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Saint Boniface – English Apostle to the German Peoples

Saint Boniface – English Apostle to the German Peoples

Cornelis Bloemaert, “Saint Boniface,” c. 1630 (photo: Public Domain)

Saint Boniface (680 – 754) — or Winfrid, his baptismal name — was born to noble, Christian parents in Crediton, Devonshire. He chose the religious life already as a boy, inspired by the demeanour and conversation of two monks who had visited his family. His father initially objected to Winfrid’s decision. But a serious illness drove him to see things differently, and he relented, sending the boy to be educated at the abbey of Exeter. After finishing his studies, Winfrid worked as a teacher and wrote a still extant grammar. At the age of thirty, he was ordained a priest.

Though Winfrid had a bright future in the English Church, he opted to become a missionary to the Germans. In 716, he obtained permission from his abbot and, with two companions, set out for Friesland (today’s Netherlands). However, the local duke was an enemy of Christianity and was at war with Charles Martel, the Frankish duke. The conditions, therefore, were not favourable for evangelisation, and the three missionaries returned to England. Two years later, in 718, Winfrid tried again. This time, however, he went first to Rome to obtain a letter of commission from the pope, seeing that this would give him greater authority with the local chieftains and ease the process of evangelisation of the pagans. At this visit, the pope, Gregory II, changed Winfrid’s name to Boniface, which means fortunate.

St Boniface then went to Germany, where he spent the remainder of his life. In his ministry to the people, he found that the support of the temporal rulers was of great benefit. In a letter to England, he wrote, “Without the patronage of the Frankish chiefs, I cannot govern the people or exercise discipline over the clergy and monks, or check the practice of paganism.” He had the support of Charles Martel, and later of his son Carloman, and finally of Pepin the Short after Carloman had retired to a monastery. In 731, Saint Boniface was made archbishop of Germany, and some years later, he was appointed apostolic legate. As the legate, he crowned Pepin King of the Franks, an event which may well have been witnessed by Pepin’s son, Charlemagne.

One of Saint Boniface’s most famous deeds occurred when, early in his mission, he, along with one or two companions, cut down — while the local pagan inhabitants watched — an oak tree deemed sacred to them and believed to be protected by Thor. The tree quickly fell and split into four sections upon hitting the ground. Those watching were amazed that their god had no power over St Boniface and his companions, and many converted to the faith.

St Boniface died in 751, a martyr’s death. While on an evangelising mission to northeastern Germany, local pagans attacked his group, and he was killed without offering resistance.

In his work, St Boniface had been guided by two principles. The first was to restore the obedience of the clergy to their bishops in union with the pope of Rome. The second was the establishment of many houses of prayer, which took the form of Benedictine monasteries. Many English monks and nuns followed him to the continent, where he introduced the Benedictine nuns to the active apostolate of education.


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