Ursan or Ursin as he came to be known, is an Irish monk with a book and a heraldic lily as his attribute. A saint of the great Burgundian abbey of Luxeuil, he belongs to the group that joined Columban on an arduous Alemannic mission which led them into the utmost eastern limits of Frankish suzerainty, the far end of Lake Constance. Changes at the Merovingian court with a new hostile ruler brought the campaign to an abortive end. The brotherhood dispersed. Columban headed south for Italy... Ursan with a comrade named Fromont, of whom we know little, retraced his steps down the river Rhine towards Basel. They reached the abandoned Roman post of Verena, now Zurzach, and took course up the Aare tributary to the lake of Biel in Helvetia, where there are traces of a brief sojourn, before launching out into the forests of the Swiss Jura, then a no man's land for the taking.
A prehistoric route led from Biel up through a gorge of the river Birs, and over it the pair must have trudged into the wilds until they reached the coast of Mount Terri. For them the prospect from the height would have been tantalising – Alsace with its fruitful plains to the north and further west, beyond the Vosges mountains. Burgundy with their home monastery Luxeuil. Was that perhaps their aim? Did fatigue overcome them here? We can only guess. Certain is, that in Ursan's immediate vicinity lay a deep and tortuous river gorge, cutting deeply into the rock of the primeval forest surrounding him, and in its density fugitives of German Alemannic stock were putting up a fight for survival. The plight of these pagans was to be Ursan's destiny. Here where the river Doubs (dubh indeed, the Celts had christened it well) blocked by Mount Terri, makes a hairpin turn our peregrinus decided to cast his lot. As a result, by the Middle Ages a sedate little town had emerged in the dark valley, dutifully walled with a bridge over the Doubs, its inhabitants grouped round the monastery of St.Ursitz, the site or seat of Ursan. The town in the French idiom answers to Saint-Ursanne.
Above on the plateau of Mount Terri where two tired disciples of Columban stopped and decided to part, it all began. Fromont travelled on to find a place of his own liking. This is today the little town of Bonfol, with its parish church under his patronage.
Ursan, the Bear Man
In the meantime Ursan was causing quite a flurry in the Doubs valley by making himself at home in a cave on the slope of Mount Terri beside a fresh mountain spring. Known to be the habitat of a brown bear, the hillside was considered off-limits for humans. But it became apparent that the poor hermit remained unmolested by the bear, who even ceded his den for him to sleep in. Soon curiousity got the better of fear and up Mount Terri the Alemanni clambered in growing numbers to pay their respect to the ‘Bear Man’ as they called their guest. Indeed the nickname is all hagiography has to offer in the way of identification (latinized ‘Usinicus’, ‘Ursinicus’). The name Urs being widespread we will call him Ursan.
Was it the hermit’s gentle manner or the message of cheer he bought? Some salutary charisma must account for his popularity for huts were set up in the small clearing before the cave, the source became a spring of spiritual refreshment and the nucleus of a Christian cell was born. The site being limited, Ursan was persuaded to descend into the valley and space was made on the riverside to accommodate those who considered themselves his followers. With a sanctuary dedicated to St. Peter, after Ursan’s home church in Luxeuil, the rudiments of a religious settlement were provided. The Rule observed was naturally that of Columban – the principal Order of the Western Church.
Ursan did not confine himself to preaching, He built an asylum for the many immigrants he found weakened and bowed down with the hardships of those Dark Ages... Tradition recalls the pack animals Ursan kept for the benefit of mountain dwellers. We hear too of his iron handbell, an instrument of Irish make – an innovation!- later to become an honoured relic. Deeply mourned when he died around the year 620, the Alemanni buried their ‘Bear Man’ in his oratory, and for a long time afterwards his eremitic community adhered to the precepts he had laid down for them. This is known from the records of St. Wandregisel (Wandrille). As a young Frank nobleman Wandregeisel, impressed by the example of Ursan, spent some time in the Doubs hermitage after the saint’s demise, an experience that changed the course of his life. He became a strong advocate of Columban’s teaching, founding many important monasteries in France, such as Fontanelle at the mouth of the Seine. He did not forget Ursan either, for it was Wandregeisel who, with wealth at his disposal, transformed the shacks of the initial hermitage into a monastery of stature fit to house the remains of a saint.
…Entering, church splendour awaits the visitor in a mixture of period elements and trappings that blend surreptitiously. A golden crown above the high altar with its oil painting depicting the glorification of Ursan signalizes the presence of his remains under the mensa in a medieval sarcophagus, hidden behind a costly silk antependium. Large effigies of the apostles Peter and Paul guard his sanctuary… Earlier on, the founder’s tomb was kept in a spacious crypt built by the Augustinians in the twelfth century under the apse for pilgrims to file through.
Grateful to the canton of Jura for crediting the work of our lonely evangelist, we may complete our tour with a visit to the ‘Eremitage Saint-Ursanne’, a Gothic scenario with the Bear Man sculptured reclining pensively with his missal in a cave opening, much to the astonishment of a wooden bear planted before him!
Let us hope that ‘La Fontaine de Saint Ursanne’, the source on the slope of Mount Terri, still serving the town with its pure drinking water, will never run dry, figuring as it does the spirit of Columban, that turned a dark Swiss mountain hideaway into a beacon of light burning still.
Roísín Ní Mheara, Early Irish Saints in Europe - Their Sites and their Stories (Seanchas Ard Mhacha, 2001), 145-149.