Orthodox America

Orthodoxy’s Western Heritage - Mission in the Alps  

Saint Beatus
Saint Maurice and the Theban Legion

Saint Verena

Saint Gall

    The history of Christianity in Switzerland is invariably associated with the names of Calvin and Zwingli, influential leaders of the Protestant Reformation, whose forceful contempt of the Roman Church combined with their sense of mission to sweep away the evidence of history and have them crowned as Switzerland's apostles. Their apostolate, however, belonged to a new order which they themselves had devised. It was severed from the True Vine whose shoots had been rooted in the Swiss soil centuries earlier by the genuine successors of Christ's Apostles.


Saint Beatus

Commemorated May 9

    According to oral tradition--often more reliable than the skeptic deliberations of modern scholarship, the first missionary to the pagan Helvetii was a first-century hermit of Gaelic origin, St. Beatus (Latin for "blessed''). He is said to have been baptized in England by St. Barnabas. Upon his conversion, St. Beatus gave up his earthly possessions and traveled to Rome where he was ordained by the Apostle Peter and sent with a companion, Achates, to evangelize the area we know today as Switzerland. The two missionaries settled in Argovia, just east of the Jura Mountains, where they persuaded many Helvetians to abandon their pagan cults of Mars and Hercules and to erect temples to the true God.

     For the sake of greater solitude, St. Beatus journeyed south to Interlaken, He settled into a cave above the lake and there he spent the rest of his life in prayer and fasting. St. Beatus died in old age c.112. Veneration of the Saint was popular in the Middle Ages and survived the hostility of the Reformation period when pilgrims were driven back from his cave at spear-point by Zwingli's followers. Located in a mountain named after the Saint, Beattenberg, his cave still exists and remains a place of pilgrimage.

     Although the earliest recorded accounts of St. Beatus' life, dating no earlier than the 10th and mid-11th centuries, have not been historically authenticated, there is no reason to dismiss them as legendary, as have ( some modern scholars. It should be remembered that Helvetia was conquered in 58 BC by the Romans whose civilizing influence was advantageous to early Christian missionary work, in spite of pagan Rome's hostility. Nevertheless, in the absence of further documentation, one would hesitate to agree with a later tradition that calls St. Beatus the Apostle of Switzerland. This honor has been more justly conferred upon St. Gall, one of that great company of Irish monks whose major contribution towards the conversion of Gaul, Germany, the Low Countries and Switzerland remains to be fully appreciated. But even before St. Galls arrival in the early 7th century, Christianity had been making inroads into Switzerland, peopling its rugged landscape with monastics and watering its soil with the blood of martyrs.


Saint Maurice and the Theban Legion 

Commemorated September 22

     Towards the end of the third century (c. 285), the Roman Emperor Maximian Herculius summoned a select legion from Thebes (in Upper Egypt)to strengthen his western front. The legion was composed of Christian warriors whose ardor in battle was matched by an equally ardent faith.

     In celebration of a military success, all the soldiers were ordered to sacrifice to the pagan gods. The Theban legion refused to comply and withdrew from the encampment at Octodurum (today's Martigny) southeast to Agaunum. Maximian tried to intimidate them into submission by randomly executing one tenth of the legion. But he did not succeed. The head of the legion, St. Maurice, encouraged his soldiers to stand fast in their faith and prepare themselves for the honor of suffering for Christ in imitation of their martyred companions who had already joined the armies of Christian warriors in heaven. Another tenth of the legion was executed. Finding the remaining soldiers still unwilling to surrender their faith, Maximian ordered a general slaughter. The legionnaires, numbering several thousand, did not resist. The site of their martyrdom, outside Agaunum (today's St. Maurice), received the name Verroliez which is old French for vrai lieu or "actual place," i. e., where the martyrs were slaughtered, a name it carries to this day.

     In Agaunum the pagan executioners celebrated their bloody operation. A man by the name of Victor, on learning the cause of such revelry, refused to drink with the soldiers or to accept any of the dead legionnaires' belongings. On being questioned he unhesitatingly confessed the Christian faith and was promptly executed.

      Unfortunately, of the nearly 6,000 martyrs slain in Agaunum, tradition has handed down to us only the names of St. Maurice, St. Exuperus, St. Victor and St. Candidus (a senator). Their story was recorded by St. Euchertus, bishop of Lyons (c. 434);

      Two of the Theban soldiers, Victor and Ursus, escaped the slaughter and fled north to Solothurn where they began preaching the Gospel. It wasn't long, however, before they were caught by soldiers of the pagan governor Hirtacus and executed. Their relics are still in Solothurn.

    Soon after the Agaunum slaughter, the Theban martyrs began working miracles. A church was built in Agaunum and also a monastery. The latter was enlarged in 515 by the pious Burgundian King Sigismund, a convert from the Arian heresy. Agaunum, with 900 monks, became the chief monastic center of Burgundy. Day and night choirs of monks took turns in chanting psalm s.


Saint Verena 

Commemorated September 1

    Not long after the martyrdom of Victor and Ursus, there came to Solothurn a Theban girl, a relative of one of the slain legionnaires. She had left her native Egypt for Italy where she heard news of the slaughter, and made her way to Switzerland in search of the relics of her martyred Theban brethren. After praying on the spot of their martyric exploit, she proceeded to Octodurum, but the local pagans forced her departure, and so she went to Solothurn where one surviving legionnaire was still living. There the young woman, Verena, settled in a cave and began leading a solitary life of prayer.

    St. Verena had one companion, an elderly woman who was a secret Christian and who provided her with food and in general looked after her needs. The recluse began to attract the local populace and converted members of the Almani tribes who, in turn, asked that she take charge of their daughters and educate them. And so it developed that St, Verena became a kind of abbess of a small community of women.

    Naturally, the pagan governor Hirtacus was not pleased by the Saint's activity, and he had her imprisoned. One night St. Maurice appeared to St. Verena in her prison cell and comforted her, giving her courage to remain firm in her faith. That same night Hirtacus was struck by a violent fever which doctors were unable to relieve. Knowing St. Verena's reputation, he asked her to pray for him. Cured through the holy virgin's prayers, Hirtacus freed her to resume her pious activities.

    The great veneration which the people had for the Saint gave her no rest. She decided to leave Solcthurn and went first to Coblenz and then to an island on the Rhine. It was infested with snakes which she chased out by' her prayers. She did not stay on the island, however, but went to Zurzach. After spending some time near a church dedicated to the Mother of God, she resumed her solitary life in a cell. A church was built there after her repose, and miracles continued to manifest the grace of God which St. Verena had acquired during her earthly sojourn. 

From St. Gregory of Tour’s Vita Patrium (Life of the Fathers--serialized in "The Orthodox Word") and other early sources, we know that in the 5th century the monastic centers of Gaul, notably Lerins and Lyons, spilled their influence north and east into the Jura Mountains. There, alpine clefts and forested ravines provided a suitable 'desert' for monastic lovers of solitude whose severe asceticism was styled after that of the Egyptian Fathers. As their number increased a more established form of cenoebitic monasticism was introduced as, for example, at Agaunum. In the Jura, disciples of the brother Saints Romanus and Lupicinus spread out to found a whole series of monasteries. There also the Saints' sister Yole governed what was perhaps the first wilderness monastic community for women in the West, known as "La Balme."

    But despite the successful rooting of the monastic tradition in Swiss soil, the missionary field was in need of Still more laborers. The warring Franks and Burgundians presented just the challenge for those indomitable missionaries par excellence--the Irish monks. 

Saint Gall

Commemorated October 16

    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.