This evening is Walpurgisnacht, or Saint Walburga’s eve.
In the Roman martyrology, St. Walburga’s Feast — a day that commemorates the date of her canonization — is on May 1, though it isn’t celebrated liturgically on the 1962 calendar. Her Feast is, however, a great holiday in many European countries, especially in Germany, Finland, Sweden, and Eastern European countries, and the celebrations begin on its eve — the night of 30 April — a time known as Walpurgisnacht. Who was St. Walburga, and why is she held is such esteem especially in those areas of the world? (1)
Saint Walburga [Walpurga, (Old English: Wealdburg, Latin: Valpurga),Valderburg or Guibor] was daughter of St. Richard, King of Wessex, and his wife, Queen Winna (sister of St. Boniface), Princess Walburga, along with her uncle and two brothers, Saint Willibald and Saint Winnebald, made enormous contributions to the conversion of the Germanic peoples to Christianity in the eighth century AD. (2)
When she was eleven, her father and brothers went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, so she was sent to the abbess of Wimborne who ran her Benedictine abbey with holiness and discipline in mind. Walburga’s father died in Lucca a year after her arrival at the abbey, and she remained there for twenty-six years, receiving a good education, including the study of Latin. This last skill allowed her to write the account of her brother Willibald’s pilgrimage, an act which has led to her being seen as the first female author of England and Germany. (1)
Such was the magnitude of this undertaking that St. Boniface realised the long-term success of his mission would require as much help and support as he could muster. Boniface was one of the first missionaries to call women to missionary work, and Walburga, along with a large group of nuns, was sent from Wessex to assist him. (2)
She spent some time in the abbey at Bischofsheim, and was later made abbess of Heidenheim, part of a double-monastery where her favorite brother, Winibald, ruled over the male monastics. When this beloved brother died, she not only ruled her abbey, but ruled over his monastery as well, and became known for her sanctity and miraculous gifts of healing. The story is told of how one night her Sisters came to accompany her down to supper, and found the hall to her room bathed in a divine light that remained until Matins the next morning. (1)
In 776 AD, Walburga fell ill and Willibald assisted her in her last moments. She was buried next to her deceased brother, St. Winibald, and many wonders and miracles were wrought at both tombs. St. Willibald lived another ten years. After his death, devotion to Walburga declined and her tomb was neglected.
In 870 AD, Oktar, Bishop of Eichstadt, set out to restore her tomb and the monastery where she was buried. Whilst the restoration work was being undertaken, workmen desecrated her tomb. She appeared one night to the bishop, reproaching him. This episode led to the translation of her remains to Eichstadt, where they were placed in the Church of the Holy Cross, now renamed after her. (2)
In 893 her tomb was opened to extract relics and it was found that her remains were immersed in precious oil that since then has continued to flow. Portions of her relics have been taken to Cologne and Antwerp, as well as to other places.
In the Roman Martyrology her feast is listed as 1 May, and in Germany the previous evening is known as Walpurgis Night (Walpurgisnacht). Because Walburga was canonized on 1 May (ca. 870), she became associated with May Day festivities, especially in the Finnish and Swedish calendars. In the Benedictine Breviary her feast is assigned to 25 (in leap year 26) Feb. (2)
Image: Crop of Statue of Saint Walpurga in the church of Contern, Luxembourg. (3)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff