The first women considered here in missionary work were wives who converted their husbands who in turn had their subjects follow them into the Faith. The second lot are nuns who from their monasteries contributed to the conversion of pagans to the Christian faith.
After the fall of the Rome in 410 for the next five centuries there were repeated waves of invasions from different tribes throughout Europe. One of the features of the history of these years was how these pagan tribes became Christians. The pattern usually was if their leader was converted their people did too. This is clearly the case in modern day Germany, and some parts of modern day France. It is also seen in England after the Gregory- Augustine mission. Prior to this mission the Anglo-Saxons invaded the eastern part of this country, pushing further west in what is known to-day as Wales and the West Country the Christian Faith.
When Gregory the Great became bishop of Rome toward the end of the 6thC. he sent Augustine and other monks to England to convert its people. They arrived on an a little island of Thanet, off the coast of the kingdom of Kent. The king at that time was the pagan Ethelbert who had a Christian wife, Bertha. She had her own chaplain and worshipped in the tiny church of St. Martin, which still exists near Canterbury. It was through Bertha that Augustine and his monks found favour in the king's eyes and were allowed to worship in St. Martin's. Before long at Pentecost the following year, 1598 Ethelbert and his people were baptised.
Their daughter Ethelburga found herself in a similar situation to her mother. She was betrothed to the pagan king of Northumbria, Edwin. When she went north she was accompanied by her chaplain Paulinus. Eventually her husband through his wife and her chaplain and circumstances in battle, was converted to Christianity.
Over on the continent other Christian Queens were producing similar results. One of the outstanding women of this time was Clotilda who married the heathen Clovis 1. Clotilda herself had been brought up as a Christian by her mother. After she married Clovis, she persuaded him to have their first child baptised. Through her and Remigius, bishop of Reims he was converted to the Christian faith, which in effect meant that his subjects were too. He proved to be a great defender of orthodox Christianity.
One of the great missionaries of all times was St. Boniface who is known as the apostle to the Germans, not that he was ever the first to preach Christianity in that area. However successive raids of tribes had eradicated the Gospel in most parts of Europe. What is not always acclaimed is the help that Boniface had from women, especially from his relatives, Leoba and Walburga. Both undoubtedly are outstanding women of the 8thC in Germanic missionary work.
Leoba (means "beloved one) was born in 700, probably in the south west of England. On her mother's West Saxon side, she was related to Boniface. At a very early age she was sent to the Abbey of Wimborne at a very early age. In her late twenties, Leoba wrote a letter to
Boniface, the only piece of writing surviving from her own hand. It would seem that her parents were dead and that Boniface was her only surviving relative: She wrote,
Dear brother, please shield me with your prayers from the darts of the enemy. And please would you correct the unpolished style of this letter and send me a few words of your own as an example? I long to hear from you.
However it would be another twenty years before Boniface asked for her support in Germany when he desperately needed someone learned in Classics, Scripture, the Church Fathers, canon law and the decrees of all the councils. She had studied under Mother Tetta (in secular life, Cuthberga, sister of the King of Wessex, wife of the King of Northumbria).
So Leoba, with a party of thirty nuns set out from Wimborne for Germany. Bonicafe made her abbess of the monastery of Bischolsheim that became a centre for training women to be missionaries and who undoubtedly help Boniface in his enormous task. Leoba's biographer, Rudolf, describes her as a female Boniface and a worthy descendant of Benedict and Scholastica. As well as being learned she was holy and full of kindness, which is of course the standard formula. 'In her conduct there was no arrogance or pride; she was no distinguisher of persons, but showed herself affable and kindly to all. In appearance she was angelic, in word pleasant, clear in mind, great in prudence, Catholic in faith, most patient in hope, universal in her charity.'
More of her character comes to light in a number of stories told about how she administered the convent and her miraculous powers. In her monastery great emphasis was placed on reading and therefore on book production. Leoba herself is described as a prodigious reader, even having young nuns reading to her while she slept, and catching them immediately if they slackened their pace. She insisted that her nuns took plenty of sleep, because 'lack of sleep dulled the mind, especially for reading'. It is clear, then, that lectio divino the ancient monastic practice of slow meditative reading of the Word of God, played a significant part in the monasticism of Leoba. More time was given by her to reading than to manual labour. Yet she, with all the nuns did work with her hands. One of her mottoes was that she who 'will not work should not eat'.
She was also a worker of miracles such as calming a great storm that had ripped off roofs. Walking out of the church she made the sign of the cross, and bid in God's name for the fury to cease. As a result of this miracle and others "many noble and influential men gave their daughters to God" as nuns; widows too took the veil. This brought Leoba into contact with the Charlemagne's wife, Hildergarde.
Around the year 753, Boniface and Leoba met for the last time. It is a tender scene as he commands his monks to care always for Leoba with reverence, reaffirming his wish that, after her death, their bones should rest side by side, 'so that they who had served God during their lifetime with equal sincerity and zeal should await together the day of resurrection'. He then gave her his own cowl, begging her to continue the great missionary work. Leoba survived him for over twenty years, which she spent administering her monasteries and keeping in close contact with Lull, Boniface's successor. This work took precedence over the needs of Charlemagne's wife, Hildegarde, who would have liked to have kept her at court. 'But,' says her biographer, 'Leoba detested the life at court like poison.' She seems to have replaced Boniface as the counsellor of all: 'And because of her wide knowledge of the scriptures and her prudence in counsel they [the princes and bishops] often discussed spiritual matters and ecclesiastical discipline with her.'
Towards the end of her life, when Leoba was already 'decrepit through age', Queen Hildegarde sent for her one last time, and 'although Leoba was not at all pleased, she agreed to go for the sake of their long-standing friendship'. As usual, Leoba detested her time in the court at Aachen and despite protestations, left as soon as she could. Queen Hildegarde, embracing her friend rather more affectionately than usual, [she] kissed her on the mouth, the forehead and the eyes and took leave of her with these words: 'Farewell for evermore, my dearly beloved lady and sister; farewell most precious half of my soul ... Never more on this earth shall we enjoy each other's presence.'
Although the monastery at Fulda was forbidden territory to women, Leoba was granted permission to come there to pray close to the grave of Boniface. When Leoba died probably on September 28, 780, Leoba, the monks ignored Bonmiface's wish for this gifted and holy nun to be buried next to him. Instead the monks buried her to the north of the altar. Later, her remains were moved to St Peter's church, in order, it was said, that the tomb could be freely visited by female pilgrims. In many ways, the death of Leoba signalled the end of an era. She was one of the last of an extraordinary group of Anglo-Saxon nuns whose labours created the Europe we know today. From the great monastery at Wimborne, thirty nuns had moved to the German mission-fields, where they had laboured side by side with the monks. This era was now almost over, as women became to be forced into enclosures.
The other outstanding nun was Walburga, also related to Boniface. When Boniface appealed for help in Germany his blood relations, Willibald, Wunnibald and their sister, Walburga responded. Willibald worked for forty years as missionary and pastor in Bavaria and became the first bishop of Eichstatt. At Heidenheim near Stuttgart he founded a double monastery, of which his brother St. Wunnebald was made abbot, and Walburga Abbess of Heidenheim. She like Leoba had been a nun at Wimborne. Although an Anglo-Saxon princess this did not hinder her from taking the veil. Indeed she had come to this famous monastery at ten years old. She was here for approximately thirty years before going to Germany.
For many years Heidenheim was famous as a centre for the education of clergy, and valuable help was given to Boniface by the Abbot and his sister Walburga in the organization of the Church over a wide area. On the death of Wunnebald in 761, Walburga succeeded him as superior, and there she remained as abbess of both men and women until her death in 779.
As abbess she was wise and learned, noted for her healing powers, and even taming wolves. She was buried in Heidenhelm. Some time later her body was taken to the Church of the Holy Cross at Eichstatt and placed in a tomb from which myrrh soon began to gush forth. Before long news spread of miraculous healings, particularly with eye diseases, and her tomb became a centre of numerous pilgrimages.
Both Leoba and Warlburga had been trained under the abbess Tetta who was of noble birth, but known more for nobility in her conduct and good qualities. She ruled with prudence and discretion over this double monastery of wimbourne, separated by a river. "She gave instruction by deed rather than by words, and whenever she said that a certain course of action was harmful to the salvation of souls she showed by her own conduct that it was to be shunned. She maintained discipline with such circumspection (and the discipline there was much stricter than anywhere else) that she would never allow her nuns to approach clerics. She was so anxious that the nuns, in whose company she always remained, should be cut off from the company of men that she denied entrance into the community not merely to laymen and clerics but even to bishops."
Before Tetta, one of the most outstanding abbesses was St. Hilda of Whitby of royal birth who had supervised the Synod of Whitby in 664 a turning point for the Church in England. She had planned to join her sister Herewith at the community as Chelles near Paris, and to "abandon the secular life and serve God alone". Thus she travelled to East Anglia to prepare for going on to Gaul. But Hilda lingered too long in the province and was recalled by the Northumbrian bishop, Aidan, to be abbess of the double monastery at Hartlepool. Here she stayed for seven years before moving to Whitby. Under her leadership and teaching, especially of the Scriptures, the monastery here became famous and produced five bishops. Hilda insisted on study of the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church, and proper preparation for the priesthood, teaching the monks and nuns by both precept and example. 'So great was her prudence that not only ordinary folk but kings and princes used to come and ask her advice.' Bede noted, 'All who knew her called her Mother, such were her wonderful godliness and grace.'
She is also known for encouraging the young poet Caedmon. One day in the monastery a worker called Caedmon came to the abbess to relate an extraordinary dream. He was a simple, unlearned man, self-conscious because of his inability to sing to the harp and recite poetry as others did at feasts. That evening when he saw the harp being passed his way, he had left and returned disconsolately to his bed in the stables. Falling asleep, he dreamed that someone came and asked him to sing. He said sadly that he didn't know how. 'But you shall sing to me,' was the reply. 'about God's creation.' Immediately Caedmon began to sing in praise of God verses he had never known before. When Abbess Hilda heard his beautiful, moving poem, she realized that this was a gift of God. From then onwards Caedmon composed devotional songs of such great sweetness and power, that many were moved to greater piety. He was the first to write religious poetry in English. Now for the first time people could hear of Christ's Passion, Resurrection and Ascension in verses in their own tongue--English.
For six years until the end of her life, the saintly abbess suffered from a painful illness. But she continued to instruct her flock and until the moment of her death never ceased thanking God for her purifying trial. The very night of her repose, a nun in another monastery founded by Hilda was woken by the bell which was normally tolled at the passing away of a nun, and she saw Hilda's soul being guided to heaven by angels in a cloud of light. She informed her abbess of the vision, and all the nuns were called to prayer and the reading of the Psalter. In the morning news reached them confirming that St. Hilda had died that night. .
Hilda' successor was St. Elfleda, sister of King Oswy of Northumbria. As an infant she had been placed in the convent of Hartlepool where Hilda educated her and took her to Whitby. She too supervised this double monastery with love and justice, and mediated in a dispute between Wilfrid and Theodore. She also aided her friend St. Cuthbert. Elfieda died at Whitby.
Before Hilda too there were other famous abbesses in England. Perhaps the first convent in England was at Folkestone in Kent. Eanswyth, daughter of King Ebald of Kent and granddaughter of Ethelred was betrothed to a Northumbrian prince, but she asked for a piece of land near Folkestone on which to build a convent. Whilst it was being built she learnt how to be an abbess. On the completion of the convent she and her friends lived the monastic life. However she did not live long, but long enough to be remembered as the Abbess of Folkestone, and probably the first abbess in England.
Living around the same time as Hilda was Etheldreda, another noble woman, daughter of King Anna of East Anglia, who became one of the most venerated of all Anglo-Saxon women saints. Though twice married, she retained her virginity. Her first husband, a very pious man, died soon after they were wed. Her second husband, King Egfrid, after twelve years of a brother-sister relationship, begged Bishop Wilfrid to persuade the Queen to consummate the marriage, promising him great wealth. Failing in his desire, her husband finally conceded to her request to enter a convent where she could serve Christ alone. A year later she built a double monastery at Ely, on the site of the present Cathedral, and became its abbess.
Everyone revered Ethelreda for her strict ascetic life and loved her for her grace. She foretold the coming of a plague, indicating how many sisters would die of it; including herself. Sixteen years after her death, her sister St. Sexburga, who succeeded Etheldreda as abbess, wished to transfer her remains into the church. When the coffin was opened, her body was found to be completely free of decay; the very cloths in which she was wrapped looked fresh and new. For many years miracles occurred at her tomb which became a centre of pilgrimage. Numerous churches were dedicated to her, and countless girls were given her name (which was gradually corrupted to Audrey). To this day her hand remains incorrupt and can be venerated in a church in Ely.
Another famous abbot was Mildred the daughter of Merewald, an Anglian ruler of the seventh century. Her mother was St. Ermenburga, a Kentish princess. Mildred was educated at the convent school in Chelles, near Paris. Following her stay in France, she was pursued by a young man with marriage in mind. Mildred rejected his overtures and entered a monastery called Minster that had been founded by her mother on the Isle of Thanet. St. Theodore of Canterbury received her into the community of which she eventually became abbess. Mildred had reputation for great holiness and for generosity and compassion to the poor St. Mildred saw the nobility of the religious life and thus rejected what could have been for her a titled life of ease. Her detachment from this world's goods led her to a firm commitment to Jesus and His poor. She died c. 700
St. Ebba was sister to St. Oswald and Oswi, kings of Northumbria. With Oswi's help she founded a nunnery upon the Darwent, near Durham. She also founded a double monastery at Coldingham in the marshes, now in Scotland, below Berwick, which she ruled until she died in 683.
All of the above women who ruled over double monasteries were of noble birth, well- educated and superb teachers. Double monasteries were popular for some centuries as they enabled the brethren who were priests to administer to the spiritual needs of their sisters. They all shared the same church for the Liturgy and as one body they recited the Hours. Isn't this how it should be?