The couple did not have children and by mutual agreement they lived in a chaste marriage. Father Mitrophan said that it was one of the hardest ascetic deeds — to be blessed with a beloved spouse and to cast away the lust. It was possible only through the grace of God.
From 1896 Father Mitrophan served as a regimental Priest at the Chernigovski cavalry regiment deployed in Orel. Father Mitrophan accompanied the regiment when it was sent to the Russian-Japanese war and stayed there in the war zone near Liolian and Mukden from 1904 to 1906. After the war, he returned to Orel and became a local parish Priest. He was loved very much in Orel as a truly devout and experienced spiritual teacher. After a sermon he would stay at the church for hours and talk to people who came to him asking for advice and sharing their troubles. He remembered it was a rare case that he could leave church before five o’clock in the evening.
After a conversation with the Grand Duchess in Moscow, Father Mitrophan said that he agreed to move to Moscow and start working in the new monastery. But on his way home, he was thinking that his decision would cause many tears, that many parishioners would be aggrieved very much by the departure of their dear preacher. So he decided to decline the offer to move to Moscow, although later he himself mentioned that a request of the Grand Duchess was actually almost an order. In the evening of his departure for Orel he stopped for a night at a house in the suburbs of Moscow and was thinking the matter over and over again, until finally he decided to send a telegram to the Grand Duchess declining her offer. Suddenly almost immediately after he made the decision, his right hand fingers started to get numb and his arm became paralyzed. Father Mitrophan was horrified that he would not be able to serve as a priest and perceived it as a sign. He started to pray God ardently and promised that he would agree to move to Moscow — and in two hours he could move his arm again.
When Father Mitrophan announced to his parish that he was leaving, everyone tearfully entreated him to stay, people started writing letters asking him not to leave them and even turned to church authorities with the request. Months passed by, the departure from Orel was postponed and Father Mitrophan felt that he would not be able to do it. At that time his arm became paralyzed again. Then Father Mitrophan went to Moscow, came to the Iverskaya chapel and prayed tearfully before the Iverskaya icon of Mother Of God, promising to move to Moscow and imploring for his hand to be healed. Immediately after he kissed the Iverskaya icon he felt that he could move the fingers of the paralyzed hand. Then he went to Elizaveta Fyodorovna and was glad to tell her that he decided determinedly to move to Moscow and become the confessor of the monastery.
The Grand Duchess had to change the Statutes of the monastery several times in order for it to comply with all the amendments and requirements of the Holy Synod. Emperor Nicolas II issued a Supreme Order to help overcome the opposition of the Holy Synod to establish the monastery.
On the 10th of February, 1909 the Grand Duchess took off her mourning dress, and put on the cloak of Christ’s nurse of love and mercy. Having gathered seventeen nuns of the monastery which she founded, she said, “I am leaving the glamourous world in which I had a glamorous position, but together with you I am ascending to a higher world — the world of the poor and the suffering.”
Father Mitrophan became a true confessor of the monastery, a guide and helper to the Mother Superior. From the letter of the Grand Duchess to the Emperor (April 1909), we can see how highly she appreciated his work, “Father Mitrophan is a blessing to our monastery, as he laid the necessary foundation… He is my confessor, spiritual father and he renders immense support to me and provides an example to follow with his modest and simple way of life in his boundless love for God and the Orthodox Church. After talking to him for even several minutes one can see that he is a modest, chaste man, a man of God, a servant of God in our Church.”
The ordinance of the Martha and Mary monastery of Mercy was based on the rules of a monastic community. On the 9th (22nd) of April, 1910 Bishop Triphon (Turkestanov) gave his blessing to seventeen nuns headed by Grand Duchess Elizaveta Fyodorovna to become Christ’s Nurses of Love and Mercy. During the ceremony the Bishop, addressing the Grand Duchess, who had already been robed in the cloak of Christ’s nurse, said the following prophetic words, “This garment will conceal you from the world and conceal the world from you, but at the same time it will be a witness to your charitable work, which will shine before God and glorify Him.”
The dedication of the monastery to the Saint Myrrh-bearers Martha and Maria is remarkable. The cloister was to become a house similar to the one of St. Lazarus — the soul mate of the Lord, who visited Lazarus’ house so many times. The nuns of the monastery were to combine in their work both the divine destiny of Maria, who heard the call of Life Eternal, and the way St. Martha served the Lord, through serving people.
The first church of the monastery (the hospital church) was sanctified by Bishop Triphon on September 9 (21), 1909, which was the day of celebration of the Nativity of the Holy Theotokos, and was dedicated to the Saints Martha and Maria, the Myrrh-bearers. The second church was sanctified in honor of the Protection of the Holy Mother of God in 1911 (designed by A. V. Schusev, interior and icons by M.V. Nesterov). It was built according to the tradition of Novgorod and Pskov architecture, and preserved the spirit of cozy warmth of small parish churches while it was spacious enough to host over a thousand worshippers.
M. V. Nesterov said the following about the church: “The temple of the Protection of the Holy Theotokos is one of the best modern buildings of Moscow, which alongside with its serving directly the needs of the parish could be a place of artistic and educational value for all Moscovites” In 1914 the basement of the church was turned into a burial vault in honor of the Heavenly Powers and All Saints. Mother Superior thought it would be the place of her entombment. M. V. Nesterov’s disciple P. D. Korin painted the interior walls.
The nuns of the Martha and Maria monastery started their day at 6 o’clock. After the morning prayers at the hospital church the Grand Duchess handed out assignments to the nuns for the day. The nuns who did not get any tasks stayed at the church and attended the Divine Liturgy. Their lunch was always accompanied by reading of the Lives of Saints. At 5 o’clock, Vespers and morning sermons were served in the church. On the eve of a holiday or a weekend the nuns had an evening Vigil. At 9 o’clock the evening prayers were read in the hospital church, after which all the nuns, having received a blessing from the Mother Superior, went to their cells. Akathists were read four times a week after the evening prayers: on Sundays — to the Savior, on Mondays — to Archangel Gabriel and to all spiritual Heavenly Hosts, on Wednesdays — to Saints Martha and Maria, the Myrrh-bearers, and on Fridays — to the Mother of God or to Christ’s Passions. The Psalter for the departed was read in a chapel built at the far end of the garden. Mother Superior herself often prayed there at night.
The spiritual life of the nuns was directed by the wonderful priest and pastor, the spiritual instructor of the monastery, Archpriest Mitrophan Serebrianski. He convened the nuns for a conversation twice a week. In addition to that, every day the nuns could visit him or Mother Superior at an appointed time for advice or instruction. The Grand Duchess and Father Mitrophan taught the nuns that their task was not only to render medical assistance, but also to spiritually guide the sinful, the lost and the despondent. Every Sunday after the evening service at the church of the Protection of the Holy Mother of God, people could attend lectures and sing prayers and Psalms in chorus.
Metropolitan Anasthasius wrote in his memoirs, “Both the external and internal life of the monastery as well as everything the Grand Duchess created, were marked with the special air of refinement and culture not because she ascribed great importance to it, but because that was the involuntary and natural way her creative spirit influenced everything around her”
The sermons of the monastery were remarkably beautiful and devout. It was to the credit of the spiritual father of the monastery, the distinctively merited as a pastor and chosen by the Mother Superior. The Monastery became the place of preaching the Gospel and serving God for the best priests and pastors not only of Moscow, but for other clergy visiting Moscow from many distant places of Russia. Mother Superior was like a bee collecting the nectar from many flowers for people to feel the precious incense of spirituality. The monastery, its churches and services were admired by its contemporaries. It was due not only to the beauty of the churches, but also because of a wonderful park with greenhouses set up in the best traditions of the gardening of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was a single ensemble which brought together harmoniously both outward and inward beauty.
Nonna Grayton, maid of honor of Princess Victoria, who was Elizaveta Fyodorovna’s relative, wrote about Elizaveta, “She had a wonderful ability to see something good and genuine in people, and she tried to help them reveal those qualities. She also never thought high of her own character…. She never said, “I cannot,” and there was nothing in the life of the Martha and Mary monastery that would be called dreary. Everything on the inside and on the outside was up to date. Those who visited the monastery would take away with them a wonderful feeling that they got there.”
The Grand Duchess lived as an ascetic at the monastery. She slept on wooden boards without a mattress, and secretly wore a hair shirt and chains. That was related by one of the ascetics of the Martha and Maria monastery, nun Lyubov (in the world, Ephrosinia) in her memoirs. When she had not yet been familiar with the monastery rules Lyubov once entered the room of the Mother Superior without a prayer and a blessing. In the cell she saw the Grand Duchess in a hair shirt and chains. The latter was not embarrassed at all. She simply said, “Dear heart, you should knock on the door before you enter.”
In her book the nun Lyubov also remembered a remarkable experience that had brought her to the monastery. It happened in 1912. At the age of 16 Ephrosinia fell into lethargy, during which her soul was encountered by the Holy Onuphrii the Great. He brought her before three Saints, one of whom she recognized as the Holy Sergei of Radonez. The other two were unknown to her. Holy Onuphrii told her that she was needed at the Martha and Maria monastery, so when Ephrosinia recovered from her lethargy, she started to find out what Russian monastery was named after Martha and Maria. One of Ephrosinia’s acquaintances turned out to be a nun of the monastery and told her about it and its founder. Ephrosinia wrote a letter asking the Grand Duchess to accept her into the monastery and received her consent. Upon arriving to the monastery and coming into the Mother Superior’s cell, Ephrosinia immediately recognized in her the Saint whom she had seen beside the Holy Sergei in her dream. When she went to Father Mitrophan to receive a blessing from him she recognized the second person who was standing beside St. Sergei. Exactly six years after that vision, on the day the remains of St. Sergei of Radonezh were found, the Grand Duchess suffered the death of a martyr. Father Mitrophan became a monk later with the name Sergei in honor of the Holy Sergei of Radonezh.
From her childhood the Grand Duchess was used to work, so she took care of herself and never asked for assistance or service from the nuns. She participated in all the work of the monastery like an ordinary nun, being an example for the rest. One day she was approached by one of the nuns, who asked to have somebody sent to help her in sorting out potatoes, as no one wanted to give her a hand. The Grand Duchess went to help the nun with the potatoes herself, without telling anything to anyone. When the nuns saw the Grand Duchess sorting out potatoes, they were ashamed of themselves and came quickly to help.
The Grand Duchess observed all the fasting rules, she ate only vegetarian food. After the morning prayers, she would distribute assignments to the nuns and worked at the hospital, met with visitors and looked into petitions and letters.
In the evening she would start her round at the hospital and finish it long after midnight. At night Mother Superior prayed in the chapel or the church, she rarely slept for more than three hours. When a patient was delirious and needed help, she would sit at his or her bedside throughout the night. At the hospital Elizaveta Fyodorovna assumed most the responsible duties on herself: she assisted at operations, dressed wounds, consoled the patents and tried to do her best to relieve their suffering. They used to say that some healing energy ensued from the Grand Duchess, which helped them to overcome pain and to agree to risky operations.
Mother Superior considered confession and communion to be the major means of healing. She also said, “It is immoral to lie to the dying people about their recovery, it is better if we help them to go over to life eternal in a Christian way.”
The nuns were taught basic medical skills. Their main task was to visit the sick and the poor, to take care of neglected children, to support people medically, financially and morally.
The best Moscow doctors worked in the hospital of the monastery. All operations were performed free of charge. Patients considered hopeless by other physicians were healed there. Cured patients left the hospital of the Martha and Maria monastery in tears of gratitude and called mother Superior “Great Matushka (mother).” Sunday school was open at the monastery for women working at a factory. Anyone could use a vast collection of books at a library there. A free cafeteria for the poor was organized at the monastery. Girls were accepted to the orphanage at the monastery. Christmas was celebrated with a big decorated fir-tree for children from poor families, the nuns gave them presents, sweets and warm clothes sewn by the nuns.
Mother Superior thought that the main task for the nuns was not their work at the hospital, but their help to the poor and needy. The monastery received about twelve thousand petitions a year. The requests concerned various things: to accept a patient to the hospital, to find a job, to take care of children and their immobile patients, to go abroad for education.
The Grand Duchess found resources to help the clergy, she financially supported poor village parishes that could not afford repairs of their church or to build a new one. She also sent money to missionaries who worked among the pagans of the Far North and remote provinces of Russia. She encouraged and strengthened them.
One of poorest districts of Moscow was the Khitrov market, and the Grand Duchess paid special attention to that place. Accompanied by her lay sister Varvara Yakovleva or together with Princess Maria Obolenskaya (who took the veil at the monastery), Elizaveta Fyodorovna would go from one den to another gathering orphans and persuading parents to leave their children to her care. All the inhabitants of Khitrovo respected her and called her “sister Elizaveta” or “Matushka.” The police had repeatedly warned her that it could not guarantee her safety in those places. She always thanked the police for their care and said that they should not worry about protecting her life as it was in the hands of God. She tried to save the children of Khitrovo. She was not scared away by dirt, swearing or the sight of people who lost all resemblance to human beings. She always said, “God’s image in people can sometimes be shadowed, but it can never be completely eliminated.”
She arranged places to live at hostels for the boys extricated from Khitrovo. A group of some of those former waifs made up a team of very efficient errand boys of Moscow. The girls were also put in secure custody at boarding schools or orphanages where their health and spiritual growth was taken care of.
Elizaveta Fyodorovna organized institutions for orphans, invalids and seriously ill people. She found time to visit them and constantly supported them with money and presents. The following story got around: once the Grand Duchess was to visit an orphanage for little girls. Everyone was trying to get everything ready to welcome her properly. The little girls were told that when the Grand Duchess came, they were to greet her and not to forget the kissing of hands. When Elizaveta Fyodorovna arrived, the little girls dressed in white frocks met her. They greeted her in ensemble and stretched their hands towards the Grand Duchess saying, “Kissing of hands.” The tutors were horrified: what would happen! And the Grand Duchess with tears in her eyes came up to the girls and kissed the hands of each of them. Everyone was crying — their hearts were moved and filled with so much reverence.
Another of the innumerable evidences of her love for the suffering was recalled by her contemporaries. After a visit to a poor district, one of the nuns spoke about a mother terminally ill with tuberculosis who had two little children living with her in a cold basement. Matushka got very anxious and immediately sent for the senior nun, ordered her to accommodate the woman to the hospital and take the children to the orphanage; she told her to let them sleep on a folding bed, if there were no vacant beds at the orphans’ home. After that she herself picked up some clothes and comforters for the children and left to bring the children in. The Grand Duchess visited their mother until her last day, consoling her and promising that she would take good care of the children.
The great Matushka had hoped for the Martha and Maria monastery to grow into a big and fruitful tree. She planned that with time she would be able to organize branches and subsidiaries in other towns of Russia.
A genuinely Russian love for pilgrimage was inherent to the Grand Duchess. Many times she went to Sarov and joyfully hurried to the church where she could pray at the hand of St. Seraphim. She also went to Pskov, Kiev, the Optina desert, the Zosima desert and the Solovki monastery. She visited very small monasteries in remote places of Russia as well. She never missed any clerical celebrations related to the transferring of the relics of saints. She secretly helped sick pilgrims who were waiting to be healed by newly declared saints; she took care of them as a nurse. In 1914 the Grand Duchess visited a monastery in Alapayevsk — the town which was destined to become the place of her imprisonment and martyr death.
She helped Russian pilgrims heading for Jerusalem. The companies set up by her paid travel expenses of the pilgrims going from Odessa to Jaffa by sea. She also built a hospital in Jerusalem. And one more of her great deeds was the building of a Russian Orthodox church in Bari, a town in Italy where the relics of Saint Nicholas of Mirlikiya are preserved. The attached (lower) church and the pilgrim lodge buildings were sanctified in honor of Saint Nicholas in 1914. Precious are to us the memoirs of Metropolitan Anasthasius who knew the Grand Duchess personally:
“Not only was she able to weep with the weeping, but also to rejoice with the cheerful, the latter generally is harder than the former. Not being officially a nun herself she observed the great commandment of St. Nilus of Sinai: “Blessed is the monk who reveres any person as a second godly creature after God,” better than some nuns. Her heart was always ready to see something good in any person and to appeal for mercy to the fallen. Humble though she was by nature, she would be enflamed with holy wrath against injustice. She was even more strict with herself for even an involuntary mistake… Once when I still was a vicar Bishop in Moscow, she offered me a position of a chairman at a company which was formed by non-clerical members and had no direct relation of the tasks of the Church. I was embarrassed, not knowing how to reply. She understood my position at once and relieved me of a difficult situation, saying resolutely, “I am sorry, it was foolish of me to say that.”
Her contemporaries remembered that a clear redolence of lily followed her, maybe because of that she liked the color white so much. Meeting a lot of people, she was capable of perceiving what kind of person she was facing. She detested servility, falsehood and slyness. She used to say, “These days it is hard to find truthfulness on earth engulfed by waves of sinfulness more and more; in order not to be disappointed in life we have to seek truth in heaven where it went leaving us here.”
From the very moment of her conversion to Orthodoxy and until her last days the Grand Duchess was always obedient to her spiritual fathers. She never undertook anything without a blessing from the Archpriest of the Martha and Maria monastery Mitrophan Serebrianskii or without having asked for advice from the elders of the Optina desert, Zosima desert and other monasteries. Her humbleness and obedience were remarkable.
God granted her the ability of spiritual wisdom and prophecy. Father Mitrophan Serebrianskii told that, not long before the revolution, he had had a vivid and obviously prophetic dream, but he did not know how to interpret it. There were four scenes unfolding before him one after another and they were colored. The first: there is a beautiful church which all of a sudden large flames appear around it and engulf it in a huge fire. It was an imposing and frightful spectacle. The second: a picture of the Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna in a black frame; suddenly there are shoots growing out of the edges of the frame. The buds of the shoots open and white lilies came out of them growing bigger and finally covering the image of the empress. The third: Archangel Michael is holding a fiery sword in his hand. The fourth: Holy Seraphim of Sarov is on his knees with his hands lifted up in prayer.
The dream made Father Mitrophan anxious, and he told it to the Grand Duchess in the morning before the Liturgy started. Elizaveta Fyodorovna said that the dream was clear to her. The first scene meant that soon there would be a revolution in Russia, and that The Russian Church would be persecuted as punishment for our sins and disbelief, that the lack of faith would bring our country to the edge of the abyss. The second one meant that Elizaveta Fyodorovna’s sister and the entire Royal Family would die a death of martyrs. The third scene showed that even after all that, Russia would face great calamities. The fourth one meant that through the prayers of St. Seraphim, other saints of Russia and through the protection of the Holy Mother of God our people and country would be granted forgiveness.
The gift of spiritual wisdom was especially revealed in her attitude towards Rasputin. Many a time she would implore her sister, the Empress, not to trust him and not to be dependent on him. She spoke about it also to the Emperor himself, but her advice was rejected. In 1916, upon the request of her friends and with a blessing from the elders, she went to Tsarskoe Selo to see the Emperor and talk to him in person about the situation in the country. The Emperor did not receive her. A conversation about Rasputin between the Empress and the Grand Duchess came to an end in a sad way. The Empress would not listen to her sister; she said, “We know that some Saints have been libeled before too.” The Grand Duchess reply was, “Remember the fate of Louis the XVI.”(8) They parted coldly.
During World War I the Grand Duchess had more work than ever: the wounded needed nurses’ help. Some of the nuns were working outside the monastery at the field hospital. Initially Elizaveta Fyodorovna was driven by Christian compassion to visit prisoners of war, the German soldiers, but the slanderous gossip about her alleged “secret support” of the enemy made her give up visits to prison.
In 1916 a furious mob approached the gates of the monastery. They demanded that the German spy, the brother of Elizaveta Fyodorovna, who was allegedly hiding in the monastery, should be given out to them. Mother Superior came out of the monastery alone to face the throng and offered to search through all the buildings of the cloister. The Lord preserved her from death on that day. A cavalry detachment of police disbanded the mob.
Soon after the February revolution a crowd carrying guns, red flags and red bows came to the gates of the monastery again. Mother Superior opened the gates herself and it was announced to her that they had come to arrest her and submit her to their court as a German spy who also “is storing weapons at the monastery.”
They demanded that the Grand Duchess should immediately go with them, but she said that she had to leave instructions and say good-bye to the nuns. She called all the nuns and asked Father Mitrophan to serve a public prayer. Then she invited the revolutionaries to enter the church, having left their guns outside. Reluctantly they obeyed her.
Elizaveta Fyodorovna prayed on her knees during the whole service, after which she said that Father Mitrophan would show them all the buildings of the monastery and that they could look for whatever they wanted to find. Naturally they found nothing but the nuns’ cells and the hospital with the patients in it. After they left Elizaveta Fyodorovna said, “We have apparently not deserved martyrdom yet.” One of her letters from that time goes: “The fact that we are still alive is undoubtedly a wonder.” She was neither condemning, nor enraged with the incensed crowd. She would say, “The people are children, they are not guilty of what is going on…They are mislead by the enemies of Russia.” Concerning the arrest and sufferings of the Royal Family she said, “This will help them become spiritually cleaner and bring them closer to God.”
In spring 1917 she was visited by a Swedish minister who had been asked by Kaiser Wilhelm to offer Elizaveta Fyodorovna help in leaving the country. She said that she decided to share the destiny of the country that became her new motherland and that she could not leave the nuns in those hard times.
Never before had a service at the monastery been attended by as many people as there were before the October overthrow. People came not only for a meal or medical assistance, but also for consolation and a piece of advice from the “Great Matushka.” Elizaveta Fyodorovna received all of them, listened to them and hearted them. People left her comforted and in a peaceful state of mind. For some time after the October coup, the Martha and Mary monastery was not threatened. On the contrary, the nuns enjoyed respect, two times a week a truck was sent to the monastery with rye bread, dried fish and vegetables. A restricted amount of first aid medicines and bandages was also delivered to the monastery.
Everyone in the country was scared; former patrons and charitable benefactors were afraid to support the monastery. To avoid provocations the Grand Duchess almost never left the monastery; the nuns were also forbidden to go out. But the usual schedule of the monastery did not change, only the services became longer, the prayers of the nuns became more zealous. Father Mitrophan served the Divine Liturgy every day in the overcrowded church, many people took communion. For some time a wonderworking icon of the Theotokos, which was found in the village of Kolomenskoye on the day Emperor Nicolas II gave up the throne, was preserved in the church. The cathedral prayers were served in front of that icon.
After the conclusion of the Brest and Lithuanian Truce, the German government managed to get the consent of the Soviet government for the Grand Duchess’ emigration. The German ambassador count Mirbach tried to meet with her twice, but she did not receive him and refused to leave Russia on any occasion. She used to say, “I did nothing wrong to anybody. May the Lord’s will be done!”
Let us quote some letters of the Grand Duchess to her close ones:
“The Lord’s great mercy again helped us to survive the days of the internal war, and today I had an unbounded consolation of praying … and attending the Divine service when our Patriarch was blessing us. The Holy Kremlin bearing visible marks of those sad days was even dearer to me than ever before and I felt how truly our Orthodox Church is the Church of the Lord indeed. I felt such profound compassion for Russia and her children, who do not know what they are doing. Isn’t it a sick child who is loved by us a hundred times more than when he is cheerful and healthy? I would like to share that child’s sufferings, teach him patience and help him. This is what I feel every day. Holy Russia cannot perish. But it is no longer the Great Russia, alas. And yet the Lord in the Bible shows how He forgave His repenting people and restored its blessed strength.
“Let us hope that the prayers which become more and more ardent every day and the growing repentance would be heard by the Holy Virgin, and that She would intercede for us before her Divine Son and the Lord would forgive us.”
“The Great Russia is destroyed completely, but the Holy Russia and the Orthodox Church which ‘will not be overcome by the gates of hell’ exists and does so even more than ever before.”
“And those who believe and do not doubt faith for a second will see the ‘internal sun’ which casts light over the darkness during the thunderous storm… I am only sure that the Lord who punishes is the very Lord who loves. I was reading the Gospel a lot and, if we comprehend the great sacrifice of God the Father Who sent His Son to die and resurrect for us, we will feel the presence of the Holy Spirit spelling light over us. Ant then joy becomes eternal, even though our poor human hearts and little earthly minds would be experiencing the moments, which seem horrible… We work, pray, hope and every day we feel the mercy of God. Every day we feel constant wonder worked around us. And other people feel that too and they come to our church to give peace to their souls.”
The serene life at the monastery was like the stillness before a storm. First the monastery was required to fill out questionnaires on each and every person living there or undergoing treatment: first and last names, age, social background and so on. After that several people from the hospital were arrested. Then it was declared that the orphans would be taken to the orphanage.
In April 1918, on the third day after Easter, (which was the day of veneration of the Iverskaya icon of the Mother of God), Elizaveta Fyodorovna was arrested and immediately deported out of Moscow. It happened when His Holiness Patriarch Tikhon was visiting the Martha and Maria monastery and serving the Divine Liturgy and public prayer. After the service the Patriarch stayed at the monastery till 4 o’clock talking to the nuns and Mother Superior. It was the last blessing and farewell of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church to Elizaveta Fyodorovna before her cross-bearing road to Calvary.
Almost immediately after Patriarch Tikhon left the monastery, a car with commissars and Latvian Red Army soldiers came to the monastery. Elizaveta Fyodorovna was ordered to leave with them. She was given only half an hour to pack. Mother Superior only managed to gather the nuns in the church of the St. Martha and Maria monastery and to bless them for the last time. Everybody was crying, as they knew it was the last time that they would see their Mother Superior. Elizaveta Fyodorovna thanked the nuns for their selfless work and faithfulness and asked Father Mitrophan not to leave the monastery and to serve there as long as possible.
Two nuns accompanied the Grand Duchess — Varvara Yakovleva and Yekaterina Yanysheva. Before entering the car Mother Superior made a sign of Cross over everyone.
One of the nuns of the monastery wrote in her memoirs: “…So she was taken away. The nuns were running behind the car for as long as they could. Some just fell on the road… She was taken to Ekaterinburg with some convoying person and sister Varvara. So they did not part… Then she sent letters to Father and each one of us. A hundred and five messages (9) were enclosed, each according to our individual character. There were quotations from the Gospel and the Holy Bible and her own words too. She knew all her nuns, all her children …”
Having heard of what happened to Mother Superior, Patriarch Tikhon tried to release the Grand Duchess through various organizations that were respected by the new government. But all those attempts were in vain. All members of the Emperor’s family were doomed. Elizaveta Fyodorovna and the nuns accompanying her were taken to Perm by train. On her way to exile she wrote a letter to the nuns of her monastery. Below are quotes from it:
Bless the Lord and may the Holy Christ’s Resurrection console and strengthen you… May St. Sergei, prelate Dmitrii and St. Evphrosinia Polotzkaya preserve us all… I keep recalling the past day, all of your faces so dear to me. O, Lord, how much suffering there was on those faces, how my heart ached! You are dearer to me with every passing minute. How shall I leave you, how can I comfort and strengthen you? Remember, my dearest ones, what I had told you. Be always not only my children, but also good learners. Unite and be like one soul — everything for God’s sake. Repeat after John Chrysostom, “Thank God for everything!” Senior nuns, unite your sisters. Ask Patriarch Tikhon to take you under his protection. Accommodate him in my middle room. My cell should be converted into a confession room, the larger one — into a reception hall. For God’s sake, do not grow despondent. The Mother of God knows why Her Holy Son has sent us this trial on the day of Her veneration… Only do not despair and do not give up your good intentions, and then the Lord, Who separated us temporarily, will strengthen your spirit. Pray for me a sinner, so that I can return to you my dear children and improve myself for your sake, so that we could think of how to prepare ourselves for the eternal life.
Do you remember how I was afraid that you found perseverance for life relying too much on my support and I said, “You should turn to God more ardently. The Lord says, “My Son, give Me your heart and let your eyes follow My ways.” You can be sure that everything is given to God, if you give Him your heart, that is yourself.
Now we go through the same things with you and it is only with Him that we involuntarily find consolation in bearing our common cross of separation. The Lord deemed it was time for us to bear His cross. Let us try to be worthy of this joy. I thought that we would be too weak and small to carry a big cross. “The Lord giveth, and He taketh …” Everything happened according to His will. Let the Lord’s name be glorified forever.
What a wonderful example to follow we have when we think of St. Job who was so humble and patient in his sorrows. Then the Lord granted him joy for that. So many examples of such sorrows that the Holy Fathers had to undergo in their monastic life, but afterwards there was joy. Prepare yourselves for the joy of reunion. Let us be patient and humble. Let us not complain, but thank God for everything.
Ever praying for you and loving you, your mother in Christ.
During the last months of her life the Grand Duchess was kept in detainment at a school in the outskirts of Alapayevsk, together with the Grand Prince Serguei Mikhailovich (younger son of the Grand Prince Mikhail Nikolayevich, brother of the Emperor Alexander the II), his secretary — Feodor Mikhailovich Remez, three brothers — Ioann, Constantine and Igor (sons of the Grand Prince Constantine Constantinovich) and Prince Vladimir Palei (son of the Grand Prince Pavel Alexandrovich. Death was close. Matushka was preparing herself to that end, devoting all of her time to prayer.
The nuns accompanying their Mother Superior were brought to the local party organization where they were offered freedom. Both begged for permission to go back to the Grand Duchess. Then the “chekists” (the KGB of that time) began threatening them with the torture and pain to which they would be subjected if they remained with her. Varvara Yakovleva said that she was ready to share the Grand Duchess fate and to sign her decision about it with her own blood. Thus the sister in Christ from the Martha and Maria monastery Varvara Yakovleva made her choice, and joined the prisoners who were awaiting the fatal decision.
Late at night on July 5(18), on the day of the finding of the relics of St. Sergei Radonezhski, the Grand Duchess Elizaveta Fyodorovna, together with all the other members of the Imperial family were thrown into an old mine. When the bestial executioners pushed the Grand Duchess into the black pit, she repeated the prayer of the Savior crucified on the Cross: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34). Then the chekists started throwing hand grenades into the mine. One peasant who witnessed the murder said that the sounds of the Cherubic hymn could be heard coming from the depth of the mine, sung by the martyrs before their passing into eternity.
Elizaveta Fyodorovna fell not to the bottom of the mine, but to a ledge at the depth of 15 meters. Beside her was the body of Ioann Constantinovich with a bandage on his head. Despite injuries, bruises and multiple bone fractures, she tried to alleviate the sufferings of her brothers in Christ even there. The fingers of her right hand were folded for a sign of cross. They all died tortured horribly by thirst, starvation and wounds.
In 1921 the remains of the Mother Superior of the Martha and Maria monastery and her faithful assistant Varvara were translated to Jerusalem and placed in a sarcophagus in the Gethsemane church of St. Mary Magdalene Equal-to-the-Apostles. It was a long and a hard journey. On October 31, 1918 the bodies of the martyrs were put to wooden coffins and brought to the cemetery church of Alapayevsk where the Psalter and funeral prayers were read. On the next day the coffins were brought to the Holy Trinity church where the funeral Liturgy and then the burial sermons were served. The coffins were put in the sarcophagus of the church to the right of the altar.
Yet it was not long that their bodies rested in peace. The Red Army was advancing and it was necessary to take them to a safer place. Father Seraphim, who was Father Superior of the Alexeyevski monastery within the Perm diocese, a friend and confessor to the Grand Duchess, undertook this task.
Immediately after the October revolution Father Seraphim came to Moscow and visited the Grand Duchess inviting her to go to Alapayevsk with him, as there were reliable people in hermetic places there who would be able to hide her and save her life. Elizaveta Fyodorovna refused to run for refuge, but at the end of their conversation she added, “If they kill me, please, bury me in a Christian way.” Those words turned out prophetic.
Admiral Kolchak gave Father Seraphim permission to transfer the bodies. Cossack chieftain Semenov assigned a train car and gave a pass to them. On the 14th of July 1919 eight coffins from Alapayevsk were taken to Chita. Father Seraphim had two novice monks to help him — Maxim Kanunnikov and Seraphim Gnevashev.
In Chita the coffins were taken to Pokrovski female monastery where the nuns washed the bodies of the martyrs and clad the Grand Duchess and nun Varvara in monastic garments. Father Seraphim aided by his two monks opened up the floor boards of one of the monastery cells and dug out a grave there. They put all the eight coffins there and covered them with a thin layer of soil. Father Seraphim himself stayed in that cell to live and guard the bodies of the martyrs.
The bodies stayed in Chita for six months. But the Red Army was advancing again and it was necessary to take the relics of the late martyrs outside of Russia. That trip began on March 11, and the railroads were in a disastrous state. The train carriage moved together with the advancement or retreat of the front: 25 miles forward — then 15 miles backward. Thanks to the pass the carriage was coupled either to one or to another locomotive and directed to the China border. Summertime came and the coffins were constantly oozing a liquid that spread a horrible reek. During stops the people attending the carriage picked some grass and wiped the coffins with it. The liquid coming out of the coffin of the Grand Duchess was aromatic, according to Father Seraphim and the people collected it in carefully and kept in a little bottle as a sacred relic. Close to the border with China the train was attacked by the Red Guerillas, who wanted to throw the coffins out of the carriage. Chinese soldiers came to the rescue, drove the assailants away and saved the bodies of the martyrs from vandalism.
When the train arrived in Harbin, the bodies of all the Alapayevsk martyrs were in complete decay except for the Grand Duchess’ and the nun Varvara’s. Prince N. A. Kudashev, who was called to Harbin to identify the bodies of the murdered and to write a report, wrote in his memoirs, “The Grand Duchess lay in the coffin like she was alive and did not change at all from the day I parted with her in Moscow before my trip to Beijing, only one side of her face had a big bruise from falling into the mine.
I ordered proper caskets for them and was present at the burial. Knowing that the Grand Duchess had always wished to be buried in Gethsemane, Jerusalem, I decided to fulfil her wish. I forwarded her remains and those of her faithful nun to the Holy Land and asked the monk to escort them to the place of their last retreat, thus completing the ascetic deed.”
In April 1920 the caskets of the two martyrs arrived in Beijing, where the head of the Russian Orthodox Mission Archbishop Innocent met them. Immediately after the funeral service they were placed temporarily in one of the vaults of the Mission cemetery and the work on a new sarcophagi at the Holy Seraphim church was begun.
The caskets with the bodies of the Grand Duchess and nun Varvara escorted by Father Superior Seraphim (10) were again on the road, this time they were going from Beijing to Tiandzin, then to Shanghai by sea and then Port-Said, where they arrived in January 1921. From Port-Said the caskets were put in a special train carriage and sent to Jerusalem where they were met by the Russian and Greek clergy and many pilgrims who had been there when the revolution of 1917 began in Russia.
Patriarch Damian, assisted by many clergymen, performed the burial of the bodies of the neo-martyrs. Their caskets were placed in sarcophagi under the lower arches of the church of St. Mary Magdalene, equal-to-the-Apostles, in Gethsemane. When they opened the Grand Duchess’ casket, the room was filled with aromatic fragrance. According to Archbishop Anthony (Sinkevich), “it seemed like the smell of honey and jasmine pervaded the air.” The remains of the neo-martyrs appeared partially nonperishable.”
Patriarch of Jerusalem Diodor gave a blessing to perform a ceremonial transfer of the relics of the neo-martyrs from the sarcophagi, where they were placed earlier, to the church of St. Mary Magdalene itself.
On May 2, 1982, during the service of celebration of the Holy Myrrh-bearing Women, the sacred chalice, the Gospel and the incense were used which had been presented to the church by the Grand Duchess Elizaveta Fyodorovna during her visit there in 1886. In 1992 the episcopal Council of the Russian Orthodox Church sanctified the Elizaveta and the nun Varvara, declaring the day of their death — July 18 to be the day of their veneration.
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It was not accidental that the people considered the Grand Duchess saintly when she was still alive, as she was a witness to eternity in our world, in our earthly motherland. She converted to Orthodoxy on Lazarus Saturday — that was a prophetic indication to her further life.
We all remember that Lazarus Saturday is followed by the Lord’s Entry into Jerusalem and Passion Week. Similar things happened in the life of Elizaveta Fyodorovna: alongside with sorrows and losses she was granted a great joy, establishing the monastery of mercy, the house of Lazarus; she was loved by all the people whom she herself served. But after that there was Passion Week and the Calvary. She accepted it with a prayer for her torturers as she fulfilled the Lord’s testaments.
Let us remember that in her last letter to the nuns of the Martha and Maria monastery Mother Superior prayed for her “children” to Saint Ephrosinia Polotzkaya, whose relics were preserved in Jerusalem at a time. It is natural that she turned to the “Russian Matushka,” as she herself became worthy to continue the ascetic deed of spiritual motherhood, bequeathed by the Saint. The relics of Holy Ephrosinia Polotzkaya after some time were taken from Jerusalem to Russia; and then seven and a half centuries later the remains of the Grand Duchess Elizaveta, rescued from Russia, found peace in the Holy Land. At present they repose in the church of St. Mary Magdalene the myrrh-bearer, crowning the Mount of Olives from which Resurrected Jesus ascended gloriously into Heaven to sit on the right hand of God the Father. That church and the relics of the Saints Elizaveta and Varvara connect the Holy Land and Russia spiritually.
And if some day a resurrection of the free Orthodox Russia happens by the power of the Holy Mother of God, the relics of the great Mother Superior of the monastery named in honor of Holy myrrh bearers Martha and Maria, will probably be translated (like at the time were the relics of St. Ephrosinia Polotzkaya) to the country for which she gave up her life. Then the sarcophagi once prepared by the Grand Duchess for herself at the Martha and Maria monastery, will envelope, the already glorified among the saints, Mother Superior under the protection of the Most Pure Mother of the Lord. And maybe we will live to see that in the monastery founded by her there would be a church built in honor of the Holy Great Martyr Elizaveta.
We see how her spiritual ascetic deed interconnected the ways of holiness. She was a faithful princess and a righteous person, a saint and a martyr. She followed the example of the Prophet Isaiah, who in reply to God’s question, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for Us?” (Isaiah 6:8), said, “Here am I, send me!” (Isaiah 6:8). The life of the Grand Duchess Elizaveta Fyodorovna is a wonderful contemporary interpretation of the lives of Saint Martha and Saint Mary. The first of the saint women of Russia — Grand Princess Saint Olga, equal-to-the-Apostles, before turning to Christ’s Faith did not forgive her enemies and cruelly revenged her husband’s death. Almost one thousand years later Grand Duchess Saint Elizaveta would not only forgive the murderers of her husband, but would pray God for the forgiveness of her murderers before she died as a martyr.
Both after conversion to Orthodoxy and in the monastery the Grand Duchess retained her name. That confirms that the foundation for the ascetic deed undertaken by her remained the same throughout her whole life. “Elizaveta,” when translated from Hebrew, means, “revering God.” Devout worship of God and love for everything He created — those were the main qualities of her character that helped her during all the changes in her life. To convey love to everything — this is her bequest to us. Russian women have an example to follow — to learn how to live and pray the way Elizaveta Fyodorovna prayed at the church of Holy Protection after visiting the Moscow slums: with great sorrow in her heart, with love and hope for the mercy of God. She asked for the miserable people lost in the tribulations of our life to be turned to faith, love and resurrection of their lives.
And one more thing we would like to note. The value of a word is depreciated now. It is hard to change the state of mind of the people using even the most elevated and correct words as we live in a society where violence and immorality became a nationwide affliction. For a word to regain its effectiveness we must fulfil the following testament of the Savior: “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and who obey it” (Luke 8:21). Those words conclude the parable about the Lord’s visit to the house of Lazarus, Martha and Maria. The Great Matushka of Russia, Saint Martyr Elizaveta together with all the Saint women of Russia call upon us to fulfil this testament.
Varvara Yakovleva, sister-in-Christ of the Martha and Maria monastery was one of the first to follow the steps of the Grand Duchess and began serving people in the monastery founded by Elizaveta Fyodorovna. She was a ward nun of the Mother Superior and was very close to her, but she was not prideful of that and remained very kind and accessible to others. People close to Elizaveta Fyodorovna knew her very well and called her Varia.
We do not know the place or environment from which sister Varvara came to the monastery. She followed her Mother Superior voluntarily accepting the sufferings and death and thus fulfilling the testament of our Lord: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The Alapayevsk prisoners knew their destiny. They had been preparing themselves to die and were praying to the Lord that he might strengthen them in their ascetic deed. Holy martyr Varvara accepted martyrdom at the age of 35.
We should also tell about the further fate of Father Mitrophan as he shared the Grand Duchess’ spiritual work at the monastery founded by her. After the Mother Superior’s arrest, the monastery actually stopped its charitable work, although it continued to exist for the next 7 years. Father Mitrophan continued to guide the nuns until the time when the monastery was shut down.
His Holiness Patriarch Tikhon, who often served at the Martha and Mary monastery, blessed Father Mitrophan to take monastic vows with the name of Sergius and his wife Olga took the veil with the name of Elizaveta.
In 1926 Father Mitrophan was arrested and exiled to Siberia. He was then sent to the GULAG. He spent 16 years in prisons and concentration camps. His last place of imprisonment was the village of Vladychnoye near Tver.
His beloved matushka was with him to the end of his days. In exile she had a stroke and was paralyzed. Father Mitrophan took care of her. They lived in a tiny hut with a straw roof and three little windows. Two women sometimes visited and helped them. He was revered as a saint there.
He died of pneumonia on April 5, 1948. He was buried there in Vladychnoe. Two years later, when the coffin with matushka’s body was being lowered to the same grave, the top of the coffin with the body of Father Mitrophan shifted — his remains were imperishable. Local people began to revere him as a saint soon after his death. The Tver diocese clergy are now collecting materials to appeal for his sanctification as a new martyr and confessor of Russia.
1 The mother of Princess Alice, Queen Victoria, when answering the question of an American about the essence of the strength of England, showed him the Bible and said, “This small book.”
2Conversion to Orthodoxy was not an obligatory regulation for a Princess marrying the Grand Prince.
3 Elizaveta of Turengen, canonized by Catholics, lived during the epoch of Crusades. She was deeply religious and loved people to self-denial. She devoted her whole life to serving the course of God’s mercy.
4 On the next day after the glorification sermon at the Dormition Church, the mother of the mute girl wiped the coffin with the saint’s relics with her scarf and then wiped her daughter’s face with it — immediately the girl received the ability to speak
5 That cross together with other personal things is now kept at the church of St. Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem, Gethsemane.
6 The cross was demolished by the new power in spring 1918. In the beginning of 1985 when the Ivan square of the Kremlin was being repaired, workers found a well-preserved vault with the relics of the Grand Prince. The employees of the Moscow Kremlin museums removed all the precious items from that vault: rings, chains, medallions, icons, a St. George’s cross, and forwarded them “to the collection committee of the museums of the Moscow Kremlin for assessment of their artistic value and for further custody” according to the inventory of withdrawal. The place Sergei Alexandrovich’s burial was turned into a parking lot. On February 18, 1995, after serving the burial sermon at the Archangel church of the Kremlin devoted to the ninetieth anniversary of the assassination, His Holiness Patriarch Alexii II said, “We think, it would be fair to transfer the relics of the Grand Prince Sergei Alexandrovich to the family vault of the Romanovs in the lower church of the Novospasski monastery. Let us pray for the Lord to grant him peace in the heavens.”
7 Published in 1905-1906 in “The News of the Army Clergy”
8 French King Louis XVI (1754-1793), under whom the destruction of monarchy took place. French Convent sentenced him to death and on January 21, 1793 Louis XVI went up his scaffold.
9 There were 105 nuns at the monastery by the year 1918.
10 On the slopes of the Mount of Olives there is a place called Minor Galilee, which is the residence of the Patriarch of Jerusalem. There are two sanctuaries in the garden of the residence: the foundation of the house in which the Lord appeared to His disciples after Resurrection and a chapel built on the place where Archangel Gabriel appeared before the Mother of God and foretold her the day of her Repose (Dormition). After receiving a blessing from Patriarch Damian, Father Superior Seraphim built a little hut for himself near the chapel and lived there to his last day. He died at the age of 85 and was buried next to his ward.
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