Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Saint Thecla: ‘Like a Light in a Dark Place’

By Kim Rendfeld

The clues about Saint Thecla are tantalizing. Who was this nun entrusted to govern two abbeys in eighth century Francia, east of the Rhine, a more dangerous area than her native Britain?

She was a kinswoman of Saint Lioba and lived with her and other Benedictine nuns at Wimbourne, a double monastery governed by Saint Tetta. In a letter to Wimbourne between 742 and 748, Saint Boniface, Lioba’s kinsman, asked Lioba, Thecla, and Cynehild to pray for him.

A Kneeling Saint in Nun's Robes,
16th century sketch by Plautilla Nelli,
via Wikipaintings
Around 748, Thecla was among the nuns crossing the Channel with Lioba to assist Boniface in his mission to strengthen Christianity on the Continent. The women were leaving behind the safety of Wimbourne for an area east of the Rhine, with pagan Saxons to the north. Thecla was a disciple and star pupil of Lioba, who was installed as the abbess of Bischofsheim.

Thecla and her abbess were close. When Rudolf, a monk at Fulda, wrote Lioba’s hagiography almost 60 years after her death, Thecla was among the writers he relied on, and she is included during a vignette about a storm so violent it blew the roofs off houses and shook the ground with its thunder. The terrified people sought shelter in the church, and Lioba lay prostrate at the altar, praying. Finally, the crowd had enough and roused Lioba.

“Thecla, her kinswoman, spoke to her first, saying: ‘Beloved, all the hopes of these people lie in you: you are their only support. Arise, then, and pray to the Mother of God, your mistress, for us, that by her intercession we may be delivered from this fearful storm,’” Rudolf wrote.

Motivated by Thecla, Lioba went to the church door and stood on threshold, where she made a sign of the cross, and three times invoked the mercy of Christ through the intercession of the Mother of God. And the storm dissipated. (Hagiographies often have miracles, the veracity of which I leave to the readers.)

Sources contradict each other with what happened next, so here is my best guess. Around 750, Thecla was appointed to lead the new abbey at Ochsenfurt, east of Bischofsheim. Still overseeing Ochsenfurt, she was later called to replace the founding abbess at Kitzingen almost 10 miles away, about a day’s journey if a cart didn’t break a wheel.

Abbesses at this time were in positions of power and influence and acted autonomously. That Thecla was responsible for two abbeys tells us how much Boniface trusted her, both for her abilities and loyalty. The 11th century Passion of Boniface says, “She shone like a light in a dark place.”

She is believed to have died around 790, after more than 40 years in Francia. The year is uncertain as is her feast day, either September 27 or 28 or October 15. If she had taken orders at Wimbourne in the 740s, my estimate is that she lived into her 60s.

Her relics were at Kitzingen, and her cult apparently was strong in the 11th century. But there is a sad postscript centuries later. In 1525 during the Peasants War, the tombs of Thecla and another saint were desecrated, and when the church was rebuilt in 1695, the bodies were covered with rubbish.

Thecla deserves better than that.


Medieval Sourcebook: Rudolph of Fulda: Life of Leoba

The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, By David Farmer

“Tetta ‘Noble in Conduct’ and Thecla ‘Shining like a Light in a Dark Place,’” Deborah Harmeling, OSB, Medieval Women Monastics: Wisdom's Wellsprings, edited by Miriam Schmitt, Linda Kulzer

Saint Thecla” by Gertrude Casanova, The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1912

Kim Rendfeld is the author of two novels set in eighth century Francia and Saxony: The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press),  a tale of love amid wars and blood feuds, and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (August 28, 2014, Fireship Press), a story of the lengths a mother will go to protect her children. For more about Kim visit her blog, Outtakes of a Historical Novelist, at or her website, or contact Kim at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

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