Orthodox Normandy. Part 5

Holy Women

Part 1: Early Figures, Missionaries, and Martyrs
Part 2: Holy Hierarchs
Part 3: Hermits and Ascetics
Part 4: Great Monastic Founders

St. Amabilis of Rouen (†634)
St. Hildemarca of Fécamp (†c.670–689)
St. Angadrisma of Beauvais (†c.695)
St. Austreberta of Pavilly (†704)
St. Juliana of Pavilly (†c.750)

Abbey of Saint-Amand in Rouen Abbey of Saint-Amand in Rouen No region’s or nation’s sacred history can be told without reference to its holy women. This is very much the case with Normandy, too. Many women of outstanding holiness of life graced its soil, and their prayers help sustain it to this day. The women saints featured here shone forth particularly in the arena of monasticism. It is to them that our focus now turns.

St. Amabilis (or Mabel) of Rouen lived in the 7th century. Very little information has been preserved about her life, despite her high birth. She was of the English nobility, the daughter of a king. Aside from this bare fact, all that we know about her otherwise is that she spent her days in northern France, in the Abbey of Saint-Amand in Rouen. This abbey, founded in the 7th century for Benedictine nuns on the site of an ancient Roman temple, would have been quite new in St. Amabilis’ day; she may even have been part of the first group of nuns to inhabit it. She reposed, presumably in peace of natural causes, in the year 634.

St. Hildemarca of Fécamp also lived and labored in the 7th century. From Bordeaux, in southwestern France, she had been a nun at the Abbey of St. Eulalia. This abbey, destroyed by Saracens in the 8th century, had been founded by king Dagobert and was dedicated to the Spanish virgin-martyr St. Eulalia (either St. Eulalia of Barcelona or St. Eulalia of Mérida, both of whom were martyred in the first decade of the 4th century). However, at the invitation of St. Wandregesilius, she came to Fécamp to serve as abbess of a monastery he founded. Here she took in and nursed the grievously mutilated St. Léger of Poitiers (discussed earlier in connection with St. Philibert) who had been persecuted by the corrupt mayor of the palace of Neustria, subjected to mutilation, and exiled to Fécamp. St. Hildemarca, the holy abbess of Fécamp, reposed in peace in about the 670s or 680s. The abbey over which she had presided was destroyed around the middle of the 9th century by Norman invaders and her relics were scattered to various places.

St. Angadrisma St. Angadrisma     

St. Angadrisma of Beauvais has a very interesting backstory. From early on she conceived a desire to become a nun. However, her family—which was clearly of some prominence, as her father, Robert (or Chrodbert), was bishop of Tours and a chancellor to king Clotaire III- had already promised her in marriage. Her prospective husband was none other than Ansbert, who himself would likewise eventually be numbered among the saints after a life of great holiness as abbot of Fontenelle and later as bishop of Rouen.

Praying fervently for some escape from her arranged marriage (despite the all around excellence and saintliness of her prospective husband), St. Angadrisma’s prayer was answered in a most unusual but effective way. She was suddenly afflicted with leprosy. This malady rendered her at once unmarriageable, thus freeing her to pursue the true desire of her heart. And, astonishingly, a great miracle occurred when the disease immediately left her when she received monastic tonsure at the hands of the archbishop, St. Ouen.

St. Angadrisma passed her days in holiness, living an exemplary monastic life. She became abbess of a convent near Beauvais. There she reposed at the end of the 7th century and has always remained much venerated in that area, where she is considered a patron saint. Her monastery was destroyed by Vikings in 851 but her relics were saved. Twice the shrine containing her relics preserved the city of Beauvais from invasion. Her feast is October 14.

St. Austreberta of Pavilly St. Austreberta of Pavilly St. Austreberta of Pavilly, rather like St. Angadrisma, also fled an arranged marriage to pursue a monastic vocation. (Presumably, though, the circumstances of her escape from the arrangement were a bit less dramatic).

From Thérouanne in France’s extreme northeast, her pious mother, Framechildis, is also numbered among the saints. She was consecrated to monastic life by the holy hierarch St. Omer (Audomar) of Thérouanne (†c.670). She struggled in monastic exploits first at an abbey in Ponthieu, before founding a monastery on property belonging to her parents in Artois. She later founded, along with St. Philibert, a monastic establishment in Pavilly in the Seine-Maritime area of Normandy, serving as its first abbess.

St. Austreberta was a renowned miracle worker even during her lifetime. One particularly striking anecdote tells of her miraculously subduing a ferocious wolf. The wolf had slain a donkey that helped the nuns in their laundry duties by carrying loads of linens between monasteries. The holy abbess coaxed a confession out of the shamed beast, which she then bade to carry the loads from then on in place of the slain donkey. The wolf did so dutifully to the end of its life. St. Austreberta was also associated with a miraculous spring that healed lameness. She was also noted for experiencing heavenly visions. Among those visions was an earlier one which foreshadowed the course of her life: Peering into a river one day in her youth, she beheld her reflection wearing a nun’s veil.

St. Austreberta reposed at Pavilly in the year 704. Two towns and a river bear her name. A portion of her relics were brought to Canterbury by the Normans after the Conquest.

St. Juliana of Pavilly, the final saint to be featured in this section, also shone forth in the monastic state. Alas, with her, too, we suffer from a dearth of information about her holy life. Unlike these other saints, she was apparently not of the nobility, as our biographical sources describe her as a servant girl. She took the veil at Pavilly, where she was the disciple of a certain St. Benedicta. At some point later St. Juliana herself became abbess there. Presumably it was at Pavilly that she later reposed, in about the year 750.

These holy monastic women saints, who all spurned earthly advantages for the sake of undistracted dedication to Christ, contributed vitally to the sanctification of the great region now known as Normandy. They and generations of other holy women like them are among the great jewels of that region, adorning it like gemstones in a precious crown of holiness. Through their examples and bold intercessions on our behalf before the throne of God, they call us, male and female alike, to emulate their deeds to the best of our feeble abilities.

To be continued…

Matthew Hartley


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