Apologia: The Fullness of Christian Truth

``Where the 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

Oak tree

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 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 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, the date of her death and the date of 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.


Walburga's abbey in Eichstätt

St. Walburga is depicted in art as a Benedictine holding a vial of her Oil of Saints, sheafs of wheat (especially three of them), and/or a crozier. She is often shown with a crown -- sometimes 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.

For a book about St. Walburga, see
A Life of St. Walburga: with the Itinerary of St. Willibald (pdf) from this site's Catholic Library.


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." A prayer for the day:

St. Walburga, by thy blessed life of love, God blessed thee with the power to heal, to make whole the soul as well as the body. Beg for us what we cannot obtain for ourselves, and heal our world of sickness and sorrow. May God hear thee, who lived so graciously for His glory, and send us the healing grace we need, through thy powerful intercession. Amen.

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 the Litany to St. Walburga. It's traditional, too, to gather greenery and oak branches at dusk, adorn them with symbols of Christ, Walburga, and the Benedictine Order, and use them to decorate our homes (the English of Lincolnshire would hang cowslip flowers -- Primula veris --- to ward off evil). 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" recounted above.

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 between this 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 and beer.

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 Felix Mendelssohn:

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 format).

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 funnel cakes:

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
4 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
oil for deep frying
Powdered sugar for serving

Whisk flour, salt, baking powder and sugar together. Set aside.

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.

Note: St. Walburga, along with St. Barbara, is invoked against storms, and she is, with St. Nicholas, a special patron of sailors. She is also invoked against rabies, whooping cough, and pestilence.

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."
From the Catholic Encyclopedia 
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 Chains).

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 halo.

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