St. Lioba

(D. 782)

We usually assume, I imagine, that the service of women on foreign missions is a practice of modern origin. Not so! Thus, when the Englishman St. Boniface had undertaken his mission to the pagan German heartland around A.D. 719, he invited English nuns to help him. Over a score of them responded to the invitation.

Their leader was St. Lioba. Lioba was a native of Wessex, England. Sent to school at Thanet Abbey and later Wimborne Abbey (Dorset), she eventually decided to become a nun herself. The Benedictine religious life suited her to a “T”. Innocent, and diligent by nature, she progressed in the monastic career and became a good example to all her associates. Thus she lived up to her name Lioba, an abbreviation of Liobgetha, “the dear one.”

Boniface was consecrated bishop in 722 and assigned by Pope Gregory II to the mission of Saxony, Thuringia and Hesse. (He established his headquarters at Mainz on the Rhine.) Now, Lioba was related to this great missionary through her mother Ebba. When she learned of the great enterprise that he had shouldered, she wrote him a sweet letter expressing her greetings and asking for his prayers. She included in the letter a short religious poem in Latin that she had composed, and expressed the hope that he might criticize it. This and her other correspondence, of which a fair amount has been preserved, proves that the nuns at Wimborne Abbey were highly literate.

The receipt of Lioba’s letter got Boniface to thinking that it would be of great help to him to have a group of well-trained English sisters on hand as his helpers. The upshot of it was that St. Tetta, abbess of Wimborne, sent him some thirty nuns, including SS. Lioba, Thecla and Walburga. When they reached Mainz, he gave them as residence a dwelling called Bischofsheim. There the sisters quickly established a model monastery, and soon began to receive native vocations. Before long Abbess Lioba was called on to set up daughter monasteries elsewhere in Germany. Other convents not of her founding eagerly asked Bischofsheim to send one of its nuns among them to show them the “right way” to be religious. The “right way” was clearly the way followed by St. Lioba herself. Beautiful and always pleasant, she was even-tempered and charitable in word and deed. She adhered strictly to the Benedictine rule of life, which means that she was very common sense.

Of course, these Benedictine nuns, unlike most modern missionary sisters, were held to the cloister, and did not travel about on errands of mercy. But their saintly superior saw to it that they were well educated, knew Latin, and spent much of their “working hours” on the copying of manuscripts. Quite likely they added to this educational apostolate the teaching of girls, as was the custom in English convents. Lioba herself was always open to consultation by the hundreds who sought her advice. One of her best friends was Blessed Hildegard, the queen of Charlemagne.

When St. Boniface was about to set out for Friesland in 754 on the journey that would bring him the martyr’s crown, he bade his cousin an affectionate farewell. As if anticipating his death, he commended her to the care of his monks at Fulda, and asked that she be buried in the same tomb as himself.

After his death, Lioba often visited the shrine of Boniface at Fulda. However, she survived Boniface by many years, and when she died, the monks feared to disturb Boniface’s bones by interring hers with him. But she was buried not far away from him in the abbey-church of Fulda near the high altar. Thus these two kindred Benedictine missionaries, reminiscent of St. Benedict himself and his sister St. Scholastica, repose under the same roof, in this case at the very heart of Germany’s sacred Catholic city.

--Father Robert F. McNamara