Saints of the Order of Saint Benedict – Saint Gertrude, Abbess of Nivelle

illustration of Saint Gertrude, Abbess of Nivelle, from the book 'Saints of the Order of Saint Benedict', designed by Father Amandus LiebhaberThe virtues and piety of good mothers are reproduced in their daughters even amid the distractions and temptations of a Court. Saint Gertrude had the good fortune to have in her mother, Itta, the wife of Pepin, Duke of Brabant, a perfect model of what a chaste and holy woman should be. With the most tender solicitude she taught her daughter, from her earliest years, to fix her thoughts on heavenly things. While Gertrude was yet a babe, her mother used to join her hands in the attitude of prayer, and make the sign of the Cross on her forehead, lips, and breast; as the child grew older, she learned to pray by her mother’s side, and to show special devotion to the Blessed Mother of God, whose Rosary she constantly repeated on the beads hanging from her girdle. No wonder is it that, with quick apprehension, she mastered the chief truths of the Faith. Itta was also exceedingly careful that her daughter should be grave and modest in demeanour, and keep a strict watch over her eyes and tongue. As one would expect from such a training, Saint Gertrude at an early age resolved to consecrate her virginity to God.

It chanced that Dagobert, King of France, was being entertained at a banquet by Pepin. Among the King’s retinue was a young noble, the son of the Duke of Austrasia, who, having seen Gertrude helping her mother in the preparations for the feast, was smitten by her charms. He begged Dagobert to assist him in his suit. The King complied, and asked Pepin to summon his daughter. When the proposal was made to her, Gertrude replied that she was long since betrothed to Christ. The King, in admiration of her virtue and resolution, forebore to press her further.

Pepin dying fourteen years later, Itta and Gertrude for some time continued the management of his estates, ever engaged in doing good. Then, by the advice of Saint Amand, they built a convent at Nivelle, into which both mother and daughter retired. There they set such an example of sanctity, that they attracted numbers of virgins from the noblest families. The Rule was strictly observed, and – what is rare among women – they applied themselves with zeal to the study of sacred literature and the works of the Fathers.

When Itta died in her sixtieth year, the sole charge of the convent fell on Gertrude. From the wealth bequeathed by her mother, she erected a large house for the shelter and support of the poor; she also assisted generously the poverty of the clergy; but her chief delight was to pore over the Sacred Scriptures, to spend her days in prayer and contemplation, and to discourse with her sisters on the observance of the Rule and the exercising of the soul in virtue. Kind to others, to herself she was most severe. Her fasts were long and frequent; her tender flesh every day felt the discipline of the hair-shirt and the lash. Weakened by these austerities, she handed over the government of the Abbey to Wilfetrude. Soon after, though only thirty, she was forewarned that her death was near. Then she redoubled her contrition for her sins, and her prayers for salvation. Three days before her death, Ultan, a holy monk, was enabled to send her the cheering message that she would breathe her last, after partaking of the Sacred Host, on the festival of Saint Patrick, and that the great Apostle of Ireland himself would receive her soul and escort it to heaven. The night before the feast was spent in reciting prayers and psalms with her sisters; in the morning her innocent soul, fortified by the Last Sacraments, entered into its reward, A.D. 659.

Scarcely was the breath out of her body, when Saint Gertrude appeared to her dear friend, Modesta, an Abbess of the same order, and informed her that Gertrude, whom she loved so well, was dead.

Among the many miracles worked through her intercession after her death, the most famous was the rescue of her own convent from being burned down. Through the carelessness of some one a fire broke out; the flames spread rapidly, and there seemed no hope of saving the building. While the nuns were wringing their hands in grief at the loss of their beloved home, Saint Gertrude was seen standing on the roof, and with her veil, as with a broom, sweeping off the burning sparks. Immediately the flames were quelled, and, through the protection of its foundress, the Abbey of Nivelle was saved from destruction.

– text and illustration taken from Saints of the Order of Saint Benedict by Father Aegedius Ranbeck, O.S.B.