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Elizabeth to Elizabeth

The superior women of Moscow’s Martha and Mary Convent

by Eileen Reinhard
photographs by Sean Sprague


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“People think we are outdated because we keep some traditions from the early 20th century,” said the Mother Superior, named Elizabeth in honor of the convent’s founder, Grand Duchess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

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Tags: Sisters Russia Women (rights/issues) Soviet Union Socioreligious programs