Stories of Saints and Martyrs - Jetta S. Wolff

St. Boniface (Winfred)

June 5; A.D. 755

This is the story of a brave old saint of our own land—an Englishman. We may well be proud of him.

In the year 680 there was born in a secluded village in Devonshire, called Crediton, a little boy to whom was given the name Winfred. Among the rugged hills of his native county he grew up a strong, healthy child. We may think of him as a bright, rosy lad, tall for his age, passing the live-long day in the open air; playing with other boys in the green fields at the foot of the mountains; running with childish glee along the lanes and roadways around his village home.

Winfred was not more than five or six years old when there came, one day, a band of monks to the village. Every one ran out to gaze upon them, and when they stopped and preached upon the village green, boys and men, women and children, all came up to hear what these strangers had to say. Among the throng was little Winfred. He listened, and his childish heart glowed. When the preaching was over he said, "I want to be a monk like these men."

People smiled at the little fellow who was too young, they thought, even to have understood what the monks had said. But little Winfred had understood, perhaps, more than many of the older listeners, and the words of the preachers had sunk deep into the boy's heart. He knew they had spoken of a loving Saviour Who had given His Life for men; of a Master Whom even a young lad as he was could serve; of a battle against all that was wrong and sinful in which each child might be a brave Christian soldier. He was not too young to have felt how hard it often is to be good, to resist what is wrong, to do what is right. The little boy of five or six had his own struggles with the evil nature within, and was able to see for himself that there was much sin among men around him. He thought nothing could be so grand and noble as to go about preaching and helping people to do right. His boyish heart was aglow, and his one wish from this day was to live among these monks and learn like them to teach and preach the Gospel.

"I too must be a monk," was his cry.

But Winfred's father would not listen to what seemed to him so strange a notion. He said sternly, No; that cannot be." The boy was silent for the time, but as he grew older his wish grew stronger and stronger. When he was about thirteen he was taken very ill. Every one thought he would die. The poor father was in great trouble. What could he do to save his beloved son? He remembered the boy's wish to become a monk. He bowed his head and vowed to give up his child to GOD, if only his life might be spared. His prayer was not in vain. The illness passed; Winfred grew strong and well again, and the father kept his vow. The boy was sent first to the Abbey at Exeter; then he went to Nutcell, where was one of the greatest schools of those days. Winfred liked study, and he became, after a time, one of the most learned men in England. He was fond also of teaching others all that he learned himself, and loved being among children and young people. They all loved him, too, for he was earnest and good and brave, and always full of zeal.

But St. Winfred was not content to pass his life in quiet and happiness, among duties that were easy and pleasant to him. He said he must go to the heathen and preach in rude, far-off lands the Gospel of peace and love. Across the centre of Europe were vast tracts of country where the name of CHRIST had never been heard, where the people were wild and savage but strong and numerous; people who often made inroads upon other lands, coming in great tribes from their own forest-covered countries, and by their strength and numbers overcoming all before them. Such in those days were the Germans, two tribes of whom—the Saxons and the Angles—had conquered a great part of Britain, as we know, about 300 years before the time of St. Winfred. To Germany, then, Winfred said he must go and work as a Missionary.

In the year 716 he set out. He went first northwards to Friesland. There he worked hard for two years, teaching the people the Faith of CHRIST, and showing them also how to live in a less rude, rough way than was their habit.

Then he came back for a little while to England and to his monastery, of which he was made Abbot.

But St. Winfred could not rest in peace while he knew how much work there was to be done among the heathen. So he soon set out again—never to return. Before beginning his mission work this time, he went with a band of pilgrims to Rome; then he proceeded to the forest of Thuringia, where for many years he worked most bravely. It was a hard life. Often he was in great peril, often called upon to bear cold, hunger, bodily distress of every sort. Still he went on teaching and preaching. He would never give in. After some time he left Thuringia for a little while to go again to Friesland. He found the mission he had founded there going on well, so with a thankful heart he travelled along the banks of the Rhine and the Moselle, back to Thuringia. Then he made another journey to Rome, and it was there that the new name of Boniface was given to him. So from this time he is less known by his own old English name of Winfred than by the Latin one given to him by the Pope of Rome. But this does not make him any the less an Englishman. An Englishman in heart he remained till the end of his life.

To the last he wrote long and earnest letters to his friends and fellow-workers in his native land. He loved England, and it must have been a great grief to him never to return there. But St. Boniface, as we will now call him, never for a moment thought of what he would like to do—only of what was his duty, of the work before him, and of what was best to be done.

The heathen among whom St. Boniface was working had in their own religion many strange rites. Like the Druids of France and Britain, they used to bow down before the great oak trees of their vast forests, and look upon them as gods, or at least as filled with power by their gods. And even when they learned to believe in JESUS CHRIST, they would often mix up their own strange ways of worship with the Christian prayers. St. Boniface was deeply pained at this, and thought much how he could show the people that their notions were vain and foolish.

One day he took some of his clergy, and went out into the forest of Hesse, which was near the little village of Geismar where he was staying, to cut down an immense oak tree which grew there. The Germans came round him and stood by in awe. They thought he could never cut down so huge a tree, both because of its size, and because it was sacred to the gods which they could not yet quite think false. But St. Boniface was strong of arm and will. A few strokes and the mighty oak came smashing down, split in four pieces. It seemed as if a blast of wind had suddenly swept through its branches.

Awe-struck, the heathen at once gave in. They were ready now to put aside their own rites, and worship the GOD of St. Boniface in simple faith. They took the beams of their grand old fallen oak and built with them a Christian oratory. This was the first church of the country.

St. Boniface was not content only to turn the people from their false worship, he wished also to help them to lead settled, orderly lives. Full of bodily energy he set to work with them to make clearings in the forests, build houses and chapels, till the ground, sow, reap, fish. So they learned to love him, and to look upon the Christian saint as their true friend, and were ready to follow him in everything.

Then there came from his English home helpers in the great mission work. Among these were a few devoted women, sisters of the clergy. Their gentleness brought a feeling of homeliness and respect into that rude land. One of them, St. Lioba, was a cousin of Boniface. She was good and beautiful, and full of energy and helpfulness. She did much to aid the Christian work, and was of great service and comfort to St. Boniface and his hard-working Priests for many years.

About the year A.D. 738, St. Boniface made yet another journey to Rome. He had a glad welcome, for he had done more for Christianity than any man of his time. A hundred thousand Germans had been baptized through him. He was now made Archbishop of Mayence. For fourteen years longer he went on working as hard as when a young man. He founded six bishoprics. In history you will read that it was this St. Boniface, the Englishman Winfred, who placed the crown upon the head of Pepin le Bref when he was made King of France. But he cared little for his high position except as far as it might help him to do good for the Church of CHRIST. His was always the heart of a missionary, and at the age of seventy-five he begged leave of the Pope to lay aside the dignity of Archbishop, and go out once more to work as a simple monk in Friesland. He named an Englishman from Malmesbury to take his place at Mayence, and we have still the letter he wrote to the chaplain at the court of King Pepin, in which he begs the king to protect and care for the mission-workers he was leaving behind in France. Then he went forth with a band of eight brave, faithful Priests. He did not know how things would go on in Friesland; he thought it very likely he would be called on to suffer death at the hands of the heathen there, and with the few books, the Holy Gospels, and the altar-cloth which he took with him, he took also his shroud.

At first all went well. Whitsun Day came and St. Boniface pitched his tent and erected an altar in a field on the riverside. He was to hold a Confirmation that day, to lay his hands upon a number of newly-baptized converts. When all was ready he knelt in his tent in prayer until they should arrive. Poor, brave old man! Instead of the Christian converts, a fierce band of armed heathens suddenly appeared before the tent. With wild shouts they rushed upon him. His friends came up in haste, and were about to fight. St. Boniface stopped them. "We must give good for evil," he said. "I have long waited for this day: the hour of my salvation is come."

He begged his clergy to put aside their fear; with them he went out from his tent. But the heathen fell upon them with their rude wooden clubs, and soon St. Boniface was slain with all his band.

Struck down in his old age after a lifetime of devoted work, slain by those whom he had served, there he lay at rest at last, the old man who as a boy of five, listening to the Gospel story, had vowed himself to the work of a mission Priest.

The heathen had expected to find booty, but there was nothing of any value to them in the tent of the saint, no vessels of gold or silver, nothing but a few books, a little wine for the Holy Communion, and some relics. They were furious, and in their anger turned and fought against each other.

Wrapped in the shroud Boniface had brought with him, the body of the saint was taken first to Maestricht, and then to Fulda, where, in time, St. Lioba was brought and laid near him.

"Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas,

Ease after warre, death after life does greatly please."

Fairy Queen, Canto IX., verse 40.