Saint Fursey, Abbot

January 17

Today is the feast day of Saint Fursey.  Ora pro nobis.

Saint Fursey (575-650, also known as Saint Fursa, Fursy, or Furseus), Bishop of Ireland, visionary, missionary in East Anglia, and founder and abbot of monasteries.  Saint Fursey is remembered not only for his missionary work, but also for his ecstasies and visions of the afterlife, including clear visions of Purgatory.  Much of his life was recorded by the Venerable Bede, who wrote of him with the highest esteem.

Saint Fursey was born on the island of Inisguia en Lough Carri, Ireland.  He was the son of Fintan, son of Finloga, prince of South Muster, and Gelgesia, daughter of Aedhfinn, prince of Hy-Briuin in Connaught. He was born probably amongst the Hy-Bruin, and was baptized by St. Brendan the Traveller, his father’s uncle, who then ruled a monastery in the Island of Oirbsen, now called Inisquin in Lough Corrib. He was educated by St. Brendan’s monks.

Fursey left home at a young age, and went to the monastery built by Saint Meldan, located on Quinn Island. “He was of very noble Irish blood!” writes Venerable Bede, “but was much more noble in mind than by birth… He gave himself very much to reading holy Writ and following the monastic life even from his boyhood; and he did everything that he learned ought to be done as is befitting holy men!” 

According to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English nation, Fursey founded a monastery at Rathmat, probably in Ireland, and then went with two companions St Foillan and St Ultan as a pilgrim for Christ (peregrinus pro Christo) to East Anglia. King Sigbert II of the East Anglians, who had been an exile in Gaul, received the pilgrims courteously and gave them land at Burgh Castle, near modern Yarmouth, where Fursey founded a monastery.

This would have been around the same time as the Roman mission to England under St Augustine arrived in Kent (597). However, neither the Roman mission nor the mission from Lindisfarne seems to have reached East Anglia by the time Fursey arrived. King Sigbert must have been aware of the differences between Celtic and Roman practices, because he also welcomed a Burgundian bishop named Felix, who died in 647. Felix established a Roman diocese named Dunwich, but this has now disappeared under the North Sea as a result of coastal erosion. All the records were lost, and the only remaining trace of his mission is the name of the port of Felixstowe. Sigbert seems to have thought that there was room for both Celtic and Roman missioners in his large, predominantly pagan, kingdom.

Fursey and his community stayed around Yarmouth for about twelve years, following the Celtic Rite. Felix was a faithful missionary, and evidently tolerant of the Celtic monks and their ways. The Roman clergy who came to the area respected Fursey for his devotion and his visions: he was given to sitting out in the biting East Anglian winds wearing only a thin shirt, and sweating with the power of his spiritual experiences.

Bede the Venerable  says of Fursey:

There came out of Ireland a holy man called Fursa, renowned both for his words and actions, and remarkable for his singular virtues, being desirous to live like a stranger for our Lord, wherever an opportunity should offer… he saw the angels chanting in heaven, and a vision of hell in which he saw four fires – the fire of falsehood, the fire of covetousness, the fire of discord and the fire of iniquity.

Saint Fursey eventually fell ill, worn out by his tireless preaching and evangelization.  He was not expected to life long, but rather than succomb, he continued praying and undertook the construction of a monastery on land given to him by the king.   He also began experiencing visions and ecstasies, the Lord gifting him with knowledge of the afterlife.  The Venerable Bede wrote, “Fursey built the monastery in order to give himself more freely to the study of heavenly things. He fell sick whilst living there, and being in a swoon, and out of his body, was found worthy to behold the choirs of the Angels and to hear the hymns that are sung in heaven. He beheld three days afterwards the happiness of the Blessed: the Devils who strove to hinder him reaching heaven, and the Angels who shielded him from their attacks. He heard the Devils accusing him of his deeds, words, and thoughts, as if they were written in a book: and he also heard wonderful things, both woeful and gladsome, from the Angels and from the Blessed!”

When Sigbert was killed by the pagan Penda of Mercia, Fursey and some of his monks went to the Frankish kingdom of Neustria. He left one of his brothers, Foillan, in charge of the Norfolk monastery, and at least one other Irish monk, Ultan (not Ultan of Arbraccan), went with him to Gaul.

Here King Clovis II ( 636-657) authorised  Fursey  to found a monastery east of Paris at Lagny-sur-Marne (Latinacium or Lagny-en-Brie) in the territory of Neustria (648). In the monastery he created three chapels. He was protected here by Echinoald, the administrator of Clovis II.

It was while traveling between that monastery and the monastery in East Anglia that an angel visited him, telling him that his time on earth was at an end.  Receiving the Sacraments, he died peacefully, and was buried at the monastery in Peronne. 

After Fursey’s death while on a journey at Mezerolles in 650, Echinoald had his body translated to Péronne, which became known as Perrona Scottorum (Péronne of the Irish). His tomb became a place of pilgrimage and the monastery became an Irish centre. Ultan went there, and became abbot. Fursey’s shrine is said to have been the work of St Eloi (Eligius, c. 588-660), a celebrated metalworker who also made the shrines of St Denys of Paris and St Martin of Tours.

The entry for Fursey in the Félire of St Oengus seems to make reference to his friendship with kings:

Cráibdig i féil Fursai
fris-rocabsat ríge,
nói míli, méit búadae,
for fichit már míle.

In art St. Fursey is represented with two oxen at his feet in commemoration of the prodigy by which, according to legend, Erkinoald’s claim to his body was made good; or he is represented striking water from the soil at Lagny with the point of his staff; or beholding a vision of angels, or gazing at the flames of purgatory and hell. It is disputed whether he was a bishop; he may have been a chorepiscopus. A litany attributed to him is among the manuscripts in Trinity College Dublin. An Irish prophecy is attributed to him by Harris.

Image: Saint Fursy et le moine (Saint Fursey, Forseus). Cote : Français 185 , Fol. 218. Vies de saints, France, Paris, XIVe siècle, Richard de Montbaston et collaborateurs. (4)

Research by REGINA Staff


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