It was in Ireland that St. Gall was born, just about the time that St. Comgall founded his famous monastery of Bangor (c. 555) where St. Gall was sent by his parents to be educated. There the young Cellach (St. Gall’s name at birth’) became well-versed in both Sacred Scripture and poetry.
St. Comgall was a strict and righteous ascetic who guided several thousand monks. Among his disciples was St. Columban (not to be confused with St. Columba or Columcille of Iona) who ordained St. Gall to the priesthood after the latter had spent some years in ascetic labors. With St. Comgull’s blessing, St. Gall was chosen together with eleven other monks to accompany St. Columban on a missionary venture.
Full of the evangelistic fervor that characterized the Bangor monks, the group traveled first to England and then, about the year 585, they crossed the channel. Thanks to the support and kindness of a Frankish king, they settled in Annegray, in the Vosges Mountains, where they founded a monastic community. Disciples began to gather, attracted by St. Columban’s reputation as a strict ascetic. In 590 St. Columban, together with St. Gall, founded the famous monastery at Luxeuil, a former spa that had been plundered by the Huns. In the ruins of an old house the Irish monks built first a chapel and then established a monastery. The monks became more and more numerous and the fame of St. Columban and his community was such that they were often visited by King Thoudoric (Thierry), son of Childebert II.
In character with his strictness, St. Columban never compromised in applying the teachings and regulations of the Church. He reproached King Thoudoric for abandoning his wife and living with his mistress, an arrangement which suited Theuderic’ s mother, Queen Faileuba, for she was thereby able to share her son’s power. Although the King had great respect for St. Columban, his willful mother, to protect her interests, managed to estrange the two men and have the holy monk banished from the kingdom.
In 610 St. Columban left Luxeuil with St. Gall and some of the other monks. They went to King Theuderic’s half-brother, King Theodebert of Austrasia whose residence was in Metz. Travelling south through Germany they met with great difficulty in preaching the Gospel, being persecuted and expelled from almost every place where they wanted to establish themselves. Finally, a God-fearing priest living near the Lake of Constance, Willemar, allowed them to stay in Bregentz. There the monks built cells and started converting the surrounding pagan populace. But they had to pay for their success. Two of the monks were killed by some of the pagans in their militant resentment of the Gospel preaching. The bodies of these two martyrs were placed under the altar of the Brigantina Monastery (later called Mererau).
About this time there occurred an incident recorded by St. Columban’s biographer, Jonas of Bobbio, who also knew St. Gall. The latter was given an obedience to fish in the Breuchin, a river which flows into the Lauterne. But he decided to try his luck in the L’Ognan, a tributary of the Aar, instead. He caught nothing. On being reproved by St. Columban for his disobedience,, be went as he had been told to the Breuchin and there he had a large catch.
In 612 Theuderic killed Theodebert and became King of Austrasia. Once more St. Columban had to leave his kingdom and move on. He asked St. Gall to accompany him to Italy (where he was to found the famous Bobbio Monastery). But St. Gall, severely ill, was unable to fulfill such an obedience. St. Columban had to accept his disciple’s remaining in Bregenz, but as a penance he forbade him to celebrate the Divine Liturgy as long as he, Columban, was still alive.
After St. Columban’s departure and St. Gall’s recovery, the latter took some of the monks that had remained in Bregenz, and moved further up the Lake of Constance to what is now Saint-Gall. There they built a few cells. St. Gall studied the local language and converted so many pagans that he was popularly called the Apostle of Constance. He also had the gift of healing and performed several miracles. The daughter of Duke Gonzon (or Gunzon) was possessed by an evil spirit. When St. Gall delivered her from the chains of the devil, her father was so thankful that he wanted St. Gall to become a bishop, but the Saint declined.
True to his strict Celtic monastic training St. Gall carefully guarded himself from acquisitiveness. Money that he could not refuse he distributed to the poor. The chronicle of his Life states that once a deacon of his monastery wanted to keep a precious vase for the altar, St. Gall sternly forbade him: Do not keep it; one must be able to say with St, Peter: “Silver and gold have I none” (Acts 3:6). ‘
After Matins one morning, St. Gall was miraculously informed of the death of St. Columban. He told the other monks and they celebrated a funeral service. One of the monks was then sent to Italy for a report. He returned with the confirmation of St. Columban’s repose and a letter from his Bobbio disciples. Among other things, the letter explained that before dying St. Columban had asked them to give his abbot’s staff to St. Gall as a token of forgiveness for his incapacity to follow him to Italy three years earlier. St. Gall wept abundantly, for he had never forgotten his spiritual father’s love, and until receiving this confirmation of his death, out of obedience he had not celebrated the Divine Liturgy and more than once had refused offers to become bishop. His obedience thereby preserved him in the rigorous monastic life so cherished by the Irish monks.
St. Gall then resumed the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. He spent most of his time in his cell, leaving it only to preach the Gospel and to instruct his humble flock. Like St. Seraphim of Sarov centuries later, St. Gall used to spend days and nights praying and meditating on God’s Word. A bear would visit him and bring him wood. (Today a bear is represented on the town flag of St. Gall as the symbol of the Saint!) The chronicle mentions that the God-fearing King Sigebert (to be distinguished from the one mentioned above) who founded several monasteries, had great veneration for St. Gall. His daughter refused to marry in order that she might become a nun and live close by the holy apostle.
In 625 St. Eustase, abbot of Luxeuil, died. His monks chose St. Gall as his successor, but the Saint declined the position. Luxeuil had become a very rich monastery, and St. Gall’s love for poverty was as firm as his love for obedience and humility.
With his disciples St. Gall followed the rule of St. Columban. It was-very strict, based upon absolute obedience, silence. fasting and abstinence. Infractions brought severe consequences.
The only writing of St. Gall that has come down to us is a homily which he delivered when his disciple John became a bishop. St. Gall himself had been proposed for this honor but he again declined, recommending his disciple in his stead. (The text of the homily is found in Canisius’ Lectiones Antiquae.)
St. Gall died on the 16th of October 646 (some sources say 630). at an advanced age. (As an added note of interest, the Oxford Dictionary of Saints states that his shrine remained until the Reformation; when it was rifled, his bones were seen to be unusually large.)
Hundreds of saints, bearers of the Orthodox faith, preached and died in Switzerland during the first centuries of Christianity. Aside from those already mentioned, we should not overlook the names of St. Felix and Regula, St. Lucius, St. Emerita, St. Fridolin (who appears on a Swiss cantonal flag!), St. Pirmin, St. Theodulus, St. Ursula and the numerous saints of the Jura, St. Maire–bishop of Lausanne, St. Salonins-Bishop of Geneva. These are but some of those known to us, whose memory is gradually being revived to the glory of God, wondrous in His saints.
After the Schism of 1054, Switzerland followed Rome into the Latin error together with the rest of Western Christendom. Ties with its Orthodox heritage were further weakened in the 16th century when its major cities of Zurich and Geneva became strongholds of the Reformation. But by God’s merciful Providence, beginning in the 18th century, through immigrants from Greece and Russia, an Orthodox presence became manifest once again on Swiss soil. By the following century Switzerland had become a popular resort and cultural center for Russia’ s intelligentsia. Although some were thoroughly westernized, others preserved an Orthodox piety and stimulated the growth of parishes. A Russian parish established in Bern in 1816 was transferred to Geneva in 1848 where, thanks to the generosity of the Geneva authorities who offered the Russians a piece of land, a proper Orthodox church was built. Completed in 1866, it was expanded in 1916 and stands today as the episcopal see of Geneva and Western Europe, presided over by Archbishop Anthony (Bartosevich). The next church to be erected was St. Barbara’s in Vevey on the Swiss Riviera, a charming town where several famous Russians lived for a time, among them: Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (in 1857) and Fyodor Michailovich Dostoevsky.
Saint Barbara’s Church in Vevey
Count Peter Shuvalov, Russia’s diplomatic representative at the Berlin Congress in 1878, had a church built in Vevey in memory of his daughter Barbara. She had married Count Orlov in 1870 and died two years later while giving birth to a daughter, Mary, who soon followed her mother into the next world, Construction began in 1874 and in 1878 the church was ready for divine services. It was the Count’s desire that the remains of his daughter be transferred next to the church, but the local authorities refused permission, and her tomb remained in St. Martin’s cemetery, a stone’s throw from St. Barbara’s.
According to Swiss law and tradition, after a certain number of years tombs are opened, their remains buried further down in the ground, and new tombs are erected in the place of the old ones. In 1955 this fate threatened to obliterate the tomb of Barbara and Mary Orlov. Fortunately, Vladika Leonty the Russian bishop of Geneva and Switzerland at the time (brother of the pre sent Archbishop Anthony), managed to secure permission to have the remains of Barbara Petrovna and her daughter transferred next to the church, in fulfillment of her father’s original wish. A beautiful marble cross, exquisitely incised with Slavonic lettering, stands to this day over her simple tomb behind the church.
The church of St. Barbara is a classic example of Russian religious architecture. Although built by local craftsmen, its plans came from Russia as did most of its paintings and icons. Surmounted by a single gold cupola, it is decorated outside with Slavonic calligraphy; inside, similar designs adorn the walls around the frescoes and icons.
Services at St. Barbara’s are chanted in Church-Slavonic and French. The faithful who attend these services are a mixture of native Russians, Serbs, Greeks, Bulgarians and Romanians, with the addition of a growing number of Swiss converts. A special service to all the saints of Orthodox Switzerland was written in French by Priest Pierre Cantacuzene and is celebrated annually at St. Barbara’ s.
Today, Switzerland has a population of some 38,000 Orthodox Christians. These are predominantly descendents of Russian, Greek Serbian and Romanian immigrants, as well as exiles from communist dominated countries and refugees from the Middle East. The different parishes reflect this ethnic diversity. An increasing number of Orthodox are native Swiss, German and French, the majority of whom have been received into the Church by priests of the Russian Church Abroad. These converts have, quite naturally, been the most active in the rediscovery of Orthodoxy’ s Western heritage, an endeavor stimulated and pioneered by Blessed Archbishop John Maximovitch. Through his prayers, may the spiritual fruit, inspired by the lives of those men and women saints whose wholesale dedication to Christ cultivated the flowering of the True Vine in Switzerland in centuries past.
Material provided by Claude Lopez-Ginisty. illustrated by Dominique Lopez; map–OA. Life of St. Gall first published in “L’Observateur Orthodoxe ,” Montreal, Sept. 1984; based on the life of St. Gall written by Vualfrid Strabon (d. 849), a monk of St. Gall’s monastery. Additional facts from “The Orthodox Word” Nos. 25 and 74.