One of my earliest church-related memories is wandering through the sacredly silent, mysterious yet majestic spaces of the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I grew up. (They don’t make churches like that anymore. Sigh.) What I remember most impressing my 9-year-old brain was the curving hallway behind the sanctuary called the Shrines of the Nations.
Along this walkway are six mini chapels/shrines that honor the national patron saints of many of the immigrants who settled Minnesota: Saint Anthony of Padua (Italy), John the Baptist (France and Canada), Saint Patrick (Ireland), Saint Boniface (Germany), Saints Cyril and Methodius (Slavic Nations), and Saint Therese (protector of all missions). Each shrine holds a (large) statue of the patron saint, an altar, stained glass windows depicting other saints of the same country, and marble imported from their respective country. It is a beautiful, moving place to spend time, which oftentimes there seems suspended.
Coming from a robust German family, I was always fascinated in particular with the statue of St. Boniface. Maybe fascinated isn’t the right word. Thinking back, I’m pretty sure I was a little intimidated by the stern-looking, bearded figure with the pointy hat and big stick. Though similar in stature and garb, he just didn’t look like as much fun as St. Patrick down the hall. I thought his name was kinda cool back then too. Boniface. Never heard that one before. Then again, my maiden name, Manteufel, wasn’t exactly vying for a lot of phone directory space. Maybe I sensed a connection.
At any rate, today is this great saint’s feast day, and I hope many people visit his shrine today in St. Paul and throughout the world. Here’s a snapshot of his life:
Saint Boniface was an English Benedictine monk who propagated Christianity in the Frankish Empire during the 8th century. By the age of 30, he had become an ordained priest, and in 731 an archbishop. On his missions east of the Rhine River, he was unrelenting in his effort to convert pagans to the faith.
A famous story is told of Boniface and the Donar Oak (also known as Thor’s Oak). This particular oak tree was highly venerated by the pagan Germanic people. In an effort to convert them to Christianity, Boniface struck the tree with an axe, after which a great gust of wind blew and knocked the oak completely down. When Boniface was not immediately struck by lightning for his blasphemous action, the pagan people became convinced of Christianity’s truth and converted. Boniface later built a chapel dedicated to Saint Peter from the tree’s wood at the site where today stands the Cathedral of Fritzlar.
In 754 he returned to evangelize in Frisia (an area in northwestern Germany today), where he and 53 companions were massacred while he was preparing converts for Confirmation. Boniface is the patron saint of Germany.
In order to restore the Germanic Church to its fidelity to Rome and to convert the pagans, he 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. A great number of Anglo-Saxon monks and nuns followed him to the continent. He introduced Benedictine nuns to the active apostolate of education. (From Saint of the Day: Lives, Lessons and Feasts by Leonard Foley, O.F.M.)