Sunday, 3 March 2013

Happy 1,300th Birthday to you!

The First of March is a special day for many reasons.

Traditionally it is the first day of Spring and, I am pleased to say, the freezing cold weather does indeed appear to be on the wain.  This past week has seen the snowdrops out in force:

In Wales, the First day of March is the Feast Day of Dewi Sant, known in English as Saint David.  Saint David is the Patron Saint of Wales.

Meanwhile. . . 

. . . Here in Germany, the First of March is the feast day of another Saint: St Suitbertus, sometimes called Swidbert, or Swithbert, or even Switbert.  In this post I am going to stick with the latinized version: Suitbertus.

Suitbertus is one of the Patron Saints of Germany (there are a few).  Interestingly he, like me, was born in England, and moved to Germany for work; but while my work is in the field of education, Suitbertus' work was all about the care of souls because he was an early missionary.

They say that he came from an aristocratic family in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria and pious legend tells us that prior to his birth, a star let his parents know that their child was destined to be a great missionary.  This is why he is usually portrayed with a star in his hand:

This image comes from the following website: 
It was accessed on 1 March 2013

Born in about 650, Suitbertus was a man of action.  A Benedictine monk; he trained as a priest and spent some time studying in Ireland after which he returned to England; ready, willing, and able, to be a missionary to Northern Europe.  This work is sometimes known as the 'German mission'.
The mastermind behind the German mission was a chap named Egbert of Ripon.  He was an Anglo-Saxon priest based in Ireland where Suitbertus had studied and who was busy organising a group of missionaries to head deep into non-Christian territory.  Suitbertus was eager to take part and returning to England he met up with another chap named Willibrord.
Willibrod was in charge of the Mission.  He and his companions however were not your ordinary everyday, prayerful choir-monks.  They were aristocratic, highly educated, devil-may-care individuals ready for adventure and who were more than equal to the task at hand.  They could speak with any local ruler as with an equal, and arriving in Frisia they set to work.  They knew it was dangerous and that in all likelihood a horrible death could be their lot but still they persevered.
Frisia was the coastal region of what is now Germany and the Netherlands.  The people there were considered to be quite ferocious and I am surprised that Willibrord and his group made any headway at all.  An earlier mission led by St. Wigbert had failed, utterly destroyed by the fearful Frisian leader, Ratbod.
Ratbod was not a man to brook any opposition and he looked upon Christianity with some suspicion because his enemies, the West Franks, were themselves Christians.  He decided that he was having none of it and swept down, massacred the Frisian converts and drove the missionaries away.  Willibrord however had an ally in his work because Pepin of Heristal the Frankish leader, had recently conquered the southern part of Frisia from Ratbod and in the area safe under Pepin's rule the missionaries (including Suitbertus) were able to flourish, meeting with great success.

But Suitbertus wanted to do more.  His eye was fixed firmly on the east.

With Willibrord's blessing he left briefly for England, and was consecrated Bishop.  He then returned, and having spent some time with his old friends, headed east with a small group of followers.  He had a fair amount of success until invading Saxons undid it all.  The people he worked with were Eastern  Franks.  They were no match for the Saxon hordes who suddenly swept down upon them.  Most of the converts were massacred and Suidebertus himself taken prisoner.  Undergoing long periods of torture meant to break his spirit, he eventually managed to escape and make his way back to the land of the West Franks.  His health broken by his incarceration and periods of intense physical abuse, he was no longer able to be a part of the missions and Pepin gave him an island on the Rhine, well within Frankish territory, where he could live in peace. The island was originally known as  the Rhinhusen, then Suitbertuswerth, and eventually Kaiserswerth.
Suitbertus died 1 March 713on his island, aged about sixty-three.
By 804 he had been canonised by the Church and his remains moved to a shrine in the monastery church.
That church was burnt down some time later while Ratbod was conquering Frankish territory.  It was rebuilt after he had been soundly beaten, then destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed, rebuilt, remodelled, renovated, etc etc until we have the church as it stands today:
The relics of St Suitbertus were lost during the religious upheavals that marked the Reformation and the Counter Reformation however they were relocated in 1623 and placed within a golden shrine, modelled on the shrine of The Three Kings which can be seen within the cathedral at Koln.

Before WWII the Basilica of Kaiserswerth looked like this:
In 1945 it looked like this:

Hit by a bomb during the closing stages of the war it was the only significant damage suffered by the village.  The bombing left the interior looking like this:

Today the Basilica looks like this:
The four towers are gone.  There was no money for such extravagances when the rebuilding took place.  The end result however is still rather pleasing:

Times change everything.

St Suidbertus no longer resides within his golden shrine.  That sits on the High Altar, behind bullet-proof, shatter-proof glass so that it cannot be stolen.

The Saint himself resides in here:

Down in the crypt, but following tradition, every so many years his sacred relics are brought out, placed back in his shrine, and paraded around the village to ensure good luck and his blessings:

This photograph is on a display of the history of the Basilica.  We have not been lucky to see the event while living here but it certainly looks impressive.

So why am I telling you about all this?
Well, this week marks the 1,300th anniversary of St Suidbertus' death; his promotion to Heaven.  And despite the fact that we are officially 'enjoying our greyest ever winter on record, Kaiserswerth is in a festive mood:

There was a pontifical Mass today within the Basilica, attended by the Archbishop of Koln, and various other Church and Political Dignitaries.  Everybody wanted a little blessing from our Saint.

So, in honour of St Suitbertus, AGA and I went for a short Suitbertus inspired stroll around the village.

Snowdrops and Robins led the way, past the old house on the corner of our avenue which marks one of the old towers when we had a protective wall around us; and then down the alleyway leading to An St. Swidbert.  This road is the way 'in' to Kaiserswerth and is guarded by a statue of the good man himself:
His star sits snuggly within his crosier.

a few houses down and there is the rather exclusive Suitbertus archdiocesan Gymnasium (Senior School)
The school sits on the spot where Suitbertus' monastery was situated.  It is a somewhat dull looking, modernist structure totally not in keeping with the village but right next door is the old Capuchin Monastery which is now part of the school.  Its chapel is now the school's chapel and as the door was open, we popped inside for a look:
And there, on the side wall is a nice portrait of St Suitbertus and his star:
It was hard to take this photograph because the light was bad and the flash kept 'going off' however you get the general idea.

Continuing our 'rounds' we stopped to see how high the river was:
It has dropped considerably since the last time I looked (thank goodness).  I wondered whether if ever flooded in St Suitbertus' time?

Then we moved on to the Basilica where Holy Mass had just finished.  We stopped at the main door which isn't often used these days and has been partially blocked:
That white piece of plaster above the old door frame shows the 'Hand of God'.  It didn't come out very well in this photograph.  I might try and take a better photograph at another time.

Here is the interior showing the main altar:

It was a lot more ornate prior to the bombing but I like the airiness and the simplicity of it all as it now is.  The banner of St Suitbertus is on display and numerous votive candles have been lit today in his honour.

I hope you liked this little 'exposé' on our local Saint.

We ended our St Suidbertus day with a slice of newly made pear tart:

Well, that's all for this post.  Until next time . . .


  1. Hello Kirk, How interesting to learn the complex history of St Suitbertus. I'm glad they were able to save the church, even if in a simpler form. By the way, Ratbod is one of the best villains' names I have come across.

    Suitbertus' gilded shrine is magnificent. The procession you described reminds me of similar ones in Taiwan, when various gods' statues and shrines are paraded through the streets.

    Finally, that pear tart looks absolutely delicious, a perfect way to end a day of sightseeing adventure.
    --Road to Parnassus

  2. Dear Jim,
    Dusseldorf itself was practically destroyed towards the end of the war and Kaiserswerth was lucky not to share the same fate. However there was very little money to spend on repairs and since that time various renovations have taken place to fix up the previous ones. The most recent one was last year and I must say it is all looking lovely.
    There is plenty of pear tart left if you want to pop over!

  3. Dear Kirk - St Suitbertus is a completely new saint to me, however, I know his origins very well as we lived in Northumberland for 6 years.
    Another meaning for a star symbol is: Death could not overpower the Light of the Spirit which still shines in the darkness.
    I presume that his shrine is paraded at particular intervals rather like the shrine at Aachen where it is only taken out every 7 years.
    You really are a great baker, tempting us all with the wonderful things that you make.

    1. Dear Rosemary,
      Thank you for your kind culinary comment! I like cooking and desserts have developed into my speciality if I may brag.
      St. Suitbertus is big over here in Germany and in the Netherlands as well as that was his sphere of influence. HIs shrine is indeed paraded at intervals but I am not sure of the exact timing - perhaps it is this year considering it is an important anniversary - we shall see. I haven't heard any mention of it yet.

  4. Hi Kirk, what a nice educational and entertaining post! I really liked reading about St. Suitbertus and the faith of the basilica. I should know that Saint since I am born and raised in Mettmann, which is close to Duesseldorf and not far away from Kaiserswerth, but I didn't. I guess when I was still living there as a teenager and young adult I had other things on my mind ;-). That pear tart looks super delicious!

    1. Thank you for your kind comments Christina,
      We in Kaiserswerth are rather proud to have St Suitbertus among us. We just had a huge number of Dutch pilgrims visiting the village as part of the festivities.
      Mettmann? Not far away at all but you were all probably too busy with your Neanderthals to worry about St Suitbertus!! ;-)

  5. Hello Kirk,
    Wonderful history post, my culture fix for today, thank you! Very well documented and researched. I find the star very interesting, I have seen it on a Saint before I think. We visit a lot of churches when we travel, so happy to see the details here. Your Pear Tart looks delicious and perfectly cooked. Enjoy your week...

    1. Hello Ivan,
      We also visit a lot of churches in our travels. One can obtain a real sense of the history of the place by visiting them.
      There is still some tart left if you care to pop over!

  6. Dear Kirk,

    I'm always amazed to see such utterly destroyed buildings from World War II — not just in Germany, but in other countries, too — and how they were so beautifully restored, often to their exact original state! If you have visited earlier posts of my site, you know that I am a great admirer of the 19th century German architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Some of his beautiful buildings in Berlin were destroyed in the 1940s, and are forever lost, and that I find very sad. But I'm glad the Kaiserswerth church was saved!

    That is a most interesting story of a saint completely new to me. It's interesting that some religious figures like St. Suitbertus and St. Francis of Assisi started out as adventurers. Perhaps Suitbertus was a younger son . . .

    I agree with Rosemary — I could gain weight just looking at your baking!

    1. Dear Mark,
      The losses to civilisation are many in times of war aren't they. It isn't just the buildings that are destroyed but the 'story', the memory of the people that goes as well.
      I saw only a few months ago about the huge losses to the collective history of the Syrians which is taken place as a result of the armed conflict.
      And then of course there is the loss of life and livelihood too...

      I have to confess that I love baking pies and tarts and cakes!

  7. Ratbod. Now THERE'S a name for a nasty leader. :)

    Thanks for this interesting post, Kirk. We get a history lesson along with some nifty photos and a peek into your life. Nice.

    1. Thanks Yvette.
      Ratbod: I must admit that I am glad my parents didn't choose that name for me!

  8. Dear Kirk,
    Please allow me to join in wishing St Suitbertus a happy birthday! What a fascinating story. It's such a cliche, but reading about the personalities and adventures of historical figures truly brings the past to life. I'm inspired to start reading about the lives of the saints, paying special attention to their attending so interesting! It seems like you and AGA had a beautiful St Suitbertus-themed walk through your beautiful Kaiserswerth! A wonderful way to honor him--especially that pear tart.... Another gem from your kitchen.

    Thank you for another excellent post-- I enjoyed it very much!
    Warm regards,

  9. Why thank you Erika!
    It is the lives - the trials and the tribulations of people both individually and collectively - that creates history. I do love all that.
    We did have a nice stroll and for a change we could feel Spring in the air which made it all the better! If it wasn't for St Suitbertus the village in its present form would not exist and what better way to honour the life of a person than with a fab tart!
    Bye for now

  10. Kirk, the very interesting story, which I've not before known. Of course, I knew that Germany was converted to Christianity later than England. and now I know the details of the Patron Saint of your village.
    You have a good, simple and clear English and I've read almost all without the Translator. Perhaps your students also believe that your language is very good.

    1. Thank you Nadezda for your kind comments.
      It is good to put local information in blog post - it opens the world to those who read it and gives them a lot of information that might not have known before: That is why I am enjoying your blog so much!
      Bye for now