Feast Day: Othmar

Today I am going to tell you a story of a gifted little boy born on the shores of Lake Constance. He grew up in a place where he would speak an Alamannic German at home and Latin in more formal settings. He was born into a privileged family: He got the chance to go to school at an early age. The intent was to groom him for service in the royal administration. For his postsecondary education he is being sent abroad where people speak Romansch. There he lives in a palace with the family of a powerful mentor. After he mastered the sciences, he continued to study theology and became a priest.

The young man wanted to return to the shores of Lake Constance, but his mentor had a strategic placement for him in mind. He served for a number of years as parish priest and gained a reputation for compassionate service and his special attention for the marginalized. Eventually, he got called by an even more powerful landlord to establish a monastery in the woods of the Steinach valley. The local ruler secured a royal order to do so, and thus to establish a cultural and religious defence post on the margins of competing jurisdictions.

Abbot Otmar (photo source: http://www.santiebeati.it)

The chosen location was the site of the former hermitage of St. Gall, an Irish missionary who was responsible for the Christianization of that part of Middle Europe. With the backing of the rich and powerful, the now thirty year-old monk was able to establish proper buildings for the new abbey. But he was not only concerned about the well-being of the monks. He also established the first documented hospital for lepers. Besides his duties as the abbot, he provided bedside care for the lepers who were shunned by society due to the infectiousness of their disease. It is reported that he had some other quirky habits for his high social standing. He refused to use a horse for his long distance travels, instead he used a donkey. Several times he returned to the monastery without his abbatial garments because he gave them away to some needy person along the way. He also misused funds from the king that were earmarked for the expansion and beautification of the abbey infrastructure: He distributed it to people in need along the way.

Needless to say that such behaviours led to tensions between the abbot and the powerful regional rulers and mentors of the abbey. There was civil unrest in the area that made some of the previous political arrangements unstable. The abbot spoke out against the political manoeuvring involving the abbey, which he saw wholeheartedly as a place of contemplative life, communion with God, scholarship, and charity. His monastic community rule was inspired by the understanding that following Jesus’ example and preaching the gospel cannot be separate from the struggle for social justice and the care for the marginalized.

Eventually, he was apprehended by surprise, arrested, and brought to trial. He was accused of raping a woman in a rigged trial. The accused did defend himself by admitting that he was a sinner, but that he did not commit the crime he was accused of. He referred to God as his sole witness and protector of the truth. He was confident that he would pass His judgement and did not further engage in his trial.

As expected, the court found him guilty and he was sentenced to life in prison. He was locked up in a tower in order to let him starve to death. However, the crown witness suddenly fell gravely ill and after severe febrile seizures, he admitted to have made up the accusation and the evidence. This brought on an outrage by the people who always doubted the popular abbot’s guilt. In order to avoid an uprising, the old man was released from prison and put under house arrest on the island of Werd in the Rhine river. There he lived as hermit and died within a year.

This is the story of my namesake Otmar. He lived from about 690 until November 16 in 759. I tracked down the second oldest vita of his life, a document written in Latin between 834 and 838 by Walafridus Strabo. This version of Otmar’s life story is based on an earlier manuscript written by a monk at St. Gall abbey, Gotzbert, who became the sixth successor of Otmar as the abbot of St. Gall abbey in 815 and the founder of its still world-renowned library (a UNESCO world heritage site) around 830. It is not known if Gotzbert had contact with any contemporaries of Otmar. However, the documents were likely required to initiate the process of canonization for Otmar, who was declared a saint by the Catholic church in 864. For those who enjoy reading the original Latin text in print edition, here is a link:

Pertz, Georg Heinrich. (1829). Monumenta Germaniae Historica inde ab anno Christi quingentesimo usque ad annum millesimum et quingentesimum (vol 2) 41-47. Stuttgart (digitization: Bayrische Staatsbibliothek).

For those who enjoy reading the oldest known manuscript (Written around 890) from the library in St. Gall can read it here in facsimile:

Codex Sang 562, p. 95 – 113)

Since I am no longer proficient in reading the source text, I am thankful for the article on Otmar’s life by Josef Osterwalder. He summarized Otmar’s life as follows:

He comes from noble birth, has the makings of a ruler.
But Otmar is priest, the first abbot of the Gallus monastery, a servant of the poor and a pioneer of health care.
He builds the first leprosy clinic.
A saint of social and political significance. Otmar is fighting for the independence of his monastery. That can not be allowed by the powerful.
With a show trial Otmar is worn down. He died in exile, far from St. Gallen.
He dies for St. Gallen. A martyr for freedom.

Otmar, abbot of St. Gall (c690 – 759), illustration from Codex Sang 586 (1430-1434) (photo credit Immaculata Helvetia)

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