St Ethelburga (died c.675 CE) was the first leader of a monastic order for women in England. Having refused an arranged marriage to a pagan prince, she was banished to a nunnery by her brother, Erkonwald who later became Bishop of London (Bishopsgate, where St Ethelburga’s Centre now stands, was named after him.)
She proved to be a natural leader and became the first Abbess of the great Benedictine Abbey at Barking in Essex, one of the first religious houses for women in the country.
She is especially noted for her heroic conduct in caring for the sick during an outbreak of the plague in 664 which eventually killed her and most of her community. During this time she is said to have had a vision of a light “brighter than the sun at noonday” which inspired her and her community to carry out works of great compassion in caring for others.
The Venerable Bede wrote of her: “Her life is known to have been such that no person who knew her ought to question but that the heavenly kingdom was opened to her, when she departed this world.”
In the Anglican calendar her feast day is October 11th and we have a service around that time to commemorate her life. For us, she epitomises a strong woman who exemplifies the virtues of leadership and commitment to social action even to the point of self-sacrifice.