Sunday 13 October 2013

Saint Colman of Stockerau, October 13

October 13 is the feastday of an Irish saint who met a particularly sad fate in early eleventh-century Austria. Below is a paper from the Irish Ecclesiastical Record by Father J.F. Hogan on the life of Saint Colman (Coloman) in which he describes the circumstances which led this Irishman to be adopted as a patron of the Austrian people. I particularly enjoyed the description of the saint by the Viennese chronicler who said 'God sent us from Ireland, which is situated at the extreme end of the world a saint who was to be the intercessor and advocate of our whole nation, and who would teach us by his example to despise all earthly things, and seek only those which lead to heaven.' The idea of Ireland as being at the extreme end of the world is a concept to which Saint Patrick himself would have related. Finally, let's also spare a thought for Saint Gothalmus, the faithful servant of Saint Colman, who shared both his master's journey and his fate. May they continue to intercede for Austria and its people and for this island 'at the extreme end of the world'.


The story of St. Colman is very different from that of most other Irish saints whose names are still venerated in distant countries. He was not an apostle in any ordinary sense of the word. He was not sent nor did he go to preach the Gospel, nor to convert the heathen. He may, indeed, have had in his mind some ultimate aim of the kind, but it had not yet matured nor assumed definite shape when he was overtaken by the fate of the martyr. Neither was it his immediate intention to settle in any of the monasteries founded by his countrymen in the centre of Europe, nor to devote himself to teaching, nor to study, nor to the pious exercises of religious life. It is, we believe, more than probable that he would in due course have become a monk, a teacher, and a preacher ; but his most pressing purpose at the time of his death was to wend his way to the Holy Land, to visit Nazareth, Bethlehem, Caphernaum, Jerusalem ; to follow the footsteps of the Master through Samaria and Galilee ; to venerate the earth on which He had walked in the flesh, where He was born, where He lived, and where He died ; to meditate on Jordan's banks and on the Mountain of Beatitudes; to assuage his spiritual thirst at the fountain of Siloe and at Cedron's holy brook; and, above all, to fill his soul with memories of the Garden of Olives, of the Way of the Cross, and of Mount Calvary.

This was the motive which urged Colman to leave his country, and in obedience to which he one day found himself in a strange land, unknown, unfriended, and unable to make himself understood. It is also remarkable that, notwithstanding that he was an utter stranger to the people who afterwards adopted him as their patron and protector, from the very first he took possession of their hearts, and retained his hold upon them, only with increasing power, through many changing centuries. It is really wonderful how his fame spread from the wood near the little town of Stockerau, where he was tortured and hanged, all over the province of Austria proper, away through Styria, Istria, and Carniola, through Hungary, Bohemia, Bavaria, and Poland. Kings and princes were called by his name at baptism; churches and chapels were dedicated in his honour. Coloman, King of Hungary, the nephew of St. Ladislas, and one of the immediate successors of St. Stephen the Great, promoted the fame of his holy patron wherever his influence extended. Rudolph IV. of Hapsburg was equally devoted to his memory. This most peaceful and mildest of saints had always a great attraction for soldiers. One of them, a brave Austrian knight, who served under the Emperor Ferdinand III., lies buried near the tomb of his patron, in the great Benedictine Abbey of Molck, on the banks of the Danube; and on the marble sarcophagus erected over his grave appears the inscription:


St. Colman's Irish nationality is universally and gratefully recognised in Austria. The standard work on The Life and Miracles of the saint is that of Father Gotfreid Deppisch, which was published in Vienna, by the University Press, in 1743. This learned writer was a Benedictine monk of the Abbey of Moelck, on the Danube, and his work on St. Colman is dedicated to the illustrious Adrian, abbot of the monastery, and "Rector Magnificus" of the University of Vienna. He took great pains to find out all that was known about the honoured patron of his country. He came specially from Vienna to the Franciscan Convent of St. Antony of Padua, at Louvain, in order to consult the Annals of the Four Masters, the works of Ussher, Stanihurst, and Ware, but especially some manuscript materials that had been left by Father John Colgan and Father Hugh Ward concerning the origin and descent of St. Colman. He was hospitably received by Father Antony McCarthy, then guardian of the convent, who made all the researches the learned Benedictine required, and submitted them to him. The result could not be more satisfactory. The author takes much trouble to place St. Colman's Irish origin beyond all doubt; and he devotes several pages to refute the Scotch pretension that the saint was a son of King Malcolm III. and of St. Margaret of Scotland.

" We must now [he writes] bring forward proofs that cannot be contradicted to show that the native land of our glorious patron is no other than the kingdom of Ireland, and that he was born and bred an Irishman. The oldest and the strongest is to be found in that ancient chronicle of the Austrian Margraves of Babenberg, which a learned priest, named Aloldus of Bechlarn, composed in the year 1063, and which the illustrious Father Jerome Hanthaler, annalist of the Monastery of Lilienfeld, accidentally discovered, about three years ago, in the library of Maria-Zell, in Austria, to the great honour and profit of historical studies in our country. The next is that of Thomas Ebendorfer von Haselbach, a canon of the Cathedral of Vienna, teacher of Holy Scriptures, and celebrated Austrian historian, who lived in the time of the Emperors Albert and Frederick III. This learned author, amongst other valuable works, has left us a long and beautiful eulogium of St. Colman, in which he tells us that 'God sent us from Ireland, which is situated at the extreme end of the world, a saint who was to be the intercessor and advocate of our whole nation, and who would teach us by his example to despise all earthly things, and seek only those which lead to heaven.'

The author further quotes several passages from chronicles and annals kept in different parts of Germany, many of which are to be found collected by Father Jerome Fez, the famous librarian of Moelck, and editor of two of the most valuable collections of historical documents ever published in Europe. It would, indeed, be a mere waste of time and space to dwell further on a matter which is universally admitted.

St. Colman seems to have belonged to some distinguished family in Ireland, and was, possibly, as Ward suggested, son of Malachy, high king of Ireland, who lived towards the end of the tenth century. The only reference made to St. Colman in any of the older Irish books is that found in the Calendar of Donegal, in which we read: " Colman ailithir in Austria mac Maoilscheachluinn mor mac Dohmnuill." "Colman the pilgrim in Austria, son of Maolsechlainn Mor, son of Dohmnall." He was accompanied by a servant, Gothalmus, on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem ; and is usually spoken of as having made great worldly sacrifices in order to devote himself entirely to the service of God. The pilgrim's road to Jerusalem, in these days, lay through Austria, Hungary, and Turkey ; and as it happened the throne of the Holy Roman Empire was then occupied by the pious Henry II. and his saintly queen, Cunigunde. St. Stephen was king of Hungary, and the province of Austria was governed by the wise and prudent Margrave, Henry of Bahenberg. Great political troubles disturbed all these countries at the time we write about ; for the Austrians were beginning to assume that supremacy over their neighbours which they vindicated under several chiefs of the young Bahenberg dynasty, and have maintained to the present day under the time-honoured aegis of the Hapsburgs.

When St. Colman arrived in the midst of their province, in the year 1014, it was overrun by soldiers from Hungary, Bohemia, and Poland. The minds of the people were greatly excited ; and when they found a stranger amongst them, ignorant of their language, and hurrying on from one village to another, they came to the conclusion that he was a foreign spy, seeking information and an opportunity to betray them to their enemies. It was in vain that the poor pilgrim protested his innocence, kissed his crucifix, and pointed towards the east. What was regarded by them as hypocrisy only enraged them the more. A cruel and infuriated mob laid hold of him in the village of Stockerau, and led him out to a neighbouring wood, where they bound him hand and foot, and hung him from a gibbet, erected specially for the purpose. Nor were they satisfied with the cruel death which they decreed to the servant of God. They had recourse to other refinements of barbarism, which even at this distance are enough to make one shudder. They scourged him with whips before his execution ; they applied burning irons to his body while he was struggling for life ; and they tore and lacerated his flesh till he had scarcely the human shape. The author of the hymn which was sung in his honour in the Middle Ages accurately describes the nature of his torture :

"Scilices, ignita ova,
Flagra tibi, vulnera
Imprimebant, nec non nova
Tormentorum genera.
Carnes tuas vellicabant
Forcipe ferrarrii ;
Ossa tua lacerabant
Serra carpentarii."

When the evil work was done, its authors hurried off to some kindred task, and so little thought did they bestow on the poor victim they left hanging in the wood that their crime seems to have passed without any special notice ; for it was only a few years afterwards that some of the inhabitants of Stockerau were startled at the sight which they beheld at the spot where the saint had suffered. There was the gibbet still ; but fresh leaves had grown from the dry wood, and flowers that gave forth a fragrant perfume had blossomed from the beam. There was still the body of the saint hanging in the air : but it was whole and uncorrupted.

" Mire fragrans, indestructus
Permanens biennio."

The birds of the air had respected the temple of so pure a soul. The hair and beard had grown down over the pilgrim's frock, and a smile of heavenly peace and forgiveness seemed to light up the countenance of the victim. The people were struck with amazement when they witnessed the spectacle. They began to fear that the vengeance of God would overtake them and punish them for the crime that was perpetrated in their midst. The clergy were at once informed of the prodigy, and the remains of the saint were reverently taken away and placed in the church of Stockerau, where wonderful miracles testified to the sanctity of the murdered pilgrim.

An account of all these strange occurrences soon reached the ears of Henry, Margrave of Austria, who was greatly struck by all he heard, and proceeded to make a careful investigation into the whole history. When he was satisfied of the undoubtedly genuine nature of all the events narrated, he called together the bishops and clergy of the country, and had the body of St. Colman transferred to the important town of Moelck, where he himself resided. There, in the Church of the Benedictine Abbey, it remains to this day, surrounded by the veneration and love of a whole country. A short time after the remains of the saint were transferred to Moelck, the King of Hungary took possession of them, and carried them away for awhile, but they were duly recovered by the people of Austria. Poppo, Bishop of Treves, arranged the first transfer; but Providence evidently destined the saint to be the patron and protector of Austria. A rich mausoleum in Corinthian style is erected over the shrine of the saint. "Justus ut palma florebit " is written near its summit, and "Sepulchrum Sancti Colomanni Martyris," indicates the contents of the shrine. Here pilgrimages still come from all parts of Austria, and the glories of the saint are heard in the strong German tongue.

Churches were dedicated to him at Stockerau, Moelck, Laab, Aggstein, Vienna, Abenthull, Eysgarn, Aichabrunn, St. Veit, Steyer, Lebenan, Berlach, and many other places. A stone that was marked with the blood of the saint was brought by Rudolf IV. to Vienna, where it may still be seen in one of the walls of the Cathedral of St. Stephan. This same illustrious duke had an elaborate cross manufactured, in which he had large relics of St. Colman encased, and surrounded by the relics of other saints. This precious memorial of princely faith is still to be seen in the treasury of Moelck, with an inscription bearing testimony to the motives and object of the donor.

The learned Johannes Stabius, biographer of the Emperor Maximilian I., wrote an elegant poem in praise of the saint, commencing with the lines:

"Austriae Sanctus canitur patronus,
Fulgidum sidus radians ab alto,
Scoticae gentis Colomanus acer
Regia proles."

It is curious, that although St. Colman could not be said to have been put to death in odium fidei, yet, on account of the violent character of his execution, he is generally regarded as a martyr. Not only do all the early writers of Austria itself, but also the learned Baronius, and several Popes speak of him as a martyr. His, however, is not the only case in which custom has sanctioned a title which technically belongs by right only to those who give their lives for Christ as witnesses to the truth.

Several Popes conferred rich indulgences on all who would visit with the proper dispositions, the shrine of the great national patron. Those granted by Innocent IV., Honorius IV., Boniface VIII., Clement VI., Boniface IX., Benedict XIV., and by a great number of bishops, archbishops, and the Patriarch of Constantinople, are enumerated by Father Deppisch, in the admirable work on St. Colman, to which we have already made frequent allusion. It is but right to add that Gothalmus, the faithful companion and servant of Colman, who shared with his master the hardships of the journey and his cruel death, shares likewise in his glory; for he, too, is honoured as a saint, and his memory is faithfully cherished, and can never be dissociated from that of his master. Father Deppisch gives a full description of the solemnities that were celebrated in his time at Moelck and in other Austrian churches, in honour of St. Colman. We understand that they have lost nothing of their impressiveness and popularity in later times, and that they are always attended by some representative of the royal Hapsburgs, who regard St. Colman as one of the most faithful protectors of their own interests, and of those of their people.



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Anonymous said...

Fantastic. Thank you

Marcella said...

Glad you enjoyed it, these old papers of Father Hogan are filled with information.