Today we celebrate the feast of St. Hilda of Whitby.
The town of Whitby is well worth a visit. For many it is associated with Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, but it is famous for the ruins of the Abbey that dominates the East Cliff headland.
I was there a few years ago with friends, and we were able to walk though the ruins of the Abbey and visit the excellent Visitors Centre housed in a 17th-century mansion. Here, it tells you this history of the Abbey with the help of objects like Anglo-Saxon crosses, medieval manuscripts, etc.
It was in 657 that St. Hilda became the founding abbess of Whitby Abbey, then known as Streoneshalh, and she remained there until her death.
Archaeological evidence shows that her monastery was in the Celtic style, with its members living in small houses, each for two or three people. The tradition in double monasteries, such as Hartlepool and Whitby, was that men and women lived separately but worshipped together in church. The exact location and size of the church associated with this monastery is unknown.
Bede states that the original ideals of monasticism were maintained strictly in Hilda’s Abbey. All property and goods were held in common, and Christian virtues were exercised, especially peace and charity. St. Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of Britain, describes Hilda as a woman of great energy, who was a skilled administrator and teacher.
As a landowner she had many in her employ to care for sheep and cattle, farming, and woodcutting. She gained such a reputation for wisdom, that kings and princes sought her advice.
However, she also had a concern for ordinary folk such as St. Cædmon. He was a herder at the monastery, who was inspired in a dream to sing verses in praise of God. Hilda recognised his gift and encouraged him to develop it. Bede writes,
“All who knew her called her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace.”
Although her last seven years were a time of constant illness, she continued to lead her community to the end. Towards daybreak on 17 November 680 she asked for, and received, viaticum and died peacefully with her community around her. As St. Bede says,
“she joyfully saw death approaching… and passed from death to life.”
We thank God for the example of a powerful woman in a leadership role.
O God, who made Saint Hilda radiant with holiness
and by her guidance gave learning, growth and unity to your Church,
grant, by her example and prayers,
the grace to proclaim your Gospel in our day
and to sing your unceasing praise.