The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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April 13, 2001 Issue
Saint of the Day

This female saint lived the derring-do life of a man

St. Hildegund even had to be cut down from the gallows

By Tony Staley
Compass Editor

Recently, a TV movie told a fanciful story of derring-do about the daughter of Robin Hood and Maid Marian. The story is part of a trend in popular culture to give girls and young women models of action and adventure to cheer on to victory over the forces of evil.

But rather than make-up such a character, movie-makers could look to real people for their stories. Most people have heard of St. Joan of Arc, the 15th century Maid of Orléans who led the French effort to defeat the British and reclaim the French crown during the Hundred Years War.

But how many people have heard of St. Hildegund?

She was born in the 1100s at Neuss, Germany. After the death of her mother, Hildegund, at age 12, went with her father, a knight, on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. For her safety, she was dressed as a boy and called "Joseph."

After her father died during their return trip to Germany, she was able to make her own way home. She continued to disguise herself as a boy and eventually as a man.

Later, she made a pilgrimage to Rome, during which she had several adventures. On one of them, she was condemned to be hanged as a robber and escaped only when a friend of the real robber cut her down from the gallows.

After that, she returned to Germany and entered a Trappist monastery at Schönau, concealing her gender until her death in 1188. Her feast is observed on April 20.

While she was quite popular during the Middle Ages, few people have heard of her today.

Nor is Hildegund the only woman saint said to have lived as a man in religious life. Others include St. Eugenia, who is said to have served as an abbot in Egypt before her secret was discovered. Eventually, it is said that she died in Rome as a martyr.

Another was St. Pelagia the Penitent, who supposedly was a dancing girl before converting, disguising herself as a man and living as a hermit in Jerusalem.

And there was St. Marina, who lived with her father, a monk, in a monastery disguised as a boy.

Although all four of these women saints existed, historians say these stories about Eugenia, Pelagia the Penitent and Marina are almost assuredly not true but typical of pious legends of the era.

The story of St. Hildegund is believed to be true. At the least, it sounds more entertaining than anything Hollywood could make up - even if, perhaps, at least in part it too is the product of dream-makers of an earlier era.

(Sources: All Saints and Dictionary of Saints)

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