The memory of this holy man lived long after his death. The people called him “Leopold the Good”. He was so popular an intercessor in Austria that eventually his sanctity was officially recognized by the Catholic Church. Pope Innocent VIII canonized him in 1485, noting in his homily the juxtaposition between a Germany engulfed in bloody warfare, death and devastation, besides an Austria enjoying the God given blessings of peace, justice and human kindness that lasted through the 20 year reign of the Margrave of Austria, St. Leopold.
He was born at Gars, near Melk in Lower Austria in 1073, the year that Pope St. Gregory VII (1073-85; feast: May 25) assumed the leadership of the Church and commenced his sweeping reforms. The Babenbergs came to Austria from Bavaria where the family had risen to prominence in the 10th Century. The family took possession of the Bavarian Ostmark, “eastern military frontier”, that more or less followed the course of the Danube down into Slovenia.
He was born in a time of great conflict between the German emperor and Pope, which historians call the “Investiture Controversy.” The nature of the conflict had to do with question of authority with respect to the internal governance of the Church. Put simply, who may appoint bishops and abbots to their offices? The Emperor believed this fell under his authority since the he was a Christian ruler. Whereas the Popes maintained that the Emperor had overstepped his authority, trespassing papal (and episcopal) governance the Church.
St. Leopold grew up in the diocese of Passau under the influence of the saintly reformer and bishop, St. Altmann (feast: August 9th). Inspired by the first Lateran Council’s exhortation to the common life for clergy, St. Altmann introduced the canons regular to St. Nikola in Passau in 1067. Later St. Altmann and three other south German bishops stood firmly with Pope Gregory VII against emperor Henry IV during the investiture controversies. This would cost St. Altmann his diocese and lead him to exile in Austria. His strength and holiness left their mark on the young Margrave.
Leopold succeeded his father as Margrave of Austria at the age of 23 in 1096. Ten years later in 1106 he married Agnes, daughter of emperor Henry IV. She was the widow of Frederick of Hohenstaufen with whom she already had two children. The couple would have another 17 children of whom 11 would survive childhood. Many of these children married spouses from neighboring lands encouraging peaceful relations.
The saint managed to avoid much of the quagmire that was the confluence of ecclesiastical and imperial politics. He remained faithful to the papacy and a strong support of the bishops of Salzburg, Passau and Gurk. Moreover he was a great promoter of the Church in his realm. He returned Stifts Göttweig, Kremsmünster, St. Nikola and St. Peter in Salzburg to the bishop of Passau, all of which had been appropriated by his father. Moreover, he gave the Benedictine monastery of Melk, which his family had founded, directly to the Holy See.
Additionally he built a pilgrim hostel and founded a secular canonry next in Klosterneuburg. Regarding the latter, he probably expected his son Otto to become a bishop and live at the collegiate church. However, God had other plans for Otto, which would eventually lead him to sainthood as the holy bishop of Freising in Bavaria (feast: September 7). While away in Paris at the university Otto was drawn to a monastic vocation with the Cistercians. He entered the abbey of Morimond in Burgundy in 1132 with 15 members of his retinue. St. Leopold did not oppose his son’s discernment and let him go to join the Cistercians.
The following year with encouragement of his son and the bishops of Passau and Salzburg, St. Leopold decided to relinquish his control of the canonry and gave it to the reform movement that St. Altmann had begun in Passau many years earlier. So in 1133 the secular canons were pensioned off and Blessed Hartmann of Chiemsee and canons regular from Chiemsee, St. Nikola and Rottenbuch succeeded them. Again St. Leopold manifested his magnanimity through giving up his designs for new bishop’s see in his capital, Klosterneuburg. By giving up the secular canonry he put the plans of others before his own. This points as well to his humility for which he is remembered.
Later Leopold’s son, Otto, became abbot of Morimond and asked his father to found a Cistercian abbey in Austria, which he did in the Wienerwald (Viennese Woods) named Heiligenkreuz (“The Holy Cross”). St. Leopold also founded the Benedictine monastery at Kleinmariazell, which no longer exists. In addition he donated over 100 parcels of land in the areas surrounding these Stifts so as to provide for their economic upkeep.
A man of strong convictions, Leopold’s stand in the investiture controversies made him the preferred candidate among the Bavarians for the position of Holy Roman Emperor in 1125. However Leopold refused the nomination and the glory of the empire, in favor of governing Austria. Through wise governance and faith in God, he succeeded in securing the blessings of peace and justice for his people. He was a much loved ruler, faithful husband and generous father.
“The mild margrave” died during a hunting accident in 1126 and was buried in the church of the Augustinian canonry, the Nativity of Our Lady, where he was genuinely mourned by his people. For nearly 900 years St. Leopold has been honored and venerated in his native Austria. His feast day, November 15th, is still one of the most important celebrations at Stift Klosterneuburg and the annual pilgrimage, held on the Sunday preceding the feast day, still draws thousands.