SAINT WALBURGA, ABBESS OF HEIDENHEIM (+ 779)
By Vladimir Moss
Our holy Mother Walburga was born of an English princely family in the eighth century. Both her father, Richard, who died on pilgrimage in Italy, and her brothers Willibald and Wunebald, who, like her, died on the German mission-field, are counted among the saints of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. After spending several years in the monastic life in England, St. Walburga was among those monks and nuns who responded to the appeal of St. Boniface, the enlightener of Germany, for workers to help him in his missionary struggles. As she was making the sea-passage from England to Germany, a great tempest arose which threatened to sink the ship and all its passengers. When all seemed lost, Walburga knelt to pray, and then, standing up, commanded the winds and the sea, whereupon calm was immediately restored.
Having arrived in Mayence on August 4, 748, Walburga was reunited with her brother Willibald, the bishop of Eichstatt. Then, two or three years later, she was sent to Thuringia, where her other brother Wunebald had been building a monastic colony in the wilderness of Heidenheim. Wunebald was made abbot of the men's foundation, while his sister ruled the women's convent.
Several years of fruitful activity passed in this way, with many pagans being converted to the Faith of Christ through the holy example of the two siblings. Then, on December 19, 761, St. Wunebald reposed in the Lord, whereupon his sister was appointed to rule over both monasteries, "gathering as many women dedicated to Christ as she could, and striving to fulfil the precepts of the Lord with the greatest zeal".
One evening, Walburga remained in church after Vespers longer than usual. When she arose to return to the monastery night was already falling, and she asked the sacristan, whose name was Gumerandus, to give her a light to light her along her way. He refused, so she meekly returned to her cell without a light, having missed the evening meal. But then, at midnight, a dazzling light coming from the abbess's cell lit up the whole monastery, penetrating into every cell, and lasted until the hour of Mattins. The astonished nuns ran up to the holy virgin's bed, but she, weeping and raising her hands and eyes to God, said:
"To Thee, O Lord Jesus Christ, Whom I have resolved to serve as Thy humble handmaid since my childhood, do I give thanks for the favour Thou hast granted me - Thou who for the training of the minds of Thy handmaids hast counted me, the unworthy one, worthy to be consoled with the aid of Thy light. For this I ascribe not to my merits, but to those of my brothers, Thy servants."
One night she went to the house of a rich man whose daughter lay dangerously ill. As she stood at the door like a beggar, the dogs savagely rushed up and surrounded her. The nobleman did not recognize her and called out angrily, telling her to beware of the dogs and asking who she was. Walburga quietly replied that she did not fear the dogs, for they would neither molest nor bite her. And she added:
"He Who has sent me to thy house to do good will let me return unharmed to the place whence I came. He Who sent me hither against thy will will leave health in thy house, if thou only believest from thy heart that He is the greatest of all physicians."
The rich man now recognized the holy abbess. He sprang up from his seat, in confusion begged her pardon, and led her respectfully to the room where his dying daughter lay. The saint lovingly consoled the weeping parents and remained the whole night in prayer beside the sick child. The next morning she arose from her bed cured. Full of joy and gratitude, the parents offered rich presents to the saint. But she refused them and returned to her monastery, joyfully giving thanks to God.
St. Walburga reposed in the Lord on February 25, 779, and was buried by her brother St. Willibald next to her other brother, St. Wunebald. For ninety years pilgrimages were made to her tomb. Then, in 870, while the church was being enlarged at the command of Bishop Otkar, some workmen treated the tomb of the saint irreverently, and at night the north wall fell down. At the same time, St. Walburga appeared in a dream to the bishop and rebuked him for the negligence with which her tomb had been treated. On awaking and seeing the damage that had been done, the bishop decided to open her tomb and translate the holy body to Eichstatt. At that time a clear liquid like water was found bedewing the saint's relics. It was found to have healing properties, and has continued to flow at certain times of the year ever since. However, when the bishop wanted to place the holy relics in the cathedral at Eichstatt, the horses drawing the carriage on which the relics were placed refused to move. So they remained where the present church of St. Walburga stands.
St. Walburga is commemorated on February 25, and also on May 1, the vigil of which feast is known in Germany as Walpurgisnacht.
(Sources: David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1978, p. 395; Pamphlet on St. Walburga).