||In the Roman
martyrology, St. Walburga's Feast -- a day that commemorates the date of
her canonization -- is on May 1, though it isn't celebrated liturgically
on the 1962 calendar. Her Feast is, however, a great holiday in many European
countries, especially in Germany, Finland, Sweden, and Eastern European
countries, and the celebrations begin on its eve -- the night of 30 April
-- a time known as Walpurgisnacht. Who was St. Walburga, and why is she held
is such esteem especially in those areas of the world?
First things first: in the late 7th century, the European continent was still
largely pagan territory. Against this backdrop, some monks visited with a
noble man at him home in England and told him about their mission work in
those wild lands. The man's son, Winfrid, sat listening as the monks recounted
their tales, and was so impressed by them that he resolved to follow in their
The boy received a religious education, and later joined the Benedictine
Order, becoming a priest at age thirty. In A.D. 719, he received permission
Pope Gregory II to evangelize Germany. After
difficulties due to political skirmishes, he eventually set up a monastery
in Amöneburg and was consecrated Bishop, taking the name "Boniface."
His work was most fruitful, and his great success is perfectly symbolized
by his destruction of a pagan object of veneration: in Geismar, he took an
ax and felled an oak tree dedicated to Thor and considered sacred by the
pagans, who were certain that a great lightning strike would kill them all
when the tree was toppled. When nothing happened, the man who was to become
known as St. Boniface preached the Gospel, converted the people, and built
a church out of the tree's wood. 1
He didn't stop with the church, however; he went on to build monasteries
that would act as centers of evangelization and learning. But he needed help,
and this is when St. Boniface's niece, St. Walburga, enters the picture.
St. Walburga was born in Devonshire, England in A.D. 710. Her parents were
a West Saxon under-king who became known as St. Richard, and St. Boniface's
sister, Winna. She had two brothers, boys who grew up to be known as SS.
Willibald and Winibald. When she was eleven, her father and brothers went
on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, so she was sent to the abbess of Wimborne
who ran her Benedictine abbey with holiness and discipline in mind. Walburga's
father died in Lucca a year after her arrival at the abbey, and she remained
there for twenty-six years, receiving a good education, including the study
of Latin. This last skill allowed her to write the account of her brother
Willibald's pilgrimage, an act which has led to her being seen as the first
female author of England and Germany.
Boniface wrote to the Abbess, asking that nuns be sent to help in in his
work, and in A.D. 748, his wish was granted when the Abbess sent along some
Sisters, Walburga 2 amongst them. En
route to Germany by boat, a great storm arose. As the waters raged above
and beneath, Walburga knelt on the deck and prayed. Instantly, the sea became
calm, and the sailors went on to proclaim the miracle at their destination.
She made her way through Antwerp and then on to Mainz, where she met her
Uncle Boniface and her brother, Willibald.
She spent some time in the abbey at Bischofsheim, and was later made abbess
of Heidenheim, part of a double-monastery where her favorite brother, Winibald,
ruled over the male monastics. When this beloved brother died, she not only
ruled her abbey, but ruled over his monastery as well, and became known for
her sanctity and miraculous gifts of healing. The story is told of how one
night her Sisters came to accompany her down to supper, and found the hall
to her room bathed in a divine light that remained until Matins the next
On September 23, 776, she and her brother, Willibald, went to translate
Winibald's relics to Heidenheim, but upon opening his tomb, found that no
remains were left. Soon after this miracle, she became ill, and then died
on February 25, 777 in the company of Willibald, who laid her to rest near
Winibald. Willibald himself died in 786.
Jumping forward about a hundred years to A.D. 870, the Bishop of Eichstadt
in Bavaria went to restore Walburga's monastery and church. In the process,
the workmen desecrated her tomb, and she appeared to them to reproach them
for their negligence. The good Bishop reacted by ensuring a solemn and respectful
translation of her relics to the Church of the Holy Cross (now known as St.
Walburga's) in Eichstadt on September 21.
But it is what happened twenty-three years later, in A.D. 893, that helps
keep St. Walburga in our consciousness. In that year, the successor to the
Bishop who translated her relics opened her tomb
to retrieve some of those relics for the Abbess of Abbess of Monheim. He
found that her remains exuded an oil -- a healing substance known as the
"Oil of Saints." This precious substance has been exuding from her remains
yearly ever since between 12 October and 25 February, her Feast in the
Benedictine Breviary, only stopping "during a period when Eichstadt was laid
under interdict, and when blood was shed in the church by robbers who seriously
wounded the bell-ringer." 3 The Abbess
got her relics, and some were also sent to Cologne, Antwerp, Furnes, and
other places -- many of these translations giving rise to Feasts -- but it
is her tomb in the church in Eichstadt that, to this day, exudes the fragrant,
healing oil. A Benedictine nunnery (see picture below) immediately arose
near the church that houses her tomb so that the Sisters could tend to her
relics and help with the pilgrims who came for the healing oil. The Sisters
have been there now for a thousand years.
St. Walburga is depicted in art as a Benedictine holding a vial of her Oil
of Saints and/or a crozier. She is often shown with a crown at her feet as
a symbol of her noble birth, and is sometimes depicted with SS. Philip, James
the Less, and Sigismund because their Feasts were once honored on the same
date she was canonized. In the Benedictine calendar, the date of her death
Sadly, the word
"Walpurgisnacht" is nowadays mostly associated with pagans, who see the day
as a mere adjunct to Beltane (May Day) and even dare to use the label
"Walpurgisnacht" for their festivities. Where Walpurgisnacht is celebrated,
it is usually celebrated wrongly, in a non-Catholic -- sometimes even
anti-Catholic -- manner. Odes to May, Spring, fertility, and the earth, the
playing of pranks -- these are the things most often thought of when
"Walpurgisnacht" comes to mind, and thoughts of the great Saint are all too
...But it doesn't have to be that way. Bonfires
-- practically ubiquitous in Catholic celebrations but which pagans also
light today in honor of the god (demon) Bel -- recall the divine light that
illuminated Wallburga's monastery, and as their hypnotic beauty is enjoyed,
one can pray a litany to St. Walburga.
The ancient Swedish tradition of collecting branches at dusk to decorate
homes? Make those branches oak branches, and decorate them with symbols
of Christ and the great Apostles to Germany to recall the Benedectines' victory
over paganism, as perfectly seen in the story of St. Boniface and the "sacred
oak." As to foods, German fare and beer brewed by Benedictines or their brothers,
the Trappists, sound perfect.
Now, because Walpurgisnacht does fall on the same date as Beltane Eve, this
will be, for pagans, a night much like
Hallowe'en (the Eve of All
Saints) insofar as the pagan Samhain coincides calendrically with our Feasts
for the dead. Therefore, prayers for pagans and for witches who hold their
sabats tonight would be a wonderful thing. May St. Walburga -- who, with
St. Boniface, her brothers, and other Benedictines -- brought the good news
of Christ to Germany intercede for them now and bring them to Jesus through
1 And here legend steps in and gives us the story
of the first Christmas tree: it is said that when the oak tree was felled,
a tiny fir tree was growing at its base. St. Boniface is said to have pointed
to it and declared:
tree's wood is used to build your homes: let Christ be at the centre of your
households. Its leaves remain evergreen in the darkest days: let Christ be
your constant light. Its boughs reach out to embrace and its top points to
heaven: let Christ be your comfort and your guide."
St. Walburga is also known as "Walpurga," "Walpurgis," "Gauburge," "Vaubourg,"
"Falbourg," and the very unfortunate "Waltpurde."