St. Columbanus, Missionary to Europe

Columcille had spread Christianity through Scotland; Columbanus (or Columban) took it even further. He took his mission to Gaul, through Switzerland, and into northern Italy, converting barbarians everywhere he went.

Columbanus was born in Leinster around 540. As a young man, he traveled to Ulster to study and then entered a monastery in Bangor, County Down. He worked and prayed there for twenty-five years.

On a Mission to Gaul

Around 590, Columbanus and twelve companions went to Gaul to found a monastery there. He was so successful that he actually founded three: Annegray, Fontaines, and the important Luxeuil. He worked with the uncivilized barbarians living in the forest, trying to convert them to Christianity.

This went against the practice of the local bishops, who preferred to stay in larger towns and cities and preach to their local believers. The bishops disapproved of Columbanus and summoned him, but he refused to go; instead, he sent them a letter in which he basically told them that they weren't doing their jobs. In Columbanus's opinion, a bishop ought to be out in the countryside trying to reach the pagans.

Further Travels

The bishops conspired with the evil queen Brunhild of Burgundy to have Columbanus deported. He and his followers went to Nantes to catch a ship back to Ireland, but it sank. Columbanus and four companions survived and headed for northern Italy. In the Alps, his German translator, Gall, got sick and refused to go on. Columbanus had a big fight with him, and then left him behind.

Gall stayed where he was and worked on converting the local people, the Alemanni. He became quite famous, and after his death a monastery called St. Gall of the Alps was erected in his honor. Before Columbanus died, he sent a message to Gall apologizing for fighting with him and praising his work.

By 612, Columbanus and his companions were in Bobbio (in Lombardy, Italy). There they built the first-ever Irish-Italian monastery. Columbanus spent the rest of his years writing outrageous letters to his fellow churchmen. He is best known to us through his extraordinary correspondence, written in impeccable Latin and thoroughly grounded in Scripture. He never stopped criticizing his colleagues, and he seemed to have had no sense of humility or respect for rank. He even sent letters of scathing criticism to two popes. Columbanus died in Bobbio in 615.

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