According to some historical sources, the Arian form of Christianity may have arrived in Germany as early as the days of the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire. Catholicism, or at least the Roman Catholic Church, had little or no formal presence east of the Rhine until the arrival of Boniface in the early 8th century. Boniface, sometimes called the Apostle to the Germans, established the Church in Frisia, Bavaria and along the Rhine. Although he had little to do with Fulda, a close associate founded an abbey there and interred Boniface there after his martyrdom. Fulda Cathedral, the oldest pilgrimage destination in Germany, now stands on the site. Along with the church in Salzburg, it is counted as a birthplace of Catholic Christianity in Central Europe.
Boniface was one of the last great Chrisitan evangelists of the early Middle Ages. According to tradition, he was born in England in 672, around the time when Danes, Angles and Saxons were struggling for control of the British Isles. His familiarity with these groups, their languages and customs made him a perfect choice to spread Christianity to Germany. He began in Frisia, in what is now the Netherlands, where he achieved legendary fame for chopping down the Donnar Oak, a tree sacred to the pagan Germans.
Under the protection of the Frankish kings, Boniface spent his life traveling in the German lands east of the Rhine, where he baptized countless new Christians and helped existing Christian communities, such as they were, to become reorganized within the Church hierarchy. He founded Catholic diocese throughout the Rhineland and Bavaria, and established an important cult following as well. One of his chief followers, Sturm, became a Benedictine monk and went on to establish some of Germany’s first monasteries.
In 754, at the age of 82, Boniface made his last missionary trip to Frisia. While there, he and his companions were assaulted and slain by brigands. As the story goes, when the assailants discovered no gold or treasure, they took out their anger on Boniface’s books. One of these, the Ragyndrudis Codex, is now kept in Fulda, and still bears the scars left by the bandit’s swords. Although technically not a martyr as he did not die for his faith, Boniface’ death became a rallying event for the Christians of Germany. After being buried for a brief period in Frisia, his corpse was eventually reinterred in the church of Fulda Abbey.
Fulda Monastery was founded in 744 by Sturm. Throughout the Middle Ages it was one of the great monastic centers of Christianity in Germany, and though later overshadowed by other churches, it remained a popular pilgrimage destination for the better part of a thousand years. For many years one of the oldest churches in Germany, the monastery church was eventually replaced with a new cathedral. Although it is no longer the religious center it once was, it is still historically important among Germant Catholics.
Fulda Cathedral still occupies the same location that its predecessor, the Ratgar Basilica, had occupied since the 8th century. The current structure was built in the 1700s. A baroque architectural masterpiece, it was built along similar lines to the then recently completed St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Although damaged by fire in 1905 and air raid bombings during World War II, the cathedral survived the 20th century much better than many of Germany’s other churches during this turbulent period. Renovations in the 1950s have left it in excellent condition.
The cathedral’s interior is indeed reminiscent of St. Peter’s, if smaller in scale and magnificence. Interesting details of the church include its unusual westward orientation and its decorative use of obelisks. The bodies of Sts. Boniface and Sturm are both interred in the crypt, as is that of King Conrad I of Germany, whose successors would later be Holy Roman Emperors. Adjacent to the cathedral in the old abbey is a museum housing Christian artifacts, including the damaged copy of the Ragyndrudis Codex.
Fulda Cathedral is located close to the city center of Fulda’s old town, approximately 65 miles northeast of Frankfurt and 270 miles southwest of Berlin. It is open year round Mondays through Fridays 10:00am-5:00pm; Saturdays 10:00am-3:00pm; and Sundays 1:00am-6:00pm (open later in summers). There is no cost for admission. Web: www.fulda.de (official tourism website of Fulda)
Although the Ratgar church is long gone, Fulda Abbey is still home to one of the oldest, if not the oldest, church standing in Germany. St. Michael’s Church, once the abbey’s burial chapel, still survives. Except for a few renovations and extensions in the 17th and 18th centuries, this church mostly dates back 1200 years and is still in full use.