Celts to the Creche: Day 38
St. Gertrude of Nivelles
About 626-March 17, 659
On this 38th day of our pilgrimage to the Creche, we meet St. Gertrude of Nevilles. She and her mother Itta established the famous double monastery (men and women under the rule of an Abbess) in modern-day Belgium. Her mother was the first Abbess and Gertrude became the second. She was instrumental in aiding the work of the Irish missionaries in that area. She built churches and along with preaching, she cared for the orphans, captives, widows, and pilgrims. In recent years, she has become the patron saint of cats, travelers, and the mentally ill.
Her Early Life. She was the daughter of Pepin of Landen, the powerful mayor of the Austrasia palace and his wife Itta (Ida) of Metz. Pepin was an ancestor of the Carolingian dynasty. Gertrude had a sister Begga and a brother Grimoald I. It is said that when Gertrude was about 10 years old her father Pepin invited King Dagobert to a gathering at his home. A young man who was the son of the Duke of Austrasia was at the dinner and he asked the King to grant him Gertrude’s hand in marriage. When Pippin asked his daughter if she agreed to this engagement, she angrily rejected the proposal and with an oath said that she would neither have him nor any other earthly spouse, only Christ. Gertrude became the second abbess of the Nivelles Monastery in Belgium.
Mother Itta Builds a Monastery at Nivelles, Belgium. At the death of Gertrude’s father Pippin about 640 AD, her mother Itta built a monastery in the Sonian Forest at Nivelles for nuns that later became a double monastery of monks and nuns in modern-day Belgium. Gertrude’s biographer wrote that a visit by Bishop Amandus prompted this mother and daughter monastic endeavor. Itta served as the first Abbess. As Itta approached her death at about age 60 in 652AD she appointed her daughter Gertrude as Abbess of Nivelles.
Connections to the Irish Missionaries. It was said that Nivelles was a curiously Irish monastery. Gertrude sent messengers not only to Rome, but also to Ireland to procure manuscripts for the monastic library. Gertrude and her mother had further ties with the Irish through St. Fursey (see day 10 of Celts to the Creche) who had become a missionary from Ireland to East Anglia in England. He then later traveled to France where he established the famous monasteries of Lagny-on-the-Marne east of Paris; Mézerolles in the Sommes; Péronne; and likely Fontanelle. Fursey had two brothers Foillan and Ultan who had also served with him in his monastery in East Anglia and later joined him in France.
Because of the volatile politics in East Anglia at the time, Foillon and Ultan knew they needed to leave England, so they likely quickly escaped bringing their monastery’s treasured manuscripts and relics.
Those two Irish brothers and their companions were well received at Péronne in France by Erchinoald, Mayor of the Palace, who with King Clovis II (see Bathilde, day 19 of Celts to the Creche) had previously befriended Fursey. But for some reason, Erchinoald turned against Foillan and his companions, expelling them from Péronne. They were invited to come to the Nivelles Monastery by Abbess Itta and her daughter Gertrude to teach psalmnody to their nuns and monks. Foillan and Ultan also brought with them those treasures from their East Anglia monastery to Nivelles.
While Ultan remained as a chaplain at Nivelles, Itta and perhaps also Mayor of the Palace Erchinoald provided the funding for Foillan to build a monastery at Fosses-la-Ville, not far from Nivelles, near Liege in the province of Namur.
After the death of Itta in 652, Foillan was invited back to Nivelles by Gertrude for a visit on the eve of the feast of St. Quentin. The ceremony being finished, he and his three companions resumed their journey into the Sonian Forest. They fell into a trap set by bandits who inhabited the dense forest. They were slain, stripped, and their bodies concealed. It is said that Foillan’s head was still speaking prayers when it was thrown into a nearby pigsty. Brother Ultan learned of his brother’s death by a vision of a dove flying with blood-stained wings towards heaven. The bodies were recovered by Gertrude and she kept some relics of the Irish saint Foillan whom she and her mother were so fond. Gertrude had his body taken to his Fosses-la-Ville monastery where he was buried about 655.
Gertrude passes on her Abbess responsibilities. Gertrude soon began to assign her abbess tasks to others so that she could spend more time in spiritual tasks, in prayer, in reading, and in scholarly study. She began to build and to support numerous churches that she dedicated to the saints and she ministered to orphans, widows, captives, and pilgrims. Her vita says:
“she did not cease to speak in constant praying, in exhorting herself, and in preaching the word of God to her people. Rejoicing in hope, bearing up in tribulation, devoted in her heart, and calm in her appearance, she longed for her last day to be present, day of her heavenly journey.”
When she became fatigued and ill from extensive caring for others, she appointed her niece Wulftrude (the daughter of her brother Grimoald I) as Abbess in 659. Even Gertrude’s sister Begga became the founding Abbess of the Andenne monastic foundation.
Gertrude’s death and afterlife. Gertrude asked a pilgrim (likely Ultan) from Fosses Monastery when she would die and he prophesied that she would die the very next day on March 17, 659 on Irish St. Patrick’s feast day. He also said that Patrick along with the angels would greet her and she did die. She was only 33 years old when she died. Gertrude instructed her nuns to bury her in an old veil that a pilgrim nun had left at Nivelles along with a hair shirt. Her vita says that at her death there was a most pleasant odor, “as if a burning mixture of scents, and it perfumed that little cell where the holy body lay. And we, having gone out from there, still sensed the sweetness of that wonderful scent in our nostrils.” A later Abbess, Elizabeth de Bierbais, opened Gertrude’s tomb on July 8, 1293. The saint was found incorrupt (with the exception of three teeth which had been removed earlier as relics), but as Elizabeth died soon after, it was rumoured that her death was caused by the saint’s anger, and the reliquary was not opened again until 1848.
After her death, it is claimed that St. Gertrude performed a number of miracles. Gertrude and her mother Itta were both buried in the Collegiate Church of St. Gertrude.
The Nivelles Abbey Church. The Nivelles abbey church which became the Collegiate Church of Saint Gertrude was devastated by the Vikings and rebuilt in the 11th and 13th centuries. This church was destroyed by aerial bombs dropped by the German Luftwaffe in May 1940 during the Battle of Belgium, but it was restored to its 11th and 13th centuries form after World War II. The basement of the restored abbey church displays archaeological artifacts and is open to the public. The adjoining Romanesque-Gothic cloister dates from the 13th century. A procession is held every year on the Sunday after Michaelmas.
Interestingly, it wasn’t until the 1980’s that St. Gertrude of Nivelles became the patron saint of cats. No one is sure why she has been given this designation, except there were some medieval depictions of her with mice. She is also considered the patron saint of gardeners, travelers, and those with mental illness.
Feast Day March 17
Even though a royal, Gertrude followed in the footsteps of Jesus the Christ in helping relieve the suffering of others. It was her calling that she fulfilled well on earth. It was recorded that even after her short life of 33 years on earth, that she continued her charisma of caring for the suffering of others from the other side of the thin veil. Gertrude’s compassionate care from the heavenlies included saving lives at sea; stopping a fire in a monastery; curing a girl of her blindness; helping a young boy escape kidnappers; rescuing a man in chains; resuscitating a servant boy, along with many other good works.
And Jesus said, “when you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to Me.” Well done, good and faithful servant St. Gertrude of Nivelles.
Bede. Transitus Sancti Fursei: Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People. HE III.19
The Bulletin (Belgium). Part of Sonian Forest Awarded Unesco Heritage Status. July 9, 2017.
Colgrave, B. and R. A. B. Mynors (Eds). Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1969.
Crow Canyon Journal. Touring the Collegiate Church of Sainte Gertrude in Nivelles. June 5, 2013.
Effros, Bonnie. Caring for Body and Soul: Burial and the Afterlife in the Merovingian World. PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1965.
Fouracre, Paul and Richard A. Gerberding. Late Merovingian France: History and Hagiography 640-720. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1996.
Fox, Yankee. Power and Religion in Merovingian Gaul: Columban Monasticism and the Frankish Elites. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Gratten Flood, William H. A History of Irish Music. Dublin, 1906.
Harrison, Dick. The Age of Abbesses and Queens: Gender and Political Culture in Early Medieval Europe. Lund, Sweden: Nordic Academic Press, 1998.
McNamara, Jo Ann and John E. Halbord with E. Gordon Whatley. “Gertrude, Abbess of Nivelles(628-658)” in Sainted Women of the Dark Ages. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992.
Rackham, Oliver, tr. Transitus Beati Fursei: a translation of an 8th century manuscript Life of St. Fursey. Norwich, UK: Fursey Pilgrims, 2007.
Vita Sanctae Geretrudis (The Life of St. Gertrud) and the Additamentum Nivialense de Fuilano (the Nivelles Supplement to the Vita Fursei concerning Foillan) in Fouracre, Paul and Richard A. Gerberding. Late Merovingian France: History and Hagiography 640-720. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1996.
Wemple, Suzanne Fonay. Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister, 500-900. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.
Wood, Ian N. The Merovingian Kingdoms: 450-751. London: Longman, 1994.