Today is the feast of one of the great Anglo-German saints: St Walburga. I've written about her before but it's worth repeating her story. I led a band of English pilgrims to her shrine at Eichstätt just over a year ago. According to tradition, she was born in Devon around 710, the daughter of St Richard, often referred to as ‘King’ of Wessex, and ‘Queen’ Wuna. It was a family of saints, a pedigree that would serve her well in the future: her uncle was the great St Boniface (Archbishop of Mainz) and her brothers were St Winnebald and St Willibald, who would later become Abbot of Heidenheim and Bishop of Eichstätt respectively. Here is the saintly English family, as depicted at St Walburga's shrine in Eichstätt (from left to right: St Richard, St Willibald, St Walburga, St Winnebald, St Wuna):
St Walburga received a solidly Christian upbringing. The family said their daily prayers before a wooden cross that was erected on their land and, in 720, she entered the double monastery at Wimborne (Dorset). Under the direction of St Tatta, the abbey had gained a reputation of learning and holiness, and it would prepare Walburga for her missionary years in Germany. Around the same time, her father and two brothers embarked on a pilgrimage to Rome and the Holy Land. However, her father developed a fever and died at Lucca, where he is venerated to this day as ‘St Richard the Pilgrim’ at the church of San Frediano. The brothers went on to Rome, where they split up – Winnebald joined a Benedictine monastery and Willibald travelled to the Holy Land.
During this period St Boniface was busy consolidating the Church in Germany, establishing monasteries and bishoprics. His collaborators included, by the 740s, SS Winnebald and Willibald. It is perhaps no surprise that in 750 St Walburga travelled to Germany to assist her kinsmen in this great work. It is said that, as she crossed the Channel, a terrible storm arose, which was stopped only by Walburga’s prayers - the miracle was traditionally commemorated at Eichstätt on 4th August. She may have stayed in Antwerp, where she is venerated as patroness, before going to Mainz to meet her uncle. She then settled down at Tauberbischofsheim, under St Lioba, a relative and another member of the Wimborne community, who had moved to Germany in 748.
It must have been a great joy to be near her brothers, after many years of separation, and Walburga eventually moved to Heidenheim, where Winnebald had founded a double monastery, based on the English model (as found at Wimborne). After his death in 761, Walburga’s surviving brother, Willibald, now bishop of Eichstätt, appointed her Abbess, with government over both the monks and nuns. She was also skilled in medicine and did much to look after the sick and dying.The legend contains various miracles worked during her life. One night, one of the monks refused to accompany the saint to her cell at night with a lit candle. Shortly afterwards, the nuns found the abbey illuminated by a mysterious light. The saint cried out: ‘O Lord, as a humble maid who committed my life to you since my youth, I thank you for granting this grace. You have honoured me in my unworthiness with the comfort of your light. This sign gives courage to the souls of your handmaids who are dependent on me. And you have driven out the darkness and our fear through the bright light of your mercy.’
When St Walburga died on 25th February 779, she was buried at Heidenheim. However, the double monastery did not survive long and under Willibald’s successor, Bishop Gerhoh, it was occupied by canons. Devotion to Walburga waned to such an extent that in 870, as workmen were restoring the church, the saint’s tomb was desecrated. The outraged saint appeared to the bishop, Otgar, complaining that her remains were being trampled upon ‘irreverently by the dirty feet of the builders.’ Shortly afterwards, the north wall of the church collapsed, which was widely interpreted as a sign from heaven. The body of Walburga was quickly exhumed and translated to Eichstätt on 21st September, and her cult was revived. A community of canonesses initially cared for the saint’s tomb, until a Benedictine Abbey of nuns was founded there in 1035, which survives to this day. During its long existence, the Abbey has founded many daughter-houses, including Minister Abbey in Kent and several across the Atlantic: Latrobe (Pennsylvania), Canyon City (Colorado), and Boulder (Colorado). Here's a picture of the glorious interior of her convent church in Eichstätt, next to her tomb, where I had the privilege of celebrating Mass last February:
In 893, some of St Walburga’s relics were transferred in solemn procession to the monastery at Monheim, which also became an important pilgrimage centre. The priest Wolfhard recorded 54 miracles at Monheim between 893 and 900.
The fame of St Walburga rests in the miracles claimed after her death rather than the details of her life. When the tomb was opened in 893, ‘the workmen found the venerable bones of our holy mother Walburga moistened as if with a film of spring water, so that they were able, as it were, to press droplets of dew-like liquid from them.’ This ‘oil’ (Walburgisöl) has been constantly flowing from Walburga’s shrine, between the months of October and February, for over 1,200 years, stopping only, we are told, during a period when the town was under interdict and after blood was shed in the church by armed robbers. Chemical tests have revealed that the ‘oil’ is actually natural water, although its contact with the bones of the saint justifies its use for pious purposes and is a powerful example of Church’s treasury of sacramentals – visible things that lead us to the invisible.
The ‘oil’ is collected from a shaft built under the tomb and the Abbey contains an impressive collection of glass phials used to contain the substance, some of them dating back to the sixteenth century and covered in damask and brocade. The nuns see it as their special apostolate to distribute the oil – both locally and around the world – and to deal with the many prayer requests that are sent to the Abbey. The walls of the chapel containing the saint’s tomb are covered in hundreds of ex voto paintings, depicting favours granted by the saint – especially concerning escapes from disease and accidents and successful childbirth. The baroque altarpiece in the main church, next to the shrine, depicts St Walburga in glory, with angels pouring drops of the holy oil over a group of the faithful.The life of this princess from Wessex is an important one in the annals of the German Church, but the cult that developed after her death is even more remarkable. Devotion to St Walburga is particularly strong in Germany and the Low Countries, although she is widely neglected in the land of her birth (at least, outside Preston, where there is a magnificent church dedicated to her). Her cult is well expressed in the hundreds of ex votos that are kept at her shrine, testament to her powerful intercession:
She is rightly celebrated as one of the Elaephori, or oil-yielding saints, together with the likes of St Nicholas, whose shrine at Bari (Italy) also produces a mysterious manna. Little bottles of the Walburgisöl, diluted in water, are available from the Abbey, and prayer requests can be sent to Abtei St. Walburg (e-mail: email@example.com).