Gertrude of Nivelles was born in 628. Gertrude’s father, Pepin of Landen was a nobleman from east Francia, in present-day France. Pippin and his family, including young Gertrude, moved with the king’s court. Gertrude was introduced to politics during her childhood in the royal court.
When Gertrude was ten years old her father hosted a banquet for the King. The King asked Gertrude if she would like to marry the son of a duke Gertrude declined she said she would have neither him nor any earthly spouse but Christ the Lord. Her feeling mattered little. If Pippin her father, I had lived longer, he would likely have forced Gertrude to marry. Gertrude’s rejection of marriage is unique for this time. Soon after, Pippin died, giving Gertrude the freedom to enter the monastic life.
After her father’s death, to prevent Gertrude from being abducted and forced to marry, her mother shaved her daughter’s hair. Her mother left only a crown shape. This is called tonsuring. It marked Gertrude for a life of religious service. Later her mother ordered the construction of a monastery to which she and Gertrude could retire.
Christianity was not widespread at this time. The development of cities, bishops coming to those cities and the growth of monasteries helped spread Christianity. Bishop Amand visited Gertrude’s mother asking her to build a monastery for herself and Gertrude.
Itta died when she was 60 years old in 652. Gertrude took over the monastery. She placed had her brothers take care of their family business. The monastery she ruled with Amand.
Gertrude was intelligent, scholarly, and charitable. She devoted her time to caring for the sick, elderly, and poor. She memorized scripture. After becoming abbess, she obtained relics of saints and holy books from Rome to protect them and venerate them.
She welcomed foreigners, lay or religious. She especially welcomed Irish monks traveling to evangelize. Before the foundation of Nivelles, Gertrude’s monastery, Irish monks led by Foillan traveled to Francia, from Fursey’s monastery in Ireland to escape pagan raids. They eventually moved to live with Itta and Gertrude.
Sometime later, Foillan went on a journey, saying mass in Nivelles before leaving. After only a day of traveling, Foillan and his three companions were murdered by an evil man who offered them shelter for the night in his house and then sold their belongings. When it was learned that Foillan did not reach his destination, the brothers of his monastery began to search for him. It was Gertrude who found Foillan’s body 77 days after he was murdered. The bodies of Foillan and his companions were immediately brought to Nivelles. Foillan’s body was then taken to his own monastery
The first miracle attributed to Gertrude takes place at the altar of Pope Sixtus II the Martyr as Gertrude was standing in prayer. She had a vision of the True Light, which happened for about an hour and a half. She carefully revealed this to a few sisters at her monastery.
The second miracle attributed to Gertrude as an Irish monk and friend were peacefully sailing over the sea on the monastery’s business. A large storm appeared. The sailors turned to their pagan idols. The Irish monk called out to Gertrude, to save him and his companions. The storm eased.
Before her death, Gertrude appointed her niece Wulfetrud as Abbess of Nivelles.
Gertrude led a devout life until her death. It is possible that after taking vows, she never left the monastery cloister. She escaped politics. She gave up her role as abbess, spending her time praying and secretly wearing a hair shirt. Gertrude felt she would die soon. She asked Ultan, Foillan’s brother when she would die. Ultan prophesied that Gertrude would die on March 17, the very next day, and also the feast day of Saint Patrick. True to the prophecy, Gertrude died the next day after praying all night and taking communion.
Just before her death in 659, Gertrude instructed the nuns at Nivelles to bury her in an old veil left behind by a traveling pilgrim and Gertrude’s own hair shirt. She died in poverty, on March 17, 659, at 33 years old.