Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Feast Day of St. Hedwig

October 16 is the feast day of St. Hedwig of Silesia. If you're a Potterhead/Harry Potter fan, you probably know J.K. Rowling named Harry's snow-white owl companion after Hedwig, the patron saint of orphans. According to David Colbert in his book The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter, Rowling found the name in a book of saints.

Snowy owl. Creative Commons image by Matt MacGillivray
Now, there are two women referred to in English as St. Hedwig. One is Hedwig, or Jadwiga, of Poland, who lived in the 14th century and was canonized by Pope John Paul II. Jadwiga of Poland is a fascinating historical figure because her official title made her king, rather than queen, of her country. However, Jadwiga of Poland is not the patron saint of orphans.

Hedwig, Queen of Poland. Public domain image
That honorary title goes to Święta Jadwiga Śląska, also known as Saint Hedwig of Andechs or of Silesia. Andechs is a family name, referring to a series of Bavarian kings. Our Hedwig was born in Andechs castle in Bavaria circa 1174. Silesia is a place; it was a medieval (1138-1335) province of Poland, ruled over by a duke. Its neighboring provinces were Bohemia and Moravia. 

Hedwig married Henry I, nicknamed Henry I the Bearded. Henry I is remembered for bringing the German language and culture to Silesia. 

Henry I became Duke of Silesia in 1232, a position he held until his death in 1238. Their son Henry II the Pious became Duke of Silesia upon his father's death, and Hedwig spent the remainder of her life in a monastery (which she'd encouraged her husband to establish) as a lay sister. She did not become a nun. When Henry II died, Hedwig and Henry II's widow Anna of Bohemia (sometimes called Anne of Bohemia) established a Benedictine abbey together.

Besides founding several religious institutions with her husband and daughter-in-law, Hedwig of Silesia is known for her charity and humility. She refused to wear shoes, even in winter. She ministered to women afflicted with Hansen's disease. In folklore, she is also credited with stopping in Austria on a pilgrimage to Rome; where she visited Austria, a stream with healing properties sprung up from the earth. 

St. Hedwig of Silesia, public domain image by Matthias Feige
Although Hedwig was canonized by Pope Clement IV in 1267, her association with orphans didn't begin until 1848. In that year, Robert Spiske founded a religious women's association that eventually developed into the congregation of the Sisters of St. Hedwig. The nuns' principal mission is the education of orphaned/abandoned children, chiefly in Germany, Austria, and Denmark. 

Robert Spiske is not himself considered a saint, but the Catholic church considers him "venerable." He was a Polish priest born in 1821, known for his preaching, pastoral work with young people, and outreach to people who felt alienated from the church. 

According to, a Harry Potter fan website, Hedwig of Silesia was the mother of seven children, like Molly Weasley. Her husband's name, Henry, is another form of the name Harry. The Hog's Head also reminds us that in the books, Harry chooses Hedwig's name after seeing it in A History of Magic by Bathilda Bagshot. We don't know what the fictional Bathilda Bagshot wrote in her fictional magical textbook, but it may have had something to do with those magical healing waters. 

You can read more about St. Hedwig on Wikipedia and the Catholic Encyclopedia. The Catholic Encyclopedia lists her feast day as October 17. She is thought to have died on October 15, 1243. 

Other saints' day posts you might enjoy:

St. Swithen's Day
St. Lucia's Day

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