Saint Gallus, the Enlightener of the Swiss Alps

The Church commemorates Saint Gallus, the enlightener of the Swiss Alps, on October 16/29. Until recently, few Orthodox Christians knew anything about this holy ascetic of the West. Let’s get acquainted with the main milestones and edifying facts of the life of this prominent Irish missionary monk who lived in Switzerland.

The future saint was born around 550 into a family of devout gentry in Leinster, Ireland. The boy’s parents sent him to study at the famous Bangor Abbey (modern-day County Down, Northern Ireland), founded by St. Comgall. Saint Columbanus became a mentor for the young man, ordained him a priest and chose him as one of his twelve companions, with whom he went on a missionary trip to France in 589.

Because of the intrigues of the local rulers, St. Columbanus and his disciples were forced to leave France and go to the Swiss Alps in 610. At first, their mission was unsuccessful, but over time, it took off here as well. After a while, the remaining pagans drove the monks from their lands. St. Columbanus decided to go to Italy in 612, but St. Gallus was unable to follow him due to a severe illness and decided to seek a new place for prayerful solitude. The monk settled on a mountain from which healing springs flowed. It was here that he built his cell, the site of which was to become the birthplace of the famous Abbey of St. Gallus in Switzerland, founded in 719.

The Irish ascetic, with his love and wisdom, gradually gathered a small group of disciples. Gallus was offered a vacant see in Constance in 615, but the monk refused. He also rejected the offer of the monks of the monastery of Luxeuil to become their abbot after the death of their previous abbot. The elder replied that he wanted to spend the rest of his days in solitude, not steeped in secular concerns. St. Gallus died peacefully at the age of 99, around the year 650.

Fun Facts

1) Some researchers, based on the linguistic characteristics of the saint’s language, believe that Gallus came from Eastern France, Vosges or Alsace, and was a descendant of  Irish immigrants. However, the peculiarity of the saint’s language could be the result of his long interaction with the local population, which influenced the language of the Irish monk.

2) The Irish monks who had become accustomed to the well-established triumph of Christianity in their native land may have been astonished by the paganism that had taken hold with the arrival of the Barbarians in the once-Christian Roman provinces. They began to destroy the pagan temples and to overthrow idols, which caused great discontent among the local population. On several occasions, monks were expelled and exposed to deadly risk. When St. Gallus realized that he could not achieve anything by force, he learned the language of the Barbarians and began preaching diligently, showing the truth of the Orthodox faith to them. Thanks to his decision, some pagans converted to Christianity and destroyed and drowned their gods themselves.

3) St. Gallus’s biography notes that he cast out a demon from Fridiburga, the bride of the Frankish king Sigebert, who gave Gallus a portion of land on the shores of Lake Constance as a thank you gift. On the wedding day, Fridiburga said that she wanted to donate her virginity to the Heavenly Fiancé. Either the king didn’t really want to marry her, or he was just very pious, but he dressed her in royal robes, brought her to the altar and handed her over to the Lord as a bride.

5) Gallus wore a bag of relics, which strengthened him during his illness, on his staff, and the name of the Lord never left his mouth, the hagiographer says. In all probability, this indicates that the Irish monks were also aware of the practice of the Jesus Prayer.

6) According to the legends of Saint Gallus, he was very fond of fishing, and he himself used to fish so as to feed his small community. At first, the monk had an otter as a competitor, but the otter recognized him as a man of God and helped him with fishing, and Gallus also shared his catch with her. A local bear also became fond of the holy monk who had pulled a thorn out of its paw. There is a legend that the bear, in gratitude for the food given to him by Gallus, helped him to build his cell by dragging sticks and logs from the forest. The bear would accompany the Irish missionary throughout his life. The coats of arms of some cities in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland depict Saint Gallus and the bear with a log.

7) The monastery built on the site of the saint’s prayerful exploits soon became one of the centers of dissemination of the traditions of Irish monasticism, which was notable for its missionary zeal and scholarly pursuits. Thus, the monastery library of the Abbey of St. Gall was one of the richest in the Middle Ages. It still has around 160 thousand medieval manuscripts.

8) On May 14, 2018, the Holy Synod of the Russian Church decided to include the memory of Saint Gallus in the calendar of the Russian Orthodox Church.

May the Lord strengthen us on the path of piety and virtue through the prayers of Saint Gallus.

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  1. I have heard of Saint Gallus before but knew not much about his life and works. Thank you for this article!

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