|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 footsteps.
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 from 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,
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 morning.
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
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
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 is commemorated.
The way of celebrating Walpurgisnacht is to have picnics, and bonfires to recall the divine
light that illuminated Walburga's monastery. As we watch the flames, we can pray a litany
to St. Walburga.
It's traditional, too, to gather greenery and oak branches at dusk, adorn them with symbols of Christ, and use them to decorate our homes. The use of oak branches is a way 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.
Because Walpurgisnacht falls on the same date as Beltane Eve, one of the four great pagan Gaelic holidays, 4
this will be, for some pagans and witches, 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 and toy with demons 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 His Church!
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: "This humble
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."
2 St. Walburga is also known as
"Walpurga," "Walpurgis," "Gauburge," "Vaubourg," "Falbourg," and the
very unfortunate "Waltpurde."
3 From the Catholic
4 The four big pagan holidays are:
Samhain (around 1 November), our Days of the Dead; Imbolc (around 1 February), our St. Brigid's Day and Candlemas; Beltane (around 1 May), our Walpurgisnacht; and Lughnasadh (around 1 August), our St. Peter in Chains.