Princess Di, Mother Theresa and St. Elizabeth
If People magazine had been around at the end of the 19th century Elizabeth Feodorovna would have been on the cover – many times.
It is said she was one of the most beautiful women in the Europe of her day. But physical beauty is not what mattered for her. Her beauty came from within.
Elizabeth was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England and older sister to Alexandra, wife of Tsar Nicholas II. She was born on November 1, 1864, the daughter of Grand Duke Louis IV of Hesse and Princess Alice of the United Kingdom. She was nicknamed Ella. She died on July 18, 1918 at the age of 53. Her life spanned the period between the Civil War and World War I.
Growing up she spoke both German and English. She would speak to her father in German and to her mother in English. She was well-educated and highly cultured with an appreciation for the arts and literature. Despite her striking appearance she was humble and self-effacing. She unsuccessfully attempted to avert people’s attention away from her beauty. A close observer noted that “she possessed an extremely delicate and multifaceted spiritual composition and her outward appearance reflected the beauty and greatness of her spirit.”
She had many desirable suitors and admirers and several sought to marry her but she denied them until the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, governor of Moscow and uncle to Tsar Nicholas II, proposed marriage and she accepted. A Lutheran by upbringing, Elizabeth fell in love with her husband’s faith and voluntarily converted to the Orthodox Church a few year following their marriage. She was struck by Orthodoxy’s rich spiritual beauty and inner richness in contrast to the spiritual poverty of Protestantism.
On her conversion, she wrote,
“Above all, one’s conscience must be pure and true… many will – I know – scream about (it), yet I feel it brings me closer to God… You tell me that the outer brilliance of the church charmed me – no – the service, the service, the outer signs are only to remind us of the inner things.”
She was now the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feordorovna of Russia and living in a palace of the Kremlin. In Imperial Russia she was surrounded by a life of extravagant social events but found them oppressive because of their frivolity. She was devoted to her work of philanthropy to help the poor and needy of Moscow. This was expected of her and for it she received little notice for it from the public.
The Grand Duchess was right in the middle of the revolutions in Russia leading to the overthrow of the Tsar in October of 1917. In the Revolution of 1905 Grand Duke Sergei was assassinated by a revolutionist’s bomb. The night before the funeral she visited her husband’s killer in jail. There she offered her forgiveness to him and promised to appeal to the Tsar on his behalf if he would repent of the murder. According to popular Russian historian Edvard Radzinsky author of The Last Tsar:
“Elizabeth spent all the days before the burial in ceaseless prayer. On her husband’s tombstone she wrote: ‘Father, release them, they know not what they do.’
She understood the words of the Gospels heart and soul, and on the eve of the funeral she demanded to be taken to the prison where Kalyayev was being held. Brought into his cell, she asked,
‘Why did you kill my husband?’
‘I killed Sergei Alexandrovich because he was a weapon of tyranny. I was taking revenge for the people.’
‘Do not listen to your pride. Repent… and I will beg the Sovereign to give you your life. I will ask him for you. I myself have already forgiven you.’
On the eve of revolution, she had already found a way out; forgiveness! Forgive through the impossible pain and blood — and thereby stop it then, at the beginning, this bloody wheel.
By her example, poor Ella appealed to society, calling upon the people to live in Christian faith.”
A few years following her husband’s death, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feordorovna sold her luxurious possessions including her collection of jewels and extravagant clothes and became a nun. She founded and became Abbess of the convent of Sts. Mary and Martha in Moscow where she not only built a chapel for prayer but also a hospital, pharmacy, and an orphanage. She devoted the rest of her life to prayer and fasting, and to helping the sick, poor, and needy reaching out to the worst slums in Moscow.
In today’s world she would be seen as a combination of Princess Diana and Mother Theresa. Princess Diana received worldwide acclaim for her work on behalf of AIDS victims and lepers as well as many charitable organizations but she continued her jet-setting lifestyle. Mother Theresa devoted her life to India’s dying in the slums of Calcutta but was never had a worldly title or wealth. Yet the Grand Duchess Elizabeth gave up all her immense privilege and wealth of royalty to serve the least among us.
But the story doesn’t end there.
Following the Revolution of 1905 Russian continued to be in turmoil and the radical forces determined to overthrow the Regime grew more threatening. Elizabeth’s royal family and friends in Britain and Germany continually urged her to flee Russia and return home to safety. The world was watching. Everyone knew how uncertain the future was not least of whom Grand Duchess turned Sister Elizabeth. She refused to flee choosing instead to remain faithful to her calling in the face of grave danger.
Then came the October Revolution of 1917. The Tsar abdicated and the provisional Soviet government led by Vladimir Lenin was in place. Members of the royal family were rounded up, taken away, and imprisoned. On July 17, 1918 Tsar Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, and their children were executed.
Abbess Elizabeth along with another nun, Sister Barbara (who had been offered the chance to be freed but chose to stay with Elizabeth), and cousins of the royal family had been taken to another place. Later in the night after the Tsar and his family were killed Elizabeth and the others were taken to an abandoned mine shaft full of water and were thrown in alive. The following is an account by one of the executioners:
“At last we arrived at the mine. The shaft was not very deep and, as it turned out, had a ledge on one side that was not covered by water. First we led Grand Duchess Elizabeth (Ella) up to the mine. After throwing her down the shaft, we heard her struggling in the water for some time. We pushed the nun lay-sister Barbara down after her. We again heard the splashing of water and then the two women’s voices. It became clear that, having dragged herself out of the water, the Grand Duchess had also pulled her lay-sister out. But, having no other alternative, we had to throw in all the men also.
None of them, it seems, drowned, or choked in the water and after a short time we were able to hear all their voices again. Then I threw in a grenade. It exploded and everything was quiet. But not for long. We decided to wait a little to check whether they had perished. After a short while we heard talking and a barely audible groan. I threw another grenade. And what do you think – from beneath the ground we heard singing! I was seized with horror. They were singing the prayer: ‘Lord, save your people!’ We had no more grenades, yet it was impossible to leave the deed unfinished. We decided to fill the shaft with dry brushwood and set it alight. Their hymns still rose up through the thick smoke for some time yet.”
The victims’ remains were recovered three months later. In time, Elizabeth’s and Barbara’s remains were moved to the Church of St. Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives. In 1981 the Russian Church Abroad canonized them followed by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1992. (The Church Abroad and the Russian Church have since reunited).
Today our world is crazed with celebrity. Our culture is fanatical over the rich and famous who contribute nothing to our society. We look to the state to take care for all of us – in our need or not. We envy anyone who is “better off” than us and have little regard for those worse off than us. We hang on the gossip of Hollywood and idolize the housewives of this or that wealthy zip code. We worship the most gorgeous and sexy celebrities who pay thousands to alter their faces and bodies to stay on the altars of their fans. We’re intrigued by the British royal family and their personal lives and public scandals. Ours is a wealth-obsessed, fame-driven, and power-hungry society.
St. Elizabeth stands in the starkest contrast to the spirit of our age. Hers was a a life of humility and true love which showed itself in complete self-denial for the sake of others. She thought nothing of herself and put her Lord above all else even to the point of following His very example giving up all for the sake of the world.
She is truly an example of one who followed the Gospel to the end. As the Lord calls us all to do, “Take up your cross and follow Me.”
Troparion, Tone 4
Causing meekness, humility and love to dwell in thy soul,
Thou didst earnestly serve the suffering,
O holy passion-bearer Princess Elizabeth;
Wherefore, with faith thou didst endure sufferings and death for Christ, with the martyr Barbara.
With her pray for all who honor you with love.
Kontakion, Tone 4
Taking up the Cross of Christ,
Thou didst pass from royal glory to the glory of heaven,
Praying for thine enemies, O holy martyr Princess Elizabeth;
And with the martyr Barbara thou didst find everlasting joy.
Therefore, pray ye in behalf of our souls.