Saint of the Day – 5 June – St Boniface – Martyr, Bishop, the “The Apostle of Germany” – born Winfrid, Wynfrith, or Wynfryth – (c 673-680 at Crediton, Devonshire, England – martyred 5 June 754 at Dokkum, Freisland (modern Nederlands) – relics interred at Monastery at Fulda, Germany). Bishop/Archbishop, Martyr, Missionary and Evangelist, Teacher, Writer, Preacher, Theologian, Founder of Schools, Convents, Monasteries and Churches – known as “The Apostle of Germany”. Patron of brewers, file cutters, tailors, Germany, archdiocese of Saint-Boniface, Manitoba, Canada, diocese of Fulda, Germany. Attributes book, fountain, fox, oak tree, raven, scourge, spring of water, sword, with axe in hand at the foot of an oak tree, book stabbed with a sword, cutting down a tree.
St Boniface was killed in Frisia in 754, along with 52 others. His remains were returned to Fulda, where they rest in a sarcophagus which became a site of pilgrimage. Facts about Boniface’s life and death as well as his work became widely known, since there is a wealth of material available—a number of vitae, especially the near-contemporary Vita Bonifatii auctore Willibaldi and legal documents, possibly some sermons, and above all his correspondence.
Norman F. Cantor (Historian) notes the three roles Boniface played that made him “one of the truly outstanding creators of the first Europe, as the apostle of Germania, the reformer of the Frankish church and the chief fomentor of the alliance between the papacy and the Carolingian family.” Through his efforts to reorganise and regulate the church of the Franks, he helped shape Western Christianity and many of the dioceses he proposed remain today. After his martyrdom, he was quickly hailed as a saint in Fulda and other areas in Germania and in England. His cult is still notably strong today. Boniface is celebrated as a missionary; he is regarded as a unifier of Europe and he is seen by Catholics as a Germanic national figure.
Born and named Winfrith in Devonshire, England, Boniface grew up in a noble family of some wealth. As a boy Boniface begged his parents to allow him to enter the nearby monastery at Exeter following a visit by some local monks. So impressed with their life, Boniface joined the community, learning all he could and proving himself to be an apt and scholarly student. After a short time, he transferred to a larger monastery, in Nursling and there became a well-respected teacher.
He spent the next ten years teaching and was so well respected that students traveled great distances to attend his lectures, circulating their notes throughout the whole of England. At age thirty, Boniface was ordained a priest and began preaching, as well as teaching, with great impact. His life, while diligent and obedient, was comfortable and he was assured continued success in the English church. However, Winfrith felt called to missionary work. He petitioned his abbot several times, until was finally granted leave to travel to modern-day Netherlands, to assist a missionary there, Willibrord, struggling to bring the Gospel to those there who continued to practice paganism. Upon arriving in Friesland, Winfrith discovered that the ruler of those parts, Duke Radbold, had virtually declared war on Christianity and without support, their mission would not succeed. Prudently, Winfrith returned to England where his community welcomed him back, attempting to elect him abbot. He refused and instead traveled to Rome for a personal audience with the pope, hoping to secure a Papal Commission to return to Friesland.
Pope Gregory II welcomed the adventurous and obedient servant that Winfrith had become, renaming him Boniface and providing him with a general Papal Commission to bring the Word of God “to the heathen.” Saint Boniface set off with zeal, traveling through modern-day Germany and Bavaria, locating and working with the missionary Willibrord (who by this time was well advanced in years). Willibrord wished for Boniface to assume his work but Boniface felt called to continue traveling deeper into non-Christian territories, asserting that his commission led him not just to one dioceses, but to all “the heathen.”
St Boniface had amazing success, converting two local chieftains who became zealous Christians, leading to the conversion of their tribes. He was granted a plot of land, upon which he founded the monastery at Amoeneburg. His preaching style was direct and easy to understand and he took care to incorporate local traditions—whenever possible—into his teachings. For example, there was a local game in which they sticks called kegels were thrown at smaller sticks called heides. Boniface bought religion to the game, having the heides represent demons and knocking them down showing purity of spirit. However, Saint Boniface was also extremely orthodox in his teaching and would quickly point out any discrepant or pagan practices that crept into the worship of the people. Such was his success that he was summoned by Pope Gregory II back to Rome. There, Boniface was consecrated a bishop and granted general jurisdiction over “the races in the parts of Germany and east of the Rhine who live in error, in the shadow of death.” Gregory II also provided Boniface with a Papal Letter to Charles Martel, the duke who ruled Bavaria and had earned himself the nickname “Hammer” due to his swift and authoritarian rule and retribution. Boniface delivered the letter on his return trip to, and was granted civil protection. Between the commission of the pope and the support of the duke, Boniface was free to increase his efforts. He decided to drive the pagan beliefs from the region by attacking their source.
Many in the area continued to worship Norse gods, including Thor, who were believed to reside in the forms of large stately trees. After announcing his intentions to the tribes, who watched, awaiting the retribution of Thor, Boniface walked up to the tree, removed his shirt, took up an axe and without a word he hacked down the six foot wide wooden god. The tree fell, splintering into four parts, upon one of which Boniface climbed, addressing the crowd that had gathered. “How stands your mighty god? My God is stronger than he.” From his perspective, the saint could see that the fallen tree landed in the shape of the cross. Also, the only tree spared in the area was a small fir tree, which many consider the origin of the Christmas tree. The crowd’s reaction was amazement and confusion and conversions began. Using the oak wood from the tree, Boniface had a chapel built on the spot, dedicated to Saint Peter.
Boniface continued his mission across Bavaria, Germany, and Holland, encountered previous missionaries who had not remained true to the teachings of the Church. He undertook significant Church reform, instructing the missionaries, priests, and brothers, and re-establishing obedience to the authority of the Church. In many cases, Boniface worked with the individuals in question, not to defrock them and remove them from service—citing the increased damage that would do to the faithful—but to reform, renew and reconsecrate them to the Lord. He was both practical and obedient, seeking the will of the Lord, the counsel of respected bishops, and the success of the growth of the one, true Church. Following successful re-establishment of discipline and communication between these misguided missions and the Church, as well as establishing several new monastic communities, was consecrated Archbishop of the entire region. Nearing seventy years old but no less zealous in his desire for conversion, Boniface returned to Friesland—the first place of his work in Bavaria—to minister to his first congregation who were slipping back into paganism. He gave up his archbishopric, dressed again in the simple robes of the monk and carried with him only what he needed, including the text written by Saint Ambrose, “The Advantage of Death”.
Upon arrival at Friesland, he arranged for a group of recent converts to join him, that he might teach and Confirm them. While waiting in his tent, reading the Bible, a group of pagans appeared in the encampment with intent to harm Boniface and his companions. His companions would have opposed them but he said, “My children, cease your resistance; Spill no useless blood. The long-expected day is come at last. Scripture forbids us to resist evil with evil. Let us put our hope in God: He will save our souls.” He and 52 of his followers were killed. In the moment of his death, Saint Boniface raised the Bible he was reading above his head. The sword of his slayer passed through the Book before cleaving the blessed saint.
Following the departure of the pagan barbarians, a small group of Christians came to the campsite. They carried the relics and body of Saint Boniface to the cathedral at Fulda for burial, where it remains today. The Bible that Boniface was reading can also be found at the cathedral at Fulda.
St. Mary’s Michigan City IN
A stained glass window depicting Saint Boniface, Parish Church of St Mary, Luxborough, Somerset
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