The Bear of St Gall


In 2012 a local Bangor man will be celebrated in St Gallen, Switzerland. The contribution that he made to that place so treasured that they named it after him. St Gall travelled in the second half of the sixth century from Bangor Abbey with eleven other monks into Europe to share the story of Jesus Christ. They took with them learning and the written word.

The mark that this group made on the historical record was significant with books reproduced on velum in a painstaking process of reproduction by monks across Europe. While many of the Irish texts where destroyed in Ireland through viking raids on Abbeys and church communities these books did survive in Europe. The Bangor Antiphon is one such book. The Prayer book and hymn book of its time, duplicates of the Antiphon are scattered across Europe in regions where the Bangor monks established communities.

Around these Bangor saints of the sixth century there are some terrific legends that are still told today. The story of St Gall tells of when he travelled in the woods of what is now Switzerland he was sitting one evening warming his hands at a fire. Suddenly a bear emerged from the woods and charged. The story goes that the holy man rebuked the bear and so awed by his presence it stopped its attack and slunk off in to the trees. There it  gathered some firewood before returning to share the heat of the fire with St Gall. The legend says that for the rest of his days St Gall was followed around by his companion the bear.

It is a story that speaks of holiness of living allowing for a oneness with nature.

Here in Bangor we have a church that bears (pun intended) the name of St Gall. 2011 saw the installation of a fabulous new piece of sculpture. A seven foot European bear carved in local oak was commissioned by St Gall’s Church to encourage people to call to mind this wonderful son of Bangor. Local sculpture Owen Crawford worked hard all summer to produce a fabulous new local land mark.

The Rector of St Gall’s, the Reverend Michael Parker, is enjoying the sculpture: “The Select Vestry have a vision for how to mark the fourteenth hundredth anniversary of St Gall’s founding of his hermitage at Steinach. We commissioned drawings from local sculpture Owen Crawford and we are so fortunate that thanks to the generosity of one of our church families we have been able to commission and install what is a very striking piece of art. Our hope is that people will ask “Why a bear?” and so learn a little more about the story of St Gall and all that his generation achieved. Those monks put Bangor on the map across Europe.”

Sunday, the sixteenth of October, is the Feast Day of St Gall in Carnalea. Traditionally this has been marked with alot of fun and laughter. The Reverend Parker says that:  “Over the years our tradition has always been that the whole congregation bring their teddy bears along to the service with them. To remind us of St Gall and his friendly bear. We have Teddys young and old with us for the service. Generally behavior has been excellent with no scratching or fighting. Usually the teddy bears have been very good at sharing their picnics.”

Every year there is always a bit of competition around who has the oldest bear and who has the biggest bear: “There is no doubt that the tallest bear in the parish is now the seven foot sculpture that stands at the entrance to the church! We as a parish hope that he will stand as a visible reminder of the heritage of the town and the immense contribution that Bangor monks made to the culture of Europe. Our hope is that as local people see him they will be reminded of the great Christian history that there is here in Bangor and reflect on that and appreciate it.”

St Gall and his bear as portrayed in the west windows of the church