Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Saint Walpurga, Writer and Missionary

Saint Walpurga of Heidenheim (died 25 February 777/9)

Born in Devon, England, probably about the year 710, Walpurga was the daughter of Richard of Wessex, an Anglo-Saxon chieftain under King Ine, and a noblewoman named Wuna, who seems to have died about the time of Walpurga's birth. (At some point, both of Walpurga's parents are recognized as saints--Saint Wuna's feast day is 7 February.)

A sixteenth-century portrait
of St. Walpurga
by the Master of Messkirch
In 720, Richard is convinced by his two sons--Walpurga's brothers (both of whom also become saints)--to undertake a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. While preparing for this journey, Richard of Wessex decides to leave his daughter, then about eleven years old, in the care of the abbess of Wimbourne Abbey. According to some traditions, however, it is the girl herself who asks to be left in the abbey rather than with relatives.

Wimbourne was a double monastery, housing both monks and nuns who followed the Rule of St. Benedict under the direction of an abbess.* Walpurga spent twenty-six years at Wimbourne, where she received an excellent education. The nuns of Wimbourne were trained in Latin and at least some Greek, and they put their language study to use with both sacred texts and the work of the early Church Fathers. The abbey also specialized in producing manuscripts and fine needlework.

Walpurga's father never got to the Holy Land. He reached Rome, then traveled with his sons to Lucca, where he died. (Willibald, the older of Walpurga's brothers, completed the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, then went on to Byzantium, eventually returning to Italy to live as a monk in Monte Cassino. Winebald, the younger of the two brothers, stayed in Rome and entered a monastery).

In 737, Wuna's brother Winfrid (later St. Boniface) recruited both of his nephews to accompany him on a mission to Germany. His call for evangelizing eventually included women--evidently Boniface was the first to include women as missionaries. In 748, a group of nuns from Wimbourne, Walpurga among them, traveled to the Franks to undertake their missionary work.

As part of their successful mission, Willibald and Winebald founded the double monastery of Heidenheim in 752, with Winebald serving as abbot. Walpurga was established as the abbess, governing the nuns. After Winebald's death in 761, Abbess Walpurga became the head of the double monastery.

On 25 February 777 or 779 (accounts vary), Walpurga died and was buried at the monastery founded by her brothers, where she had lived for some twenty-five years. About a hundred years after her death, her remains were translated--that is, they were removed to the cathedral of Eichstatt (Bavaria), with the aim of interring her remains with those of her brother, Wllibald, who had been consecrated as bishop there.  According to tradition, the beasts pulling the cart with Walpurga's body stopped at a small church used by the canonesses at Eichstatt and refused to move further--so her relics were interred there. Later, a church was built in her honor.

Walpurgis Night (30 April) celebrates her feast day, 1 May, which commemorates her the arrival of her relics in Eichstatt and Walpurga's canonization.

An extended account of St. Walburga's life is Emmanuel Luckman's "St. Walburga: Medieval Nun, Free Woman," in Miriam Schmitt and Linda Kulzer's Women Monastics: Wisdom's Wellsprings.

*In this, Wimbourne Abbey might be compared to Hilda's Whitby.