Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of
Antioch, 1st c. A.D
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
abbey in Eichstätt
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.
Some may prepare
for this feast by praying the Novena
to St. Walburga starting on April 22 and ending on April 30, the
eve of St. Walburga's feast, which is when most of the celebrating of
St. Walburga takes place. It is the eve
of her feast which is known as "Walpurgisnacht."
The typical way of
celebrating Walpurgisnacht is to have picnics, and bonfires to recall the divine
light that illuminated Walburga's convent. 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 English of Lincolnshire would hang cowslip flowers -- Primula veris --- to ward off
The use of oak branches is a way to recall the Benedectines' victory
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), when the pagan Samhain coincides calendrically with
our Feasts for the dead. In Germany, where sometimes this night is
called "Hexennacht," witches are said to fly to the top of the often
mist-covered mountain named the Brocken (or Blocksberg) 5
in order to rendez-vous with the devil. And like Hallowe'en, the veil
world and the afterworld is said to become thin tonight, the damned
dead are believed to become restless, and devils are said to cause trouble.
Prayers against them and for pagans and witches
who hold their sabbats 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 Christ.
The Czech people
have a second way to deal with witches: they make little straw dolls to
represent them, and toss the dolls into their bonfires' flames. They
follow up by dining on roasted sausages
The spooky nature of Walpurgisnacht because of witches' doings is
recalled in Goethe's Faust,
and in his poem The First Walpurgis
Night (Die Erste Walpurgisnacht)
which was set to music by
And its spookiness is recalled in this short story by Bram Stoker,
which you might want to tell around the bonfire: Dracula's Guest (pdf
This focus on the fight against evil is a perfect beginning to the
celebrations of tomorrow -- May 1 -- when we crown Our Lady as the Queen of May.
Because of the proximity of Walpurgisnacht to May Day, time around the
bonfires tonight could be spent weaving garlands of flowers with which
to crown Our Lady tomorrow -- a day on which the people of Finland eat
Tippaleipä (Finnish May Day funnel cakes)
2 cup all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
1 cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
oil for deep frying
Powdered sugar for serving
Whisk flour, salt, baking powder and sugar together. Set
Whisk milk, eggs and vanilla together in a big bowl. Add the
dry ingredients and whisk until completely smooth.
Pour the oil into a deep pot and heat over medium heat until
the temperature reaches 350 degrees. When the oil is
hot, transfer the batter into a funnel (or, if you don't have one, put
it into a ziploc bag, and cut a tiny hole in the corner of the bag).
Drizzle the batter into the hot oil in jaggedy motions ---
make figure eights, zig-zags, etc. -- such that you end up with a messy
circle of overlapping strings of dough about 4 inches in diameter. Fry
until golden brown, about 45 seconds to 1 minute on each side. Drain on
paper towels, dust with powdered sugar, and serve immediately (in
Lithuania, funnel cakes are served with honey).
In Germany, many
make a pilgrimage to
her monastery on St. Walburga's feast itself.
Footnotes: 1And 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."
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 Lammas (St. Peter's
5 The mists that often
cover Brocken, the tallest mountain in Germany's Harz mountain range,
is the cause of some creepy optical effects. The "Brocken Spectre" is
one: if you face the mountain's mist with the Sun behind you, your
shadow might be cast against the mist such that your shadow appears
very, very large and in mid-air, like a dark, giant ghost. If enough
moisture is present and the light hits the mist just so, the
ghost might appear surrounded by "glory rings" -- a rainbow-colored