ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Life Transfigured

A thumbnail history of the colorful life of Princess Ileana of Romania.

Romania, Christmas 1989. Millions of Americans watched in horror as crowds of civilian demonstrators were mowed down by the secret police. Viewers were stunned to see the bloody corpses of the former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena lying on a stone floor against a wall.

What the world learned about the newly-discovered Romania sometimes bordered on the macabre. One need only look at its government’s treatment of handicapped children and those infected with the AIDS virus.

Other stories, covering centuries of Romanian history, have also surfaced. The Romanian royal family crowned this list of those purged from official history.

Today, few Romanians recognize how its former first family led their nation out of its Turkish bondage and into the European community. All evidence of the German-born King Ferdinand’s valiant defense against the Kaiser’s army in World War I, for instance, and the deeds of his English-born wife, Marie, were eliminated. Yet, many are familiar with the fascist regime imposed in 1934 by their son, King Carol II, an unstable man obsessed with the threat of communism.

Half a world away and many years later, in a small monastery built on the side of a hill in western Pennsylvania, a diminutive octogenarian nun humbly bore witness to the merits of pre-communist Romania – Mother Alexandra, formerly Princess Ileana, daughter of Ferdinand and Marie.

In the last issue of Catholic Near East, Father Romanos Russo’s article, “A Prayer of the Heart”, sparked many inquiries regarding this princess-turned-nun. Many asked, “How did a princess become ‘a living saint?’” Some simply wanted to know who she was.

In her romantic autobiography (1934), Queen Marie wrote, “Ileana was certainly the child of my soul. Her large dark blue eyes looked at you with deep inquiry and the child seemed to understand your every emotion with almost uncanny lucidity. It was never necessary to teach Ileana the difference between right and wrong; she knew.”

These were troubling times for Marie and Romania. As queen, she, the granddaughter of Queen Victoria and Czar Alexander II of Russia, threw all of her energy and talents into her beloved country. By all accounts, the country loved her in return. But after the death of her husband in 1927, her eldest son Carol plunged the nation into chaos. Fearful of the demise of monarchy (and mindful of the fate of the Russian Imperial family), Carol installed himself as dictator. Fascism seemed fashionable in the 30s.

Marie, now dowager queen, opposed her son’s policies and was thus stripped of her duties and banished to her estate. Isolated and defeated, she turned to Ileana for support. Her health failing, the “last romantic” died in 1938. Bitterly, Carol deliberately delayed Ileana from tending her mother on her deathbed.

After World War II (during which Carol allied himself with Nazi Germany), Carol’s fears became a reality. Romania’s tiny communist minority staged a Soviet-backed coup in 1947 and eliminated the monarchy. The royal family, including Ileana, were jailed as “enemies of the people.” In 1948 they fled to western Europe.

While Ileana helplessly watched the king destroy her family and country, she married a penniless Hapsburg prince in 1931, bore six children and served as a nurse in Bucharest during the war.

Her initial years in exile were also tumultuous. Her marriage of 12 years ended in divorce; it had been arranged for political reasons by Carol. Alone, she moved to the United States to be with her children. Though she had lived a full life, it was not enough.

“I felt deeply that God wanted of me something very different from what I had been doing,” she wrote a few years before her death. “I became convinced that I was called to the monastic life.” Encouraged by a Russian bishop, Ileana entered the Orthodox Monastery of the Protecting Veil in Bussy, France, in 1961.

“I dearly loved it all,” she recollected in 1987. “The monastery was housed in an ancient manor house; the lovely chapel had once been a stable, which seemed appropriate…the whole place was pervaded with such a depth of prayer and love that I was borne along by the spirit of it…To me it was paradise.”

After six years in France, Mother Alexandra returned to the United States to begin a monastery devoted to prayer, a center that would transcend the many ethnic bodies dividing the Orthodox diaspora.

Named for the Transfiguration, that moment when Christ stood “transfigured” before three of his apostles on Mt. Tabor, the monastery encourages “each member to add his or her small flame to the common light, which, united to the light of Christ, might illumine its surroundings.”

As both a princess and a monastic, Mother Alexandra experienced the pain wrought by the division of humanity. Division destroyed the Romania of her childhood. It devastated her family. It brought havoc to her Christian faith. Her vocation as a member of the community was to pray for the healing of the pain of division and to “stand fast upon the rock of faith in the light which illumines all.”

Unexpectedly, Mother Alexandra returned to the land of her birth one year after the fall of Ceausescu. Her homeland had drastically changed since 1948. Romania’s vast forests had been leveled for lumber and industry, its landscape blackened by soot. The nation’s treasures destroyed.

She returned not as a princess, but as a simple pilgrim to pray at the site of her parents’ graves.

Within a month, Mother Alexandra died in a hospital near her monastic home.

Her simple wooden coffin, draped with her royal standard from her previous life, was buried at the foot of a cross dedicated to those who died in concentration camps. At her side within that simple coffin lay a gilded box containing Romanian soil – her journey complete.

Michael J.L. La Civita is the assistant editor of Catholic Near East.

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