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A patron saint for birds

During the eighth century the royal families of England produced a bumper crop of holy men and women. Within Milburga's immediate family her mother, Ermenburga, her two sisters, Mildred and Milgitha, and of course Milburga herself all became venerated as saints. Ermenburgha and her daughters devoted themselves to caring for the sick and the poor, endowing schools at convents and monasteries and commissioning sacred art for local churches. Once her daughters were adults, Ermenburga entered the Convent of Minster on the island of Thanet, where eventually, she was elected abbess. Like her mother, Milburga chose the life of a nun, entering Much Wenlock Abbey, a convent her father had founded in Shropshire near the Welsh border.

The people who lived near the abbey revered Milburga for her holiness. Often she left her convent to nurse the sick, and all manner of miraculous cures were attributed to her. The most dramatic story tells of a widow who brought the body of her dead son to Milburga and begged her to restore the child to life. Milburga urged the poor woman to accept the bereavement God had sent her, but the mother refused to leave the abbey until Milburga helped her. Reluctantly, Milburga knelt beside the body and prayed that if it was His will, God would restore the boy to life. Suddenly the child gasped and sat up, alive and well.

St. Milburga's patronage of birds comes from another miracle story. Once, just before harvest, an enormous flock of birds alighted on the farmers' fields and began gobbling up all the grain. Nothing the farmers did frightened off the birds, so Milburga began to pray. To the sound of a tremendous flapping of wings, the flock rose above the fields and flew away. Since the Middle Ages, St. Milburga has been venerated as the patron of wild birds as well as pet birds.

On her deathbed, Milburga's last words were, "Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers." The nuns buried her before the altar in the abbey church. A century later, when Viking raiders ransacked Much Wenlock Abbey, the church was destroyed and the location of St. Milburgfa's tomb was lost. The convent lay in ruins until 1079, when monks from France came and re-established Much Wenlock as a monastery. During construction of the new church, St. Milburga's tomb was rediscovered. The monks placed her relics in a shrine and for nearly 500 years St. Milburga's tomb drew local people as well as pilgrims from every corner of England and Wales. All that came to an end when Henry VIII broke with Rome, closed all the abbeys in England, and sent his men to dismantle the shrines of the saints. In 1540 the king's commissioners arrived at Much Wenlock. They stripped St. Milburga's shrine of its valuables, pried open her coffin, carried her bones outside the church and burned them.

Craughwell is the author of This Saint Will Change Your Life (Quirk, 2011) and Saints Behaving Badly (Doubleday, 2006).

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013