Make me an island

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St Thecla

Feast Day (new calendar): 
October 28th
Feast Day (old calendar): 
October 15th

Multiple identities

Chapel rock at BeachleyChapel rock at Beachley

There are several attestations of the cult of Thecla in Britain. All of them seem to have some relation with the cult of ancient Thecla protomartyr, Paul's companion, known from the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla. This indicates the acquaintance of the church on the British Isles with Eastern saints in general and the cult of St Thecla in particular.

Whereas St Thecla of Kitzingen is presented well in historical sources, another saint – Tetha or Tecla is more obscure. She was venerated in Cornwall as a companion of 5th century female saint, Irish nun Breaca in her missionary work in Cornwall. Even more obscure is St Tecla or Tegla Virgin known at a Welsh village Llandegla which means “Parish of Saint Tecla” in Welsh. She is said to be the daughter of a ruler of Gwynedd, north Wales. A church dedication to Thecla can be read also in the town Llandegley, Radnorshire.

The calendar is also problematic. St Thecla of Kitzingen is celebrated either on October 15 or 28, while Tetha's feast day is on October 27, according to one source. Both Welsh places bearing Tegla's names had festivals around 24th September, which is the feast day of Thecla the protomartyr. One of them, Llandegla, had a large fair on October 15th, the day of St Thecla of Kitzingen.

Baring-Gould in the Lives of British Saints is sceptical about the fact that the chapel on an islet rock at the mouth of Wye, near Bristol, was originally dedicated to the Welsh Tecla Virgin. Nevertheless, the story goes that the saint abandoned her father's court in Wales to become an anchoress on the island and suffered martyrdom from sea pirates there. The island is tiny and rocky and the access to it is restricted by the tidal waters. The ruins of the hermitage chapel date to the 13th century although an older building preceded it.  

Thecla of Wimborne/Kitzingen

Thecla protomartyrThecla protomartyr

Thecla of Wimborne/Kitzingen’s choice of name may well reflect a conscious choice to identify with the the story of Paul and Thecla, and to take upon herself a dedication to the path of virginity and asceticism. Thecla pursued this path, initially at Wimborne abbey in Dorset where, for a time she became part of a community of nuns. The community at Wimborne was one of a number with which the 8th century monk, St Boniface maintained an intimate relationship through exchanges of letters via which he and the monastic communities supported and encouraged one another in their tasks and life of faith. It is this contact with Boniface which led Thecla to pursue the role for which she is best known. For a long time, Boniface had desired to establish a mission to the Germans. The Germans were, at the time, at odds with the beliefs and practices of the rest of the church "liberal in tolerating heathen practices, and ignorant of matters of ritual and creed which were insisted on in the Church of Rome" (Eckenstein). Boniface was “conscious that the mere conversion of people and the provision of churches for them to worship in was insuficient … A succession of teachers of caliber, imbued with a strong spirit of sciripline, obedient to authority and motivation by the highest spiritual ideals [were needed]” (Sladden). In 716, therefore he set out towards the continent. Such a mission was not, however, a solo project, and Boniface’s relationship with the abbey in Wimborne (and, in particular with another sister, Lioba) here bore fruit. Thecla was one of a number to join Boniface on the continent and to establish monastic communities there. It was a period in the history of Anglo-Saxon church when double monasteries flourished with monks and nuns helping each other, even though living separately, and this gave women an opportunity to take on leadership and rule over communities that included both males and females. Boniface saw women's leadership as important for his mission. Thecla became abbess of communities at Kitzingen and Ochsenfurt, and it is clear that her life and work there carried a great deal of weight. A later document, the Passion of Boniface describes Thecla as shining like a light in a dark place, whilst a letter from Boniface shows signs of obvious affection, spiritual esteem and reliance upon Thecla and those around her. 

To my beloved sisters worthy of all honour and affection, Lioba and Tecla and Cynehilda, and all the dear sisters in Christ who live with you, greetings of undying love. 

I beseech, nay all but command you, my dear daughters, to implore God with incessant prayers, as I trust that you do now and have done and will do unceasingly, that we may be delivered, in the words of the apostle, “from unreasonable and wicked men: for all men have not faith”

Men and Women

Boniface baptising and being martyred Boniface baptising and being martyred

Thecla’s story, at least according to the documents we have, may seem somewhat overshadowed by that of Boniface. The story we find, however, shows Boniface as a man who derived much of his courage and persistence from the presence of the female communities around him, suggesting that it was their devotion to prayer and their steadfastness in faith, as much as his initial journey, which lay behind the mission. Thecla, as an abbess, was a spiritual leader, not simply a follower, shining not just a reflected light from others around her, but giving forth spiritual light from her own reserves of prayer and dedication into the communities and world around her. If we refocus the narrative around her we find the story of a saint to whose community Boniface comes in need, who, within her prayers finds room for his tasks and mission and who, perhaps on the basis of such prayers, sees it right to enact their fulfilment in the world and not simply to stand on the sidelines. 

Monasticism and mission

It is not hard to see why monasticism was at the heart of the mission to the Germans. Faced with the challenges of the continental situation, it provided a means of remaining strong in the faith and of total devotion to the teachings and ways of the church. Without such dedication it is easy to see the missionary endeavour faltering and fizzling out, lacking the spiritual heart which provided both much of its courage and its ability to embody the gospel. It may well be that the disciplined life of prayer compelled Boniface to go out in the first place while the dedication to this life meant that the missionaries had anything to offer the German people. A monastic community of nuns could easily become a centre of mission, attracting those around as they followed their chosen path of dedication and interceded to God so that others, too, would be delivered and blessed. One story of Thecla tells of the rise of a storm which so terrifies the people of the village that they urge the nuns to pray for their deliverance. Thecla, turning to fellow nun, Leoba, urges her to pray that the storm might stop, reminding her that 'all the hopes of these people lie in you'. 

Whilst we are not aware of a Troparion dedicated specifically to Thecla of Wimborne/Kitzingen, the following prayer from the service to all British saints makes specific mention of her mission to the Germans.

Troparion: 

With zeal overspilling from the Isles, to those who knew not the Word of Christ thou didst go out with streams of living water, O divine Clement, Apostle of the Frisians, followed by the Archpastor Boniface, Apostle of the German lands, who with all his helpers, Willibald, Winnibald, Walburgh, Lioba, Thecla and Willehad, brought light to the darkness, and together with a great host, wast counted worthy of a martyr's crown, and ye were followed by Sigfrid out of Glastonbury, the Apostle of the Swedes.

Image credits:
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chapel_Rock,_Beachley.jpg
http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=add_ms_11870_f174v
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:St_Boniface_-_Baptising-Martyrdo...

Sources for further reading:

On Thecla of Wimborne/Kitzingen and the German mission: 
Sabine Baring-Gould (1907) The lives of the British saints.  London: The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion. (https://archive.org/details/livesofbritishsa04bariuoft)
Lina Eckenstein (1963) Woman under monasticism. New York: Russell & Russell. (http://www.yale.edu/adhoc/etexts/Eckstn1.htm)
Felice Lifshitz (2004) The persistence of late antiquity: Christ as man and woman in an eight-century miniature. Medieval Feminist Forum 38: 18—27. (http://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1159&context=mff)
Edward Kylie (1911) The English Correspondence of Saint Boniface. London: Chatto & Windus. (https://archive.org/details/cihm_84747)
Miriam Schmitt & Linda Kulzer (1996) Medieval women monastics: wisdom’s wellsprings. Collegeville: Liturgical Press. 
John Cyril Sladden (1980). Boniface of Devon. Greenwood: Attic Press.
St Thecla. Catholic Encyclopedia. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14563a.htm

On Thecla Protomartyr: 
Stephen J Davis (2001) The cult of St Thecla: A tradition of womens’ piety in late antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
The Acts of Paul and Thecla (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/maps/primary/thec...)