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Saint Walburga
Feast Day - February 25

by Susan Vennari

About an hour and a half north of Munich, in the Bavarian town of Eichstätt, is the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Walburga. Enshrined there are the relics of this holy woman who came to Germany in the early 700's, and whose relics have been venerated for over a thousand years. The cures and miracles by which she was known even in her lifetime always attracted visitors; but since the mid-800's, she has been particularly identified as the most famous of the elaephori, or “oil-dripping” saints.

Born in 710, in Devonshire, England, Saint Walburga was a niece of Saint Boniface. But her father, the Saxon king Saint Richard, must have been a pious man, too. When she was still a child, he embarked with her two older brothers, Saint Willibald and Saint Wunibald, on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She requested to be entrusted to the care of the abbess at Wimbourne, and even after news of her father's death a year later, she remained there for the next 26 years, to be trained in learning, holiness and self-discipline, under the Benedictine Rule, and to be espoused to Our Lord in that tradition. When, in 748, Saint Boniface requested the convent sisters to aid him in his mission to Germany, Saint Walburga joined Saint Lioba, Saint Tecla and another 30 or so nuns, and set out to meet her uncle, Saint Boniface, and her brother, Saint Willibald, at Mainz. Saint Walburga spent some time under Saint Lioba's rule at Bischofsheim, until she herself was appointed women's abbess at Heindenheim. Her brother, Saint Winibald, governed the men's abbey there and upon his death, she succeeded him as abbess, thus caring for all the spiritual children of the double abbey.

She was esteemed by all, who regarded her virtue, sweetness and prudence, her courage and her charity, as supernaturally informed. She was a skillful administrator, and she herself taught in the Heindenheim school for children, including classical languages, science and medicine, and the literary and musical arts.

In 776, she assisted her brother, Saint Willibald, Bishop of Eichstätt, at the translation of the incorrupt remains of their brother, Saint Wunibald, to a new shrine. Not long after, Saint Walburga herself fell ill and died on February 25, 779. She was entombed beside her dear brother, and their tombs became the site of many cures and miracles. It was a hundred years later, however, when the Bishop of Eichstätt opened Saint Walburga's tomb, that it was found that her body was immersed in the delicate “oil,” which has continued to flow from her to this day. Her relics were transferred to Eichstätt and miraculous healings were reported all along the journey route. The Benedictine abbey was established to care for the shrine, and it has accrued an illustrious history of its own. It was this Abbey of Saint Walburga which sent one of the first Benedictine missions of nuns to North America in 1851.

In the 10th and 11th Centuries, the cures wrought at Saint Walburga's graveside, or obtained by the use of her oil, made her tomb one of the most pilgrimaged sites in Europe. One can still observe the miracle and obtain the holy oil, as I did one sunny day some years ago. Votive offerings of thanksgiving for Saint Walburga's intercession continue to arrive at the Abbey. Could 21st Century consideration of Saint Walburga's graces be of as great benefit to a modern Catholic as it was to the medieval sick?

No doubt Saint Walburga benefitted from the prayers of her family members, and they, by her prayers. United by the Faith, they came as part of Saint Boniface's army into the pagan lands of Germany. Saint Walburga was educated in the convent school, as appropriate to her station as princess. And her education was essential to the role she would play as abbess: mother, teacher, spiritual guide, and even historian for her spiritual children. But studies undertaken within the walls of the abbey were always to support a detachment from world and union with the kingdom of God. With humility and reserve was an abbess to govern, the better to enable the monks and sisters to pursue the search for God. She forsook personal privilege, but she did not shirk in false humility from the leadership role requested of her by Saint Boniface. These were her duties of state. Thus, as Our Lady asked of us at Fatima, that we fulfill our own duties of state, we find in Saint Walburga a prophetic example even now.

Saint Walburga's prayer life, trained and formed in Benedictine methods, likewise is instructive. The Benedictine Rule is a model of order, with its regularity, devotion to prayer and liturgy, and its moderate, yet austere life. Saint Walburga was reputed never to neglect prayer life, and dwelt deeply with meditative study of Scripture and literature, the better to witness to the Eternal Truth. Thus, she drew her children to know and to love the discipline of ora et labora. Not peregrination, but the claustral life of the monastery — prayer, study, and the work offered to God, became the strong spine by which Europe emerged upright from the disorder of paganism. Modern Catholics who heed the requests of Our Lady at Fatima can be inspired by the confidence and obedience of Saint Walburga — and of all the holy sisters, who planted themselves at the stump of the pantheist tree, so to speak, to erect the Cross throughout Europe. Our Lady's instruction at Fatima could well imply the return of a barbaric and disordered time, such as Saint Boniface might have known. Our obedient response, especially in the meditation of the daily Rosary and the consecration and performance of our daily duties again become an offering by which Our Lady shall rescue us.

As a mother, I find Saint Walburga an instructive helper. Because she is obscure to Americans, one feels a special intimacy with a secret friend. In art, she is usually depicted as cheerful, which I want to be. The family from which she came — brothers, parents, uncles, aunts and cousins, was united in the Faith. Individually, each abandoned personal privilege to serve Almighty God. I should like to guide my own children to be so united in the Faith as to bring each other to heroic sanctity. I must make decisions about home-life, to ensure justice, order and tranquility. I must teach my children, and assist my spouse to know the intimacy of tradition, that they may prepare for the future and cleave to the Divine Will. The graces accorded to Saint Walburga in all her actions, as well as the miraculous oil-dripping tomb, and her brother's incorrupt body, attest to the confidence with which each submitted every action to God. Here, then, is a counselling mother and, more broadly, a holy family to help me imitate the Holy Family.

Saint Walburga (also Walpurga) is invoked by sailors and against storms, especially because of a miracle which calmed the sea when the sisters first crossed to Germany. She is also invoked against hydrophobia. The litany in her honor makes it clear, however, that she is a “powerful advocate” of all who venerate her. In Germany, her feast day is celebrated on May 1. On the Benedictine calendar, and in the Roman Martyrology she is honored on February 25.

Saint Walburga, glorious example of perseverance
in the service of God, pray for us.