(Feast Day ~ March 8)
The Apostles of our Lord took literally His command to “go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” [Matt. 28:19]. And their disciples did the same and the bishops, priest, monks, and missionaries who followed them did also. In the first several hundred years following the Resurrection, Christianity had spread from north Africa to Ireland, from Palestine to Armenia and many other places.
This spreading of the Faith was often accomplished through networks of relationships: from parent to child, from master to slave (or the other way around), from ruler to subject, and frequently from teacher to pupil. Christian missionaries formed their own networks for the spreading of the Gospel. St. Felix, Apostle to East Anglia, was part of such a network.
Most of what we know of St. Felix is from the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by St. Bede the Venerable. Bede tells us that Felix was a native of Burgundy, part of the kingdom of the Franks. The Irish monk, Columbanus, had come to this area with twelve other monks around 590 and had founded several monasteries where his evangelistic efforts took root. It is thought that Felix was a priest/monk in one of Columbanus’ monasteries.
Meanwhile, the kingdom of the East Anglians in Britain was in need of help. Early in the seventh century, the then ruler of this kingdom, Raedwald, had been converted to Christianity, but (as Bede tells us) his wife was not so sure about this and convinced her husband to keep the old gods as well as the new. The king’s son, Earpwald, was at first a pagan but then converted to Christianity and was killed soon after. His brother, Sigeberht, became the new king.
As it happens, Sigberht had been living in exile in Francia and had been converted to Christianity and baptized by Felix. Now he and his priest left the kingdom of the Franks for Britain. Felix first went to Canterbury to meet with Archbishop Honorius. The Archbishop was the fourth in line from St. Augustine, who had traveled from Rome to this land in 597 at the direction of St. Gregory the Great to preach the Gospel. Archbishop Honorius consecrated Felix in 631 to be the first Bishop of East Anglia. So a great network of the Christian faith from Rome to Canterbury, from Ireland to Francia, and now from Francia to East Anglia was established for spreading the Gospel.
The Kingdom of East Anglia included Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire. With the support and encouragement of the new king, Bishop Felix established his see at Dummoc (or Dummoc-ceastre) which most historians identify as Dunwich. This seacoast city had been the site of a Roman station so still had its strong stone walls for protection and there were good ancient roads leading to other cities. The Cathedral for the diocese was built here and the king and the bishop, working together, also established a school for boys like those of high repute in Kent. (Cambridge University claims this as its foundation.)
Unfortunately, Dunwich is no longer in existence. Fr. Alban Butler, in his Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Saints tells us that it had been a large city containing 52 religious houses, but that erosion of the shore had allowed the sea to swallow it almost entirely up by the mid-18th century. He relates that the steeples of churches could still be seen about five miles from the shore. The Smithsonian website gives information about current nautical archaeological investigations of Dunwich’s underwater ruins.
God worked through Bishop Felix to re-establish Christianity as the true faith in this formerly pagan land. Felix founded the famous monastery of Bury St. Edmunds and another at Soham. When it was evident that his kingdom was securely in the fold of Christianity due to the tireless efforts of Bishop Felix, King Sigberht left his throne to his cousin Egric and retired to a monastery.
St. Felix reposed on March 8, 648 after seventeen years of missionary work in this land. He was buried in his cathedral in Dunwich, but his relics were removed and taken to Soham because of the destruction of Viking invaders. For the same reason, the saint’s relics were later again removed and buried at Ramsey Abbey.
St. Bede gives great tribute to St. Felix when he says that “like a good farmer [he] reaped a rich harvest of believers. He delivered the entire province from its age-old wickedness and infelicity and brought it to the Christian faith and works of righteousness, and in full accord with the significance of his own name, guided it towards eternal felicity.” An Orthodox parish named for St. Felix exists in Felixstowe, England. May we, through the networks that are available to us, help to spread the good news of Jesus Christ and bring our ever increasingly pagan world into the Christian faith. Holy Felix, pray for us.
Sources: Bede: Ecclesiastical history of the English People; Butler: Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Saints; Farmer, ed.:The Oxford Dictionary of Saints; Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia: Orthodox England; website of the Orthodox Church of America; Wikipedia