St. Odilia

(c.660-c.720)

Odilia is one of the most popular of the ancient Germanic saints, and Alsace honors her as its patroness. The popular story of her life, especially the earlier years, may not be trustworthy, but it is too fascinating to leave untold.

Odilia’s parents were a Frankish nobleman of Alsace, Adalric, and his wife Bereswindis. The child was born blind. Adalric was upset by this fact, and the more he brooded on it the more furious he became. It was a dishonour to his family, he said. Waving aside his wife’s suggestion that the blindness was God’s will, he finally ordered that his daughter be killed. Bereswindis talked him out of infanticide, but he still insisted that his daughter be sent far away, and that nobody ever tell who her parents were.

The mother complied with Adalric’s command, but only in part. Putting her child in the care of a peasant woman who had once served the family, she sent them to the province of Franche-Comte, many miles away. There the girl was brought up by nuns in a convent.

Oddly, but providentially, Adalric’s daughter had never been baptized. When she was twelve, St. Erhard, a bishop at Regensburg, Germany, was instructed in a dream to go to this convent in Franche-Cornte and baptize a girl who was born blind. He was to give her the name Odilia, and advised that once baptized she would be able to see. St. Erhard obeyed, and the prophecy came true.

Odilia stayed on at the convent for a while, but some of the nuns there, jealous because of her miraculous cure and her exceptional proficiency in studies, began a petty persecution. At length, she wrote to her brother Hugh asking what she should do. Their father had been told of the miracle, but this simply rekindled his anger. Nevertheless, Hugh asked his sister to come back home. When she arrived and was greeted by a crowd of well-wishers, Adalric and Hugh were standing some distance away. Hugh told his father that they were greeting his daughter.

Adalric turned on his son with fury and struck him dead with a blow of his staff. But Adalric’s repentance was as quick as his fury. He at once received Odilia with tenderness. Though he wanted her to marry, when she insisted on a religious life, he offered her his castle to serve as her monastery.

It was here, at “Hohenberg,” that she founded an abbey and became its abbess. She later established another monastery, Niedermuenster, at the foot of the hill. This had a hospice attached, convenient for the needy.

As a nun, Odilia became noted for her charity and her spiritual graces. She is said to have been gifted with heavenly apparitions and the ability to work miracles. One of the revelations reported of her was the heavenly assurance, sometime after the death of her father, that her prayers and acts of self-denial had already won for him a release from purgatory.

However questionable the details of St. Odilia’s life, there is no doubt about her popularity as a saint. German emperors from Charlemagne were her devotees. The pilgrims who visited her tomb were (and continue to be) from all classes. There are two allegedly miraculous springs at places associated with her story, and people blind or with defective vision still apply the waters to their eyes while invoking the once-blind saint for a cure.

One argument in favor of the basic truth of St. Odilia’s blindness and her father’s resentment is that in every age there have been people who discriminate against others for involuntary “flaws”. The color of their skin. Bodily imperfections. Tardiness of mind. But critics like Adalric are far more deeply flawed. They have blind souls.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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