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St. Ursula and her Companions

Date unknown
Little is known about St. Ursula whose legend was popular in the Middle Ages. An inscription from the IV or V Century says that Clementius restored a church in Cologne in honor of a band of virgin martyrs, and a sermon from the VIII or IX Century was preached in memory of these virgins who died during a persecution. Calendars of the IX Century number the martyrs at 5, 8, or 11; calendars of the X Century number them at 11,000. In 1155, a collection of bones was discovered at Cologne and was assumed to be the relics of the virgin martyrs. The bones were cut up and sent all over Europe. (Many were the remains of men and children, and scholars now believe the site was a forgotten burial ground). Elizabeth of Schönau had a vision of St. Ursula that was much painted in the Middle Ages.

Modern readers know the legend of St. Ursula primarily from The Golden Legend of James of Voragine, but several versions exist. St. Ursula was a British (or Cornish) princess betrothed to a pagan prince. She asked her father, a Christian, to grant her three years before her wedding. Having attained that, she set sail with her ten companions, each of whom had 1,000 attendants, on a ship that was blown eventually to Cologne. From there, they took a pilgrimage to Rome. On their return to Germany, they were martyred. James of Voragine says they were killed when Ursula refused to marry the chief of the Huns. Other sources say the virgins died during the persecution of Maximian or of Diocletian.

The Ursulines take their name from St. Ursula, whose name was dropped from the Roman Catholic mass in the XVIII Century. In the XX Century, Rome has stopped universal observation of her feast but allows local observations.

Karen Rae Keck


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