Make me an island


St Cadfan

Feast Day (new calendar): 
November 1st
Feast Day (old calendar): 
October 19th


Bardsey IslandBardsey Island

Bardsey, or Ynys Enlli in Welsh, is a small island near the Llŷn Peninsula—2.5km long and about 1km wide. Over the course of its existence, the island became a crucial location for the Celtic Christian Church, attracting many monks and pilgrims. It was the place where Saint Cadfan founded his famous monastery. The Celtic churches before the Norman conquest had a distinct monastic character, being relatively decentralised compared to the Roman church, and organised around monasteries and abbots rather than bishops residing in urban centres. By the early 6th century Wales had several tens of established monastic communities. The monastery was a focal point of evangelisation and education from which priests could reach out to the laity of the neighbouring daughter churches. Such centres of monastic devotion and pastoral care presented a special model known as clas, an autonomous community with the abbot as its leader. Later in the 11th century Celtic monasteries of the clas type complied with the Roman system and became Benedectine and Augustinian orders. 


St CadfanSt Cadfan

Cadfan came over to Wales from Armorica (part of contemporary France) towards the end of the 5th century, as part of a large group of saints and learned men, with the desire to renew the faith of the local people. On arrival, Cadfan founded a church on the Welsh mainland, whilst later he went on to found a monastery on the nearby Bardsey Island. Having come to Wales as part of a large group (numbering several hundred), it is perhaps understandable that Cafdan, alongside a selection of companions, chose to move toward the relative isolation of Bardsey. Here the pressing political and military conflicts sometimes stirred up on the mainland would have become a more distant reality, the relatively treacherous sea crossing serving to create a place of solitude and retreat. It is impossible, however, to consider Cadfan’s story simply as an entirely solo undertaking, and it remains tempting to consider the later popularity of Bardsey in relation to the size of the group that came across with him, the influx of people able to make an impact beyond that of a single man on his own. Whilst we know relatively little of Cadfan’s life a later ode in praise of Cadfan by Llewellyn Fardd largely focuses on his legacy, the church he established standing as a monument dedicated to God, a place of worship that stands as a pillar of the Gospel, a place of devotion, belief and communion. Cadfan’s shaping of this area of Welsh landscape as a place of God comes down to us where much about the man himself has been lost to obscurity.

Church of fair Cadfan, brilliant to behold
Bright whitewashed church proudly whitened,
As though it had been fashioned by God himself
He fashioned for the Godhead a choice residence
When he came from Brittany to the community of Christendom
The blessed youth nurtured no sin:
May God bless the devout servant. [...]
Blessed the voyage of his company
When he came to the realm night by night, day by day,
When there came to the issue of Emyr the desire to gaze upon
Aber Menwenfer in the evening and in the morning [...]
The noble country of Cadfan where there coexist always
the noble gospel, humble guide, [...]
May the valiant wise God guard Cadfan's domain
(Song to Cadfan - Llewlyn Fardd I)


Bardsey has a particular reputation as a place of pilgrimage; firstly for the saying that three pilgrimages to Bardsey were equivalent to one journey to Rome, and secondly for its reputation as the burial-place of 20,000 saints. It is easy to be suspicious of mathematical calculation of the merits of pilgrimage, and in such wariness we find ourselves in good company. The fathers of the church, in their discussions of pilgrimage, are always keen to guard against its mis-use, and to outline what it does and doesn’t mean within a Christian worldview. A focus on the ability to approach God from any place is often combined with an emphasis on the Christian’s spiritual pilgrimage towards heavenly things, as a stranger no longer attached to or at home in the world. Nevertheless, within such an understanding it is clear that from an early stage pilgrimage became a crucial part of Christian practice. In one sense, pilgrimage represents precisely such dislocation from the world, abandoning the comforts of house and home in order to set out on a devotional journey of repentance and transformation mapped out by the things of God. For Saint Jerome it seems to represent the gathering together side by side of precisely those who are members of the scattered and non-localised kingdom of God in a beautiful and priceless vision of the church. Similarly, in their veneration of relics—a phenomenon often associated with pilgrimage—the early Christians are careful to steer clear of potential misunderstandings of this practice as something akin to the worship of idols, and to make it clear, instead that whilst the saints are honoured through acts of devotion it is ultimately the God whom they served who is being worshipped through such acts. Such veneration, and the potential for the granting of miracles through relics and saintly remains demonstrates the ongoing life of such holy men and women as part of the communion of saints—those who had united themselves to God in this life continue to unite themselves to him beyond the grave and continue to share fellowship with those remaining on earth. 


Leaving thy native Brittany for the love of Christ, O Father Cadfan,
thou dost teach us not to love places or things more than Him.
Wherefore, O holy one, intercede for us that we may be faithful to our calling and found worthy of great mercy


Cadfan and Bardsey:
Janet Burton and Karen Stöber (editors 2013) Monastic Wales: New Approaches. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
Mark Redknap (1991) The Christian Celts: Treasures of Late Celtic Wales. Cardiff: National Museum of Wales.
G Hartwell Jones (1912) Celtic Britain and the Pilgrim Movement. London: The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion.
Pippa Marland (2014) ‘Island of the dead’: composting twenty-thousand saints on Bardsey Island, Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism, 18:1, 78-90
WJ Rees (translator 1740) The Liber Landavensis. London: The Welsh MSS Society. 
Sabine Baring-Gould and John Fisher (1908) The lives of the British saints (Vol II). London: The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion.  
Meryl Gover (2015) Cadfan’s Church: A History with Digressions. Leicester: Matador

Writings of the Fathers:

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.


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:,_Beachley.jpg

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. (
Lina Eckenstein (1963) Woman under monasticism. New York: Russell & Russell. (
Felice Lifshitz (2004) The persistence of late antiquity: Christ as man and woman in an eight-century miniature. Medieval Feminist Forum 38: 18—27. (
Edward Kylie (1911) The English Correspondence of Saint Boniface. London: Chatto & Windus. (
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.

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 (