Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Gall, Abbot

[Saint Gall]Article

A.D. 646

Among the great number of eminent disciples which Saint Columban left imitators of his heroic virtues, none seems to have been more famous than Saint Gall. He was born in Ireland soon after the middle of the sixth century, of parents who were conspicuous both for their piety and for their riches, and the rank which they held among the nobility. By them he was offered to God from his birth, and by their care was educated in the great monastery of Benchor, under the direction of the holy abbots Saint Comgal and Saint Columban. Studies, especially of sacred learning, flourished in this house, and Saint Gall was well versed in grammar, poetry, and the holy scriptures. When Saint Columban left Ireland, Saint Gall was one of those twelve who accompanied him into England, and afterwards into France, where they arrived in 585. They were courteously received by Sigebert, the pious king of Austrasia and Burgundy, and Saint Columban, assisted by the liberality of that prince, founded the monastery of Anegray, in a wild forest, in the diocess of Besançon, and two years afterwards that of Luxeu. Saint Columban being driven thence by King Theodoric, whom he had reproved for his lust, Saint Gall shared in his persecution, and both withdrew into the territories of Theodebert, who was then king of Austrasia, and reigned at Metz. Villemar, the holy priest of Arben, near the lake of Constance, afforded them a retreat. The servants of God built themselves cells in a desert near Bregentz, converted many idolaters who had a temple near that place, and, in the end of one of their sermons, broke their brazen statues and threw them into the lake. The pagans that remained obstinate, persecuted the monks, and slew two of them. Gunzo, governor of the country, also declared himself their enemy, and King Theodoric, by the death of Theodebert, whom he killed in battle, becoming master of Austrasia, Saint Columban retired into Italy. Saint Gall was unwilling to be separated from him, but was prevented from bearing him company by a grievous fit of illness. The cells which this saint built there for those who desired to serve God with him, he gave to the monastery called of Saint Gall, the abbot of which is prince of the empire, and an ally of the Switzers. Saint Gall was a priest before he left Ireland, and having learned the language of the country where he settled, near the lake of Constance, by his preaching, example, and miracles, he converted to the faith a great number of idolaters, so as to be justly regarded as the apostle of that territory.

A beautiful daughter of Gunzo, duke or governor of the country, being possessed by the devil, was delivered by the saint, and by his advice chose rather to consecrate her virginity to God in the monastery of Saint Peter at Metz, than to marry a son of the king of Austrasia. The Duke Gunzo, and a synod of bishops, with the clergy and people, earnestly desired to place the saint in the episcopal see of Constance; but his modesty and fears were not to be overcome. To avert this danger from himself, and satisfy the importunity of the people, he proposed to them his deacon and disciple John; who was accordingly elected. On the solemnity of his consecration Saint Gall preached a sermon, which is published by Canisius, and in the Library of the Fathers. In it a natural simplicity of style is set off by great penetration, strength, piety, and solid erudition. The author speaks of himself as one taken up in the apostolic labours of the ministry. He only left his cell to preach, and instruct chiefly the wildest and most abandoned among the inhabitants in the mountainous parts of the country: and returning continually to his hermitage, he there often spent whole nights and days in holy prayer and contemplation, in which he usually poured forth his soul before God with floods of tears. Upon the death of Saint Eustasius, whom Saint Columban had left abbot of Luxeu, the monks chose Saint Gall in 625: but that house was then grown rich in lands and possessions, and the humble servant of God understood too well the advantages of the inestimable treasure of holy poverty in a penitential life, to suffer himself to be robbed of it. The charge of a numerous community also alarmed him; for he was aware how difficult a matter it is to maintain a true spirit of perfection in multitudes; and the lukewarmness of one monk would have been to him a subject of perpetual trembling, not only for that soul, but also for his own, and for the whole community, from the contagion of such an example.

Walfridus Strabo places the death of our saint soon after that of Saint Eustasius; but Mabillon shows clearly, that he lived many years longer, and only died about the year 646, on the 16th of October, the day on which the church honours his memory. This abbey changed the rule of Saint Columban for that of Saint Bennet, in the eighth century, and was much increased by the liberality of Charles Martel, Lewis Debonnaire, and Lewis the Big. The estates and civil jurisdiction of which this abbey was possessed, became so considerable, that Henry I erected it into a principality of the empire; but its dominions, though very extensive and powerful before they were curtailed by the civil wars raised by the Calvinists, never properly comprised the town of Saint Gall, which, by embracing the Calvinistical religion, deprived the abbot of what rights he before enjoyed in it. This abbey is one of the most famous in the world for the great number of learned men it had formerly produced, and for its library, which abounded with a great number of excellent and curious manuscripts and printed books, though a great part of these were plundered and lost in the civil wars. It still contains very valuable manuscripts.

He who desires to preach to others with fruit, must first preach to himself, treasuring up lessons of true piety in his own mind, imprinting deeply in his heart the sentiments of all virtues, and learning to practise first what he would afterwards teach others. Empty science fills with presumption, vain-glory, and pride, and neither reforms the heart, nor teaches that language which infuses true virtue into others, which can only proceed from experimental virtue. The gift of true spiritual knowledge cannot be obtained but by sincere humility, and purity of heart, which is freed from vices and earthly affections, and by holy meditation, which alone can give a heavenly tincture and frame to the mind, as Cassian says. As our food is assimilated to our flesh by digestion, so spiritual affections pass, as it were, into the very substance of our souls by pious meditation, and the exercises of holy compunction, divine love, and all other interior virtues; which he will be able to teach others who is possessed of them himself.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Gall, Abbot”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 17 October 2013. Web. 22 October 2014. <>