ST. FURSEY, ABBOT OF BURGH CASTLE (+ 649/650)
By Vladimir Moss
Our holy Father Fursey (which means “virtue” in Gaelic) was born in about 597 in Ireland, on an island in Lough Corrib where the ruins of a church dedicated to him still stand. He was raised partly in County Kerry, and founded a monastery near Cong, County Galway, where he spent ten years preaching. When he was already well-known for his holiness of life, he decided to go into voluntary exile for the Lord's sake to avoid the crowds that resorted to him. In preparation, he withdrew as a hermit to a remote island off the west coast of Ireland. Then, coming to East Anglia with a group of missionaries, including his brothers Saints Foillan and Ultan, he was well received by King Sigebert and Bishop Felix of Dunwich.
Then he fell ill, and was granted a vision by God in which he was told to continue his ministry of preaching and asceticism, since the end for all is certain, but the hour is uncertain. Then he proceeded to build a monastery on ground given him by King Sigebert at Burgh Castle, an ancient Roman fort on the East Anglian coast. “Inspired by the example of his goodness,” writes the Venerable Bede, “and the effectiveness of his teaching, many unbelievers were drawn to Christ, and those who already believed were drawn to greater love and faith in Him.” Then falling ill again, his soul left his body from evening until the next morning. "Being restored to his body at that time," writes Bede, "he not only saw the greater joys of the blessed, but also extraordinary combats of evil spirits, who by frequent accusations wickedly endeavoured to obstruct his journey to heaven; but the angels protecting him, all their endeavours were in vain." Fursey saw many other terrible things in this vision, and when he was restored to his body bore the mark of the fire of hell on his shoulder and jaw.
Soon after this, Fursey entrusted all the business of the monastery to his brother Foillan and the priests Gobban and Dicull (who later founded the church at Bosham in Sussex), and went to live for a year as a hermit with another brother of his, Ultan.
King Sigebert had been so impressed by Fursey that he had abandoned the throne of the East Angles to his relative Egric and become a monk. However, when, in 636, the pagan King Penda invaded the land, the people demanded that Sigebert come out of his monastery and lead the resistance. Sigebert refused, but the people drew him out against his will and carried him to the battlefield to encourage the soldiers; for he had been a notable and brave commander. Sigebert, however, would carry nothing in his hand except a wand, and in about 644 was killed together with Egric and many of his countrymen. However, this was not the end of the mission: Burgh Castle was endowed with “finer buildings and gifts” by King Anna, Sigebert’s successor, before he also was killed by Penda in 654.
In about 644 Fursey decided to go on a pilgrimage to Rome. But he was detained in France, where he founded a monastery at Lagny-sur-Marne, near Paris. He was helped in this by the Merovingian king and by Erkenwald, mayor of Neustria, who gave him land for the monastery.
St. Fursey died at Mézerolles on the Somme in about the year 650 (649, according to the Annals of Ulster) while on a journey back to England. His body was placed temporarily in the porch of a church that Erkenwald was building at Péronne until the church could be dedicated. Twenty-seven days later, when the church was dedicated, the body was found to be completely incorrupt, and so it was reburied near the altar, it was found to be completely incorrupt. Four years later, it was again found to be incorrupt, and was translated into a special chapel to the east of the altar in a house-shaped shrine made by St. Eloi, Bishop of Noyon, an adviser to Queen Bathild. This became a popular object of veneration for Irish pilgrims, and was called Peronna Scottorum. Many miracles were wrought through the saint’s intercession both before and after his death, including the raising from the dead of the son of the Frankish duke, Haimon.
The relics of St. Fursey survived until the French revolution, and his head was in a reliquary until the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.
A Celtic prayer of the type known as a lorica, or breast-plate is attributed to St. Fursey:
The arms of God be around my shoulders,
The touch of the Holy Spirit upon my head,
The sign of Christ’s cross upon my forehead,
The sound of the Holy Spirit in my ears,
The fragrance of the Holy Spirit in my nostrils,
The vision of heaven’s company in my eyes,
The conversation of heaven’s company on my lips,
The work of God’s Church in my hands,
The service of God and neighbour in my feet,
A home for God in my heart,
And to God, the Father of all, my entire being. Amen.
St. Fursey’s feastday is January 16.
Holy Father Fursey, pray to God for us!
(Sources: Bede, Ecclesiastical History, book III, 18, 19; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 1978; Peter Berresford Ellis, Celt and Saxon, London: Constable, 1993, pp. 150-151; Michelle P. Brown, The Life of St. Fursey, Fursey Occasional Paper Number 1, 2000)