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

Elizabeth to Elizabeth

Heroism as heritage for a Russian convent.

While Russia strives to catch up with the modern world, the work of the Martha and Mary Convent is not so different from what it was before the Soviet Union’s great atheistic experiment.

“People think we are outdated because we keep some traditions from the early 20th century,” said the Mother Superior, named Elizabeth in honor of the convent’s founder, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Romanov.

“We believe her ideas were so much ahead of her time that even now we are awed at her far-reaching concepts for helping the poor.”

The Communists forced the closing of the Martha and Mary Convent in Moscow in 1926, but it reopened in 1992 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, its sisters are carrying on the mission of the founder and now saint, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth, born into the Lutheran noble house of Hesse-Darmstadt, was the granddaughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria, sister of the doomed Tsarina Alexandra and wife of the murdered Grand Duke Sergei who was an uncle of the last Russian tsar – Nicholas II. She founded the convent in 1910, some eight years before the bloody revolution also claimed her as a victim.

After her husband was killed in 1905, she visited his assassin in prison and spoke of forgiveness. Shortly after, she gave away much of her wealth, founded hospitals, opened soup kitchens and in 1909 took vows as a Sister of Love and Mercy.

Even prior to the death of her husband, Elizabeth had brought health reforms to peasant mothers in the countryside near Moscow and began visiting the city’s sick, imprisoned and orphaned.

The Bolsheviks executed Elizabeth on 18 July 1918 along with her loyal assistant, Barbara, and several other Romanov prisoners. A peasant who witnessed the murders said Elizabeth sang hymns and soothed the dying after the group had been thrown down a mineshaft. Elizabeth succumbed only after grenades were hurled in the direction of the singing. The Russian Orthodox Church canonized her in August 2000, along with Barbara.

Mother Elizabeth said the community today, as with the original community, bases many of its guiding principles on the deaconess movement popular in Lutheran religious communities at the end of the 19th century. Although Elizabeth converted to Orthodoxy in 1891, she retained many of the deaconess ideals, including caring for the sick and poor.

Elizabeth dedicated the convent to the values of Martha and Mary in the hope that the community would, in Elizabeth’s words: “combine the lofty destiny of Mary with Martha’s service to Our Lord.”

Then, as today, it is not necessary for helpers at the convent to take vows. They can live in the convent to test their vocation, serving for half a year – living simply – after which they can return to the world or continue the next step toward eventually becoming a full “cross sister.”

Like her predecessor, Mother Elizabeth is a true heroine, although she is reluctant to admit it. The 67-year-old nun entertains visitors with tea and blini in a salon furnished with a grand piano, heavy dark Art Nouveau furniture and icons, all of which were originally owned by the first Elizabeth and which the Mother Superior has somehow managed to acquire.

The convent is situated on three acres of prime real estate, a few blocks from the Tretyakov Gallery and a McDonald’s.

The convent’s church (designed by the early 20th-century Russian architect Alexei Shchusev, who also designed Lenin’s mausoleum) was built in the traditional northern Russian style with low, solid walls and little external decoration. The interior, however, is covered with frescoes painted by a major figure of the Silver Age of Russian art, Mikhail Nesterov, who integrated traditional Orthodox iconography with the Art Nouveau style.

But while Mother Elizabeth has been encouraged by Moscow’s mayor and is firmly supported by the Orthodox Church, the convent’s buildings are run-down.

Yet, the property alone is worth millions of dollars and is in the heart of Moscow, a city where murders are committed on behalf of “businessmen” who extort land for investment and development.

But, it is only after Mother Elizabeth has gone through the convent’s early history that she touches on her own harrowing experiences, particularly with these businessmen. Despite repeated threats, she stubbornly holds on and has already survived three attempts on her life. So far she has escaped harm, but a sister was once severely injured coming to Mother Elizabeth’s rescue.

Another odd twist is that the beautiful church is effectively off-limits to the sisters while it is being used as an icon restoration studio with no apparent connection to the convent. A visit inside reveals a chaotic assortment of icons of all sizes stacked against the walls, half obscuring the Nesterov frescoes. Experts work busily under lamps in cramped corners as they restore and mend ancient masterpieces.

The church had been converted into a social hall by the Communists, who placed a statue of Lenin on the altar and painted over the Nesterov frescoes. Iconographers have since restored these to their former glory. Lenin has been removed and a statue of St. Elizabeth has been placed in the courtyard. An inscription on the base of the statue reads: “To the Grand Duchess Elizabeth. With Repentance.” It is a sore point with Mother Elizabeth that the church has yet to be reconsecrated and returned to the convent.

And in other ways, the problems of Russia from the time of St. Elizabeth have not changed. Poor and orphaned young women in Moscow are often targets for prostitution rings and drug barons. Additional social problems include alcoholism and domestic violence.

“There are as many orphans here today as in the time of our founder,” Mother Elizabeth said, referring to the girls orphanage attached to the convent.

“Not only is there great poverty, homelessness and abuse, but children do not get enough spiritual education. When I was taught, it was by teachers who were born at the end of the 19th century. We had pianos, we read a lot, often aloud, there were good family traditions, there was respect and a readiness to sacrifice for the common good.

“We try to impart these values to our girls in the orphanage. They do home theater, embroidery, play piano and sports. They go to a local school and come back in the evenings. Our oldest girl is 19 and will marry soon, so we shall prepare a dowry. The youngest is 7 and we have 17 girls staying here at present.”

Alla is 14 and has lived at the convent orphanage for three years.

“I used to live with my grandmother because the government inspectors said I could not stay with my parents,” she said. “Now I live here and I like it a lot. I have many friends, and the adults are kind.”

A major part of the convent’s work takes place some seven miles away on Moscow’s outskirts in a 10-story building. An entire floor is leased to the sisters where about 60 young women from the Martha and Mary Convent are training to be nurses. All but six of them board at this college and attend lessons in classrooms along with other nursing students.

Many of these young women are not just medical students, but are also considering a religious vocation. Meanwhile, they all intend to qualify as nurses after the three-year course.

Tatyana Kalnikova, director of the education program, said: “The girls are training to be highly qualified nurses. They study medicine as well as theology.”

According to Ms. Kalnikova, two German nongovernmental organizations finance the program. It is also helped by a Moscow housing cooperative that renovated the building.

“We exist thanks to an agreement between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ministry of Health, who both own the building,” she added. “We train the girls to carry the light of God inside their hearts, but also to know about the world outside, its needs and to assist people in need.”

As in the old days, the community’s routine combines prayer, study and service. They wake up at 6:30, take breakfast and then pray in a small chapel. At 9 they start school. Lunch is at noon, after which they continue their studies until 4. In the evenings they study theology, music and enjoy some free time. The young women, in their late teens and early 20’s, come from all over Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union. Their studies and accommodation are paid for, but they must often pay for their trips home.

Inna, a 20-year-old from Latvia, has sparkling eyes, an impish grin and studies at the college.

“My parents are not religious but I used to go to church and Sunday school with my friends; there wasn’t much else to do,” she said.

“I became more interested in religion and occasionally went to a monastery, where I was baptized at the age of 10. My parents were concerned at first, but now they are happy that I am studying to be a nurse. But I want a religious life as well as a medical career.”

Just as it did in the early 20th century, the Martha and Mary Convent serves the poor, sick and helpless, and gets by on minimal funding. It is a haven for the disenfranchised in the midst of the uncertain world of today’s Russia.

Like the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, Mother Elizabeth, who is picking up the thread after a 74-year gap, is wholly dedicated to the work of the Martha and Mary Convent – even to the point of disregarding her own personal safety.

Through role models like the two Elizabeths, Russia is rediscovering God and perhaps, at last, finding its own redemption and way forward.

Eileen Reinhard is editor of CNEWA WORLD. Our correspondent at large, Sean Sprague, travels throughout CNEWA’s world.

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