St. Walburga

(Eighth century)

We have already met some of the many ancient Irish monks who traveled abroad not only in self-imposed exile but also for the purpose of acquainting non-Christians with Christianity, and Christian layfolk with the monastic life.

There were also a number of English monks who brought the gospel to other lands. Best known among them was the “Apostle of Germany”, Wynfrid, better known as St. Boniface. And he sponsored others.

One of the earliest programs undertaken by Bishop Boniface was to import into Germany some English nuns. He believed that, even though cloistered, these sisters could set among the new German converts an admirable example of Catholic devotional life. Their presence alone would teach a lesson, he rightly believed.

One of the nuns whom he brought to Germany was his niece, Sister Walburga. She was the daughter of St. Richard, one of the under-kings of the West Saxons of Britain. Two other famous English missionaries were her brothers, St. Willibald and St. Winebald, so she was of pretty staunch Catholic stuff.

Walburga became a nun at Wimborne Monastery in Dorset, England, She had been educated at Wimborne as a young laywoman, and there had acquired considerable literary skill, Subsequently she joined that monastic community. By 748, when she and other nuns were sent to Germany by St. Tetta, she was already respected as a saintly woman. Indeed, the trip across the English Channel gave her a chance to show her trust in God. When a terrible storm threatened to capsize their boat, she knelt on the deck and prayed for deliverance. The tempest ceased at once. The crew of the ship hailed this as a miracle; and, indeed, since her death St. Walburga has been considered by sailors their own special patron.

When the nuns reached Mainz, Germany, Uncle Boniface and brother Willibald were both there to greet Walburga. Willibald would later become the first bishop of Eichstaett. Walburga spent four years in the monastery of Bischofsheim. Then in 752 Willibald and her other brother Winebald founded the monastery of Heidenheim. This was a double monastery, one section for monks and one for nuns. Winebald headed the male wing; Walburga the female wing. Indeed, the Abbess herself eventually became sole head of both monasteries.

At Heidenheim, St. Walburg proved to be an ideal Superior, noted for her wisdom and her miracles. But she was also outstanding for her knowledge. She wrote a life of St. Winebald in Latin and another book about the travels to the Holy Land of her brother St. Willibald. Because of these writings, she has been called first female Christian author of both Britain and Germany. But she also acquired several other skills. One of these, it is said, was medicine, which she learned on her own and practiced within her community.

Walburga died in 777 with a reputation for holiness. Her remains were eventually transferred to St. Walburga’s Church in Eichstaett. From 893 on, a liquid to which many cures were attributed began to flow out of her tomb. Devotion to her increased after that. Churches a considerable distance from Eichstaett then sought relics of her to enshrine within their own altars: places like Brussels, Antwerp, Thielt, Zutphen and Groningen. St. Walburga was also accepted as the patron saint of the diocese of Plymouth in England. Her name became a popular church name and baptismal name under various forms: Waldburg, Vaubourg, Gauburg, Falbourg, Wilburga, Warpurg and Walpurgis. In German folklore, the night of one of her feastdays, May 1, (Walpurgisnacht) was eventually considered as the night when all witches gathered together early on Blocksberg, in the Hartz Mountains. But the saint had no more to do with stimulating this legend than St. Valentine had to do with the custom of sending Valentines.

The real St. Walburga needed no legends to publicize her. She was a holy and able woman, and one of the most highly intelligent leaders of her sex in the early Christian years of the Germanic peoples.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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