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Women's ministries in the Basque Country

Freilas in Basque territories

The territories of the old Basque nation lay across the Pyrenees, straddling parts of southern France and northern Spain. The area has always been rather inaccessible which explains why some ancient customs had a chance to survive when they died in other countries.

For almost a thousand years, from the 5th to the 16th century, women served their Catholic communities in a ministry that is highly reminiscent of the ancient diaconate.

We may safely assume that the original missionaries, responding to pastoral needs and the central position of women, adapted the diaconate of women to a cultural form that worked well in Basque communities.

Vasconia - Basque country

Source: Teresa del Valle, Women in Basque Culture: Practice and Ideology, 1986;
Margaret Bullen, Basque Gender Studies , University of Nevada Reno 2004

The Basque Goddess Mari by an unknown artist

The Basque people is a very ancient nation, as both their language and genetic features prove. The pre-date the Indo-Germanic populations that entered Europe later.

Because of their location in the Pyrennees, the Basques also retained some independence, first to some extent from the Romans, then - more importantly - from the Visigoths and Franks. The Duchy of Vasconia (660-678) continued to exist in various forms till well in the Middle Ages.

Ancient Basque religion revolved the Earth Goddess, known as Mari. Mari was the giver of life, but could also be a destroyer. Myths depict her in various forms. Mari worked with the water spirits in nature and with women in society. Though Basque society was patriarchal, women enjoyed domestic power and a measure of religious power. Some women possessed the magical power of Adur. This may explain why women played an important role at funerals.

Typical Basque proverbs:

  • Beware of women with beards or men without beards.
  • The woman who takes a wolf for a husband is always looking into the wood.

The Basque Sorera, Sorora or Freila

When Christianity arrived in the 5th or 6th century, it built on the cultural customs of the people. It cannot be a coincidence that the female minister, the 'sorera', 'sorora' or 'freila', had so many features in common with the woman deacon known elsewhere, and sanctioned by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. We can only conclude that this ministry was originally instituted as a cultural equivalent of the women's diaconate. [The word 'sorora' is not related to Latin 'soror' = 'sister'; the Spanish for 'sister' is 'hermana'].

Source: M. J. Arana, La clausura de las mujeres, Mensajero-Deusto, Bilbao 1992, chapter II;
M. J. Arana - Maria Salas, Mujeres Sacerdotes ¿ Por Qué No . . . ?, Publicaciones Claretianas, Madrid 1994, pp. 53 - 55.

Ministry of the Sorera, Sorora or Freila:

  • instruction of the women;
  • assistance at baptism;
  • care for the children and the sick;
  • maintenance of the church building;
  • laying out the vestments & preparing the sacred vessels;
  • supervision over the altar;
  • arranging the liturgy of burials: she headed the funerary procession.


  • being at least 40 years of age
  • irreproachable & celibate life
  • remain attached to the same residence (parish house or monastery)

Initiation in later centuries involved handing her the keys of the church building, making her ring the church bells & light the sanctuary lamp. May originally have included ordination.

Lithograph of a basque woman by Norman Garstin, 1896

The ministry of Soreras and Freilas was only stopped in the 16th century because 'women may not touch sacred vessels or approach the altar'.

Bishop Manso of Bilbao forcibly evicted them from their homes.

"Among other scandalous things . . . women mingle with priests in the sacristy, approach the altar to light the candles, and maintain the sacred vestments and vessels . . ." Diocesan Synod of Calahorra. See P. Lepe, Constitutiones Sinodales antiguas e modernas, Madrid 1700, vol. III, tit. XII, fol. 497.


Ministries of women in the West

gaul, italy, germany
north africa, gaul, italy
england, wales, ireland
southern italy, sicily
basque area, gaul, spain
england, germany

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

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