Were Genders Segregated at Mass pre-VII?


Hello. I was recently looking through a list of books on Amazon about the history of the Mass and found one about the pre-VII Tridentine Mass. It seemed to imply that at that time, men and women sat on opposite sides of the Church segregated from one another. Was gender segregation part of Mass then, or at any point in Church history? If so, how was it not a form of prejudice and separating families? I’m not trying to be critical of the pre-VII Mass, I just want to know.

God bless


My family has Amish friends. I have visited their Sunday services when visiting.

The men sit on one side, the women on the other. It is not in any way a prejudice nor is it “separating families”. The little kids roam between both sides of the congregation, in fact they seemed to like being with dad/grandpa more than on the women’s side.

The Early Church would have maintained the cultural norms of women and men in different areas. It would have been immodest not to do so!

In various times and cultures men and women have sat together. This is not a “Catholic” or a “Pre Vatican II” thing.


Prejudice? How so?

In Jewish worship even today, women and men sit separately.

And families can certainly be separated for an hour or two.

This hasn’t been a requirement at Catholic mass that I know of, but if it was it was disciplinary and likely a function of the culture of the times. It’s not a doctrine, and disciplines can come and go.


Not prejudice since both women and men had equal access to the mass. Prejudice would be banning one gender from attending mass.

The intent was likely that the focus of mass is on God and Christ’s sacrifice and that focus is more easily accomplished when the instinctual desires of men and women to focus on each other are minimized.


Others have answered to the other part of your question. To the first part, the Canon Law prior to the current one (the former having now been abrogated by the later), did mention that separation in this way was “desirable”, as fitting with ancient customs. But the language did not make it mandatory, and I do not know anyone who ever sat separately at Mass in this way. (Keep in mind that the Catholic Church is not just an American thing…so some customs that seem strange to us may have been quite normal elsewhere.)
Here is what that 1917 Canon said"

"Canon 1262

§1. It is desirable that, consistent with ancient discipline, women be separated from men in church.
§2. Men, in a church or outside a church, while they are assisting at sacred rites, shall be bare-headed, unless the approved mores of the people or peculiar circumstances of things determine otherwise; women, however, shall have a covered head and be modestly dressed, especially when they approach the table of the Lord."

Neither of those parts of the now-abrogated Canon Law are mentioned in the new Canon of 1983.


I was there. The answer is no. I was with my parents at Mass.


Thanks for the replies everyone, I appreciate it. After seeing many couples at Mass seem overly distracted by their spouses, I can see the wisdom of this practice, as well as the reason for its current form.

God bless


Certainly not in my lifetime which goes back 72 years ,


As others have said who were there…

I regularly attended Mass, both low Mass and high Mass from the later 40s. Never experienced segregated genders at any of the 4 parishes I attended in 40s and 50s.


If you read the Old Testament this was also a custom in the Pre-Christian Israel era.
Women and men were not mingled together.
Many cultures also have this not necessarily Christianity only.


My child parish in the early 1950s, Irish American, had a preponderance of men on one side - By statue of Jesus - and mostly women, in front of Mary. But it wasn’t total.

I wonder if this was a lingering vestige of a more consistent practice.


This very issue is why St. John Chrysotum separated the Hagia Sophia: he, in all seriousness, had a problem with inappropriate carnal behavior during liturgy–including by clergy :scream::exploding_head::astonished:

It wasn’t the only problem of this variety he faced–the admonition “Wisdom! Be attentive!” (as we translate it today) is, according lo liturgists, closer in tone to “Shut up and listen!” :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye::roll_eyes:


I too personally remember the pre-Vatican II mass. Such segregation didn’t occur. I also have studied the history of the mass and haven’t heard this ever occurred.
I see you indicated that this wasn’t explicitly said. Perhaps you missread what was said.


Three points:

  1. In Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America, a book about the assassination of Father James Coyle in Birmingham, the author notes that early on when he came to that parish he forced families with reserved pews to pay up their back dues for the privilege or lose it. This implies that around 1905 the families were sitting together.

  2. A few years ago I read about an area where the congregants were segregated by sex. Can’t recall where, but it was isolated, I think an island. Possibly somewhere like Malta, or the South Pacific.

  3. It was also once the custom at least in some places for women to stand outside the church doors during mass when they were menstruating. I posted a source for this year’s ago, but I can’t seem to find the thread. A different thread touches briefly on the idea, and from the writings of the theologians cited it sounds like the prevailing view was that menstruating women should be permitted to enter, and receive communion.
    Can a menstruating woman accept communion?


I assume, unless you are quite ancient, that there were many centuries of Catholics going to Mass before your time.

Men and women worshiping separately, on opposite sides of the church, is something that commonly occurred in the past, though not universally. In some cultures, it is still the norm. St John Chrysostom mandated it in his time in Constantinople.

This article is from an Orthodox perspective, but it gives a good history of the practice in the Church, in both east and west. HIs information on current practices in Catholicism and Orthodoxy is incorrect, but he does have a number of interesting quotes from the Fathers of the Church.


In Eastern Orthodoxy it is still a rule even if sometimes people sit on the other’s side out of lack of knowledge or they don’t think the rule is important. However I never saw a priest admonishing people for not following this rule. But it is still a valid rule same as women covering their head in Church, not kissing the icons and the holy bones of saints and generally not receiving the Eucharist during their period unless there are extreme circumstances like severe illness or other urgent matter in which they absolutely must receive it. Also women young enough to have their period cannot enter the altar (but sometimes this gets broken too if for example a new church is built, on the day of its consecrations people pass through the altar, young women too).
Kids usually stay with moms, but if they are old enough they can go girls on the mom’s side and boys to the right with their dads.
These rule are rooted in ancient Jewish practice at the Temple and Early Christianity.


Some churches (Episcopalian for one) used to divide up “gospel” side and “epistle” side by gender…

Google sheds some light: “In the liturgical traditions of Western Christianity, the Epistle side is the term used to designate the side of a church on which the Epistle is read during the Mass or Eucharist. It is the right-hand side of the altar as viewed by the congregation from the nave.”


Gospel Side: “An archaic term referring to the left side of the altar, and that side of the church building, as viewed by the congregation from the nave. The gospel was read from this side of the altar in the low mass of the Roman Rite. The epistle was read from the opposite side of the altar, which was known as the “Epistle Side.” This usage made its way into widespread Anglican practice after the revival of ceremonial in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Book of Common Prayer discourages this practice, stating ‘it is desirable that the lessons be read from a lectern or pulpit, and that the Gospel be read from the same lectern, or from the pulpit, or from the midst of the congregation’”


At some weddings it is still a tradition that the brides family and friends sit on the left side and grooms family and friends sit on the right. Looking at how men´s shirts and women´s blouses are buttoned is also a left from the time when men and women were on different sides in the church.

Looking at the traditions within the Lutheran church in Sweden, women and men were on separate sides in the church and sometime in the 19th century was changed to every family having their own pew with their family name. Richer and mightier families were closer to the altar and poorer to the back. Families paid a fee for the pew as well instead of bringing one tenth of their income in grain and animals to the church as they used to. In some area women and men were on separate sided even in the 1950s and in some parishes the placks that marked the pews were removed in the 1970s.


How does the seating in church impact the way clothes are designed. My understanding is that women’s blouses/shirts were buttoned on the opposite side because they were often buttoned by a servant.


It is cultural. I understand that having the women sit on one side of the church and men on the other was common in Mexico and is still done in India. It may have been done to some degree in parts of Europe as well.
The statue of Mary would mark the “women’s” side and the statue of Joseph would mark the “men’s” side.

Based on what I know from older relatives, it was not done in USA in the 20th century.

The practice makes sense from a common sense perspective, especially when you consider single people going to church alone and avoiding distractions and possible harassment during the service. If you read Samuel Pepys’ diary, you see him going to church, often multiple churches, on Sunday and admiring, sometimes even sexually harassing, pretty women he saw there, to the point where one of them stabbed him with a hatpin. Pepys was a married man and apparently thought this behavior in church was just fine. I am sure he was not the only such boor out there.

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