the 4th century. It is also mentioned at the 4th Ecumenical Council which met in Chalcedon in 451.
At first, only widows who had been married only once were admitted to the office. Later, virgins were also admitted. The age of admission varied through the years from 40-60 years of age. Once admitted they were not allowed to marry.
Deaconesses were ordained in the altar by a bishop by the imposition of hands. They were robed in a stichar and an orarion (deacon's stole). They were addressed as "reverend", "Most honorable" or "most pious". The episcopal prayers of ordination of a deaconess have not been revoked by the Orthodox Church and they can still be found in the books.
The deaconess had specific duties. Among them was to instruct privately female candidates for baptism, to assist at their baptism which was by total immersion, they did the anointing with oil at the baptism as it was not considered proper for the male clergy to touch a woman, they visited and cared for the sick, they were present at interviews of women with the bishops or priests, they dismissed women catechumens from the church and kept general order in the women's section of the church (men and women were segregated as they were up to about 25 years ago in our churches in America), and they did other duties delegated by the bishop like helping the poor. They were in a sense the educators of women in the faith and social workers. Deaconesses were ordained in the Eastern Church as late as the 12th century. The office was disused in the Western Church somewhat earlier.
Saint Olympiada born in 366 in Constantinople to the Senator Secunda was to become a deaconess.
At eighteen she married a prefect of the city. One of the gifts she received was a letter of advice written in verse to her by St. Gregory Nazianzius. Unfortunately she was widowed in less than two years. As she was an attractive, young, extremely wealthy widow, Emperor Theodosius tried to get her to marry his cousin, Elpida. Olympidia wrote the Emperor a letter in which she said: "If God willed me to live in a married state, He would not have taken my husband whom I dearly loved."
Theodosius was angered by her reply and took action against her. He named administrators to take charge of her immense wealth until she was thirty years old.
However, when she was 25, she was able to persuade the emperor to return control of her assets to her. She had begun to give her whole life to works of Christianity from the time of her widowhood. With the return of her money she increased her charitable giving. She gave to churches and monasteries, to homes for the homeless, to alleviate suffering in prisons, and to homes for exiles. Soon, she was besieged by requests and many took advantage of her kindnesses even some of those whom she had already helped. Saint John Chrysostom, who was impressed by her charity felt need to write to her highly instructive letters warning her to be more discriminating in her benefactions. These letters survive.
As for herself, she lived an austere lifestyle with other deaconesses. She renounced earthly pleasures and gave most of her time over to prayer and charitable works.
She had been ordained a deaconess earlier by the bishop of Constantinople. Among her other duties, he consulted her on matters concerning the church.
She served Saint John Chrysostom as she would a father and ultimately she was one of the few faithful who remained loyal to him when he endured his banishments from Constantinople. She had to endure severe persecutions starting with rumors and finally exile for supporting his cause and refusing to recognize the intruded successor to Saint John Chrysostom at the Cathedral. She was charged with conspiring to burn the cathedral, she was heavily fined and from that time matters became almost intolerable. the enemies of Saint John became her enemies. She didn't have anyone to turn to for advice, solace, or protection. Her properties and wealth were ultimately seized, she was robbed and everything she had left was confiscated.
Her last days were spent in a monastery which she had founded, but even here she did not escape harassment. She died in 408 at 42 years of age.
-Taken from the Orthodox Herald, Hunlock Creek, PA, July 1988, Vol. 37 No. 3 Issue 434 - Reprinted with permission