I must confess that I never knew much about St. Boniface until I began to do a little research about him today. My maternal Grandmother’s home parish was St. Boniface in Uniontown, Washington. So his name was familiar to me, but not any details of his life.
Uniontown was, and still is, a very small town in the middle of fertile farmlands. People spoke mostly German there when Grammy was a girl in the years leading up to World War I. Sermons at Mass were always in German, a language she did not speak well because her parents did not speak the same versions of German. They spoke English at home. (She could never understand why we complained about bad homilies when we were kids. After all, at least they were in English so we could understand them!) Uniontown was settled largely by Catholic German immigrants. They chose the patron of their former homeland as patron of their local community.
St. Boniface is known as the Apostle of Germany and is its patron saint. He was born in England around 672 and named Winfrid. He studied at Benedictine monasteries near Exeter and Nursling in the diocese of Winchester. He was noted for being a fine student and scholar, compiling a Latin Grammar during his time there.
In 716 he set off to Frisia to convert the residents of that area. However, there was a war raging in Frisia at the time and people were otherwise occupied. So he returned home without success. In 718 he traveled to Rome and in 719 Pope Gregory II gave him the name Boniface and commissioned him to return to Germany to evangelize and reorganize the church there. He also learned from people who had been working already among the German tribes how best to reach them. He spent most of the rest of his life working in Germany.
The felling of Thor’s Oak at Frizlar in northern Hesse is one of the stories told of his work. In the presence of leaders of the local people, he called on Thor to strike him dead if he destroyed an oak tree sacred to Thor. Then he began to chop down the tree. A great wind blew the tree down. Thor did not strike down Boniface, so the people became Christians. Boniface used some of the wood from the tree to build a chapel at the site.
Boniface chopped down other oak trees dedicated to Thor as well, in challenges to the ancient pre-Christian religion. It is said that at Geismar, there was a fir tree growing out of the roots of the oak tree that fell. Boniface told the people, “This humble tree’s wood is used to build your homes: let Christ be at the centre of your households. Its leaves remain evergreen in the darkest days: let Christ be your constant light. Its boughs reach out to embrace and its top points to heaven: let Christ be your Comfort and Guide”. The German tradition of using evergreen trees in the celebration of Christmas may have come from this event. (Think of him next time you see a Christmas tree!)
The years in which Boniface lived and worked were far from peaceful. Battles raged between the Franks, the non-Christian Saxons, and the northern Germanic tribes. Struggles for power over the church by civil authorities and for independence from civil authority by church leaders were common. The conversion of the Germanic tribes was part of the process that eventually led to their incorporation into Charlemagne’s empire. In 754, while again working to convert the Frisians, Boniface was killed by a group of brigands.
It seems fitting that Boniface was chosen as patron of the church at Uniontown. Many Catholic Germans who came to the United States during the 19th century did so as religious refugees. It wasn’t something they spoke about much. My grandparents weren’t sure why their parents or grandparents had come here, except they knew the men came so they would not have to serve in the Kaiser’s army. But from an old German Dominican nun, my mother learned that many came because their only choice at home was to convert to the Protestant religion of their new ruler, the Kaiser, or to worship secretly in defiance of the curfews. The young men came because they would have to leave the Catholic church when they were drafted into the Kaiser’s army. They chose to leave instead, bringing their faith with them to little towns like Uniontown all over the United States. Once here, they chose St. Boniface to continue to be their patron.