Saint Odilia

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Sources: John Dixon Salt, Wikipedia, Patron Saints index, BOA Museum, Paul Aangenendt, and The Liturgical Year, by Dom Guéranger,

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Saint Odilia, (circa 660 - 720; Ottilia, Othilia, Otilie, Adilia, Odile; Virgin and Abbess,
patron of the vision, eye disease and eye problems, and opticians) the patron saint of Alsace and Strasbourg, was according to legend the daughter of Lord Adalric, a leader of the Alemanni, and first duke of Alsace; her mother was Bereswind (Berchsind), said to be the niece of St Leodegarius. They lived at Obernheim in the Vosges Mountains, about 20 miles south of Strasburg (eastern France), at the foot of the hill of Hohenburg or Altitonia.

For years they had no children but finally, in answer to their prayers they had a child. They had hoped to have a son, but Adalric’s joy turned to rage when he realized his child was not only female, but blind. He felt humiliated and ordered the child to be killed, or at least to be taken away and left to die. At the same time he had it proclaimed with trumpets that the duchess had given birth to a stillborn child. Bereswind’s faithful nurse took the baby and nursed it as her own at Scherweiler. About a year later, the child was given to the convent of Baume-les-Dames (Palma), near Besancon, in Franche Compte, or by some variants of the legend, she floated down the river to Beaume in a chest.

At the age of twelve, she was baptised by Saint Erhard of Regensburg (then Bishop of Bavaria), abbot of the newly built monastery of Eberheim-Munster. Odilia miraculously gained her sight and looked steadily at Erhard, who said, "So, my child, may you look at me in the kingdom of heaven."

Adalric and Bereswind had several other children, and when their eldest son Hugh was grown up, he located his sister and without asking his father’s permission, brought her home. The Duke was so angry that he struck and killed the brother; but horrified at his own violence, he accepted his daughter and did penance for his crime. Her personal beauty, and her father's wealth and power, began to attract many rich suitors. A nun from England became a servant to attend to Odilia and when her parents planned a marriage for her with a German duke, she fled her home and crossed the Rhine. In 686, Adalric found her one day carrying meal in an earthen dish, under her cloak, to make food for the poor. Since he had already begun to give alms and endowments for the good of his soul, he gave Odilia his castle of Hohenburg, with all its lands and revenues, that she might make it into a nunnery (modern Odilienburg/Mont Sainte-Odile).

The hill of Hohenburg rises over 2,000 feet abruptly from the valley of the Rhine. It had a pre-Christian wall around it, still called the heathen wall, and there was a plateau on top, on which the monastery was built. Within ten years the place had a hundred and thirty nuns, amongst whom were the three daughters of her brother Adelard, St Eugenia, her successor, St Attala, abbess of St Stephen's at Strasburg, and St Gundelind. There Odilia served her Lord, governed a large community, and gave relief to every sort of suffering.

In the 7th and 8th centuries there were frequent pilgrimages to Hohenburg, but Odilia's hill was so high and steep that very few of the pilgrims managed to climbed to seek her hospitality; so at the foot of the mountain and with the approval of her community, she founded the Odilienberg monastery at Niedermunster. There she entertained such numbers of pilgrims that very soon the two chapels which Adalric had built were too small that she begged him to build a large church, which he did in 690. Olilia’s parents both died shortly afterwards. Then she died December13, 720 and was buried in a chapel near the convent church on the Odilienberg. The tomb where once Odilia's body originally lay was evidently destroyed in 1793. In recent times, an abbey has been founded by a new Benedictine congregation at Sankt Ottilien, between Munich and Augburg.

Odilia shares the same feast day, December 13th , as Saint Lucy, while her shrine on the Odilienburg is still a celebrated place of pilgrimage, visited by devout pilgrims and those afflicted with blindness or other eye diseases. She also gave her name to the Guild of St Odilia (Consulting Opticians) early this century. In art, she is frequently depicted as an abbess with a book on which are two eyes. She can therefore be easily distinguished from Saint Lucy, who is shown much younger and with two eyes on a plate.

Some eye conditions cannot be helped by operations, medicines, or eyeglasses. Although the invoked stories of Odelia and the other saints of the eyes may be the consequence of both fact and fiction, this still provides the hope of a miraculous cure for some believing patients.

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