Wiborada of St. Gall, Anchoress and Martyr
May 2 was the Feast of Wiborada of St. Gall, Anchoress and Martyr.
“Saint Wiborada of St. Gall (also Guiborat or Weibrath) (died 926) was a member of the Swabian nobility in what is present-day Switzerland. She was an anchoress, Benedictine nun, and martyr, as well as the first woman formally canonized by the Vatican. Her vita was written ca. 1075 by Herimannus, a monk of St Gall.
Wiborada was born to a wealthy noble family in Swabia. After the death of their parents, Wiborada joined her brother Hatto in becoming a Benedictine at the Abbey of St. Gall. There, she occupied herself by making Hatto’s clothes and helping to bind many of the books in the monastery library…
At this time, it appears that Wiborada was charged with some type of serious infraction or wrongdoing, and was subjected to the medieval practice of ordeal by fire to prove her innocence. Although she was exonerated, the embarrassment probably influenced her next decision: withdrawing from the world and becoming an ascetic.
When she petitioned to become an anchoress, Bishop Salomon of Constance asked her to accompany him to the Monastery of St. Gallen. He arranged for her to stay in a cell next to the church of St. Georgen near the monastery, where she remained for four years before relocating to a cell adjoining the church of St. Magnus.
She became renowned for her austerity, and was said to have a gift of prophecy, both of which drew admirers and hopeful students, one of which, a woman named Rachildis, whom Wiborada had cured of a disease, joined her as an anchoress…
The end of Wiborada’s life was violent and dramatic. In 925, she predicted a Hungarian invasion of her region. Her warning allowed the priests and religious of St. Gall and St. Magnus to hide the books and wine and escape into caves in nearby hills. The Abbot Engilbert urged Wiborada to escape to safety, but she insisted that it was her duty to remain and pray for the inhabitants of the city.
When the Magyar marauders reached St. Gall, they burned down St. Magnus and broke into the roof of Wiborada’s cell. Upon finding her kneeling in prayer, they clove her skull with a hatchet and left her to die. Her companion Rachildis was not killed, and lived another 21 years, during which her disease returned. She spent the rest of her life learning patience through suffering. Wiborada’s refusal to leave her cell and the part she played in saving the lives of the priests and religious of her convent have merited her the title of martyr.”
‘KLINGNAU, in the Swiss canton of Aargau, was the birthplace of St. Wiborada, who is called in French Guiborat and in German Weibrath. Her parents belonged to the Swabian nobility, and she led a retired life in the house of her father and mother. After one of her brothers, Hatto by name, had decided to be a priest she made his clothes and also worked for the monastery of St. Gall, where he prosecuted his studies. Many of the books in the abbey library were covered by her.
Upon the death of her parents, Wiborada joined this brother, who had been made provost of the church of St. Magnus, and he taught her Latin so that she could join him in saying the offices. Their house became a kind of hospital to which Hatto would bring patients for Wiborada to tend. After the brother and sister had made a pilgrimage to Rome, Hatto resolved to take the habit at St. Gall, largely through Wiborada’s influence. She, on the other hand, remained for some years longer in the world, though not of it. It may have been at this period-but more probably, as certain writers have argued, after she became a recluse-that she came into touch with St. Ulric, who had been sent, as a delicate little lad of seven, to the monastic school of St. Gall. We read that she prophesied his future elevation to the episcopate, and in after years he regarded her as his spiritual mother.
According to some of the saint’s biographers-but not the earliest-she suffered so severely from calumnies against her character that she underwent trial by ordeal at Constance to clear herself of the charges. Whether the story be true or false, she decided to withdraw into solitude that she might serve God without distraction. At first she took up her abode in an anchorhold on a mountain not far from St. Gall, but in 915 she occupied a cell beside the church of St. Magnus; there she remained for the rest of her life, practising extraordinary mortifications. Many visitors came to see her, attracted by the fame of her miracles and prophecies. Other recluses settled near her, but only one of them was admitted to any sort of companionship.
This was a woman called Rachildis, a niece of St. Notker Balbulus. She was brought to St. Wiborada suffering from a disease which the doctors had pronounced incurable. Having apparently been cured by the ministrations of the recluse, she could never be induced to leave her benefactress. But after the death of the latter the malady returned with so many complications that she seemed a second Job, owing to the multiplicity of her diseases and the patience with which she bore them.
St. Wiborada foretold her own death at the hands of the invading Hungarians, adding that Rachildis would be left unmolested. Her warnings enabled the clergy of St. Magnus and the monks of St. Gall to escape in time, but she herself refused to leave her cell. The barbarians burnt the church and, having made an opening in the roof of the hermitage, entered it as she knelt in prayer. They struck her on the head with a hatchet and left her dying; Rachildis, however, remained unharmed and survived her friend for twenty-one years. St. Wiborada was canonized in 1047.”