'There will come a time when gifted poets will write verse in praise of the Grand Duchess, her noble soul, her radiant feats, not only ascetic feats but also feats of love and mercy. Her beautiful and noble deeds, her sacrifice, a sacrifice made on the altar of love, will never be erased from the memory of human nobility and mankind will bless her as great, for she was wedded to love'.
Abbot Seraphim, The Martyrs of Christian Duty, P.12, Beijing, 1920.
The future Grand Duchess and New Martyr Elizabeth was born in 1864, the second of seven children. She was the daughter of Ludwig IV, Grand-Duke of Hessen-Darmstadt, and Princess Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria. Since she was half English, Ella, as she was called, often visited Queen Victoria in England, becoming her favourite granddaughter. Here she stayed at Windsor Castle, Osborne House and also at Balmoral in Scotland. There survives an extensive correspondence in English with her beloved grandmother in 'dear England'. Educated in a traditional English way by an English governess, Ella's mother instilled in her a Christian spirit, according to the principle of 'love thy neighbour'. As her earliest biographer, Metropolitan Anastasy, wrote: 'An English imprint undoubtedly lay on all her tastes and habits; the English language was closer to her than her native German'. When Princess Alice tragically died of diptheria in 1878, aged only 35, her last will was that her coffin be draped with the Union Jack.
In 1884, aged nineteen, Elizabeth married the Grand Duke Sergei, the son of Emperor Alexander II of Russia in two ceremonies, one Orthodox, the other Protestant. Deeply in love with her husband, she began to study the Russian people and culture and above all the Orthodox Faith which had moulded them. She long hesitated to join the Orthodox Church, for fear of upsetting her immediate family who were Lutherans. Then after two years of intense study and prayer, of her own free will she finally decided to become an Orthodox Christian by conviction. She was duly received by chrismation into the Orthodox Church on the Saturday before Palm Sunday 1891. In this decision only her grandmother, Queen Victoria, wrote her a letter full of encouragement and support, for which Elizabeth replied thanking her for her goodness and motherly love. Elizabeth described this event in one of her many letters in English, dated 5 January 1891, to the future Emperor Nicholas II. Here she described how she had long 'continued in outward forms to be a Protestant when my soul already belonged to the Orthodox belief'.
Also in 1891 her deeply religious husband was appointed Governor of Moscow by Emperor Alexander III. In 1894 her younger sister, Alexandra, married the future Russian Emperor, Nicholas II, with the ardent encouragement of Elizabeth. The Grand Duchess devoted herself to charitable work, continually caring for the well-being of the Russian Orthodox people, especially during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. However, on 4 February 1905, while she was leaving her home to do charitable work, she heard a terrible explosion. Hurrying towards where the explosion had come from, she saw a soldier stretching his greatcoat over some of the remains of her husband. He had just been been killed by a terrorist bomb and his body had literally been blown apart.
Profoundly shocked, Elizabeth, now a childless widow, still had the moral strength to visit the arrested assassin of her husband, a certain Kaliayev, in prison. She hoped to soften his heart through her example of forgiveness. The murderer told her that he had on several occasions wanted to kill her husband, but he had not been able to bring himself to touch him because she had been with him. The Grand Duchess gave a book of Gospels and an icon to the man, hoping against hope that he would repent before the end.
The shock of the murder brought about a great change to Elizabeth. She withdrew from social life and adopted a vegetarian diet. The wound in her soul was such that she raised her eyes to look at eternity. Closely following advice from bishops of the Holy Synod of the Russian Church, she devoted her life to the Orthodox way of life. She bought a house and a large piece of land in Moscow and established a community, devoted to St Martha and St Mary, carrying out the tasks of deaconesses, as in the early Orthodox Church. She intended this community to become like the home of St Lazarus, which had so often been visited by Christ. Several women from all classes joined the Grand Duchess to devote their lives to this foundation, tending the sick, helping the poor, taking care of the street children of Moscow. The Grand Duchess also established a rent-free hostel for young women workers and students, a hospital, a clinic, a school for nurses and a soup kitchen.
From what was to become in 1909 'The Convent of Mercy of St Martha and St Mary' the Grand Duchess and her helpers visited the poor, did housework, took care of children, bringing peace and happiness wherever they went. The Grand Duchess took part in all the work done, establishing a beautiful Convent garden, visiting even the poorest and most dangerous parts of Moscow. As she wrote in English to Tsar Nicholas in April 1909: 'I want to work for God and in God for suffering mankind'. She shone with the inner light of the soul at prayer and the crowds adored her. Her life was ascetic, all her personal fortune was devoted to good works and her only travels were pilgrimages to the holy places of Russia.
In 1910 she was made Abbess of the Convent, which then housed 45 sisters. Writing of this in a letter in English addressed to Tsar Nicholas, dated 26 March 1910, in which she warned of Rasputin who in her opinion had clearly fallen into spiritual illusion, she said: 'I am espousing Christ and His cause, I am giving all I can to Him and our neighbours, I am going deeper into our Orthodox Church'.
In the Convent she learned to practise the Jesus Prayer under strict obedience to the Convent's saintly spiritual father, Fr Mitrophan, of whom she had written in an English letter to Tsar Nicholas in April 1909: 'He is large, nothing of the narrow-minded bigot, all founded on God's boundless love and forgiveness - a true Orthodox priest keeping strictly to our Church'. The role of the Convent became particularly important during the First German War, when there were so many in hospital, so many to comfort.
When the Revolution came in 1917, Abbess Elizabeth continued to live as before, attending church services, nursing the sick, caring for the poor. She turned down the offer of a Swedish Cabinet Minister to leave the country, saying that she wished to share the destiny of her country and its people. At first ignored by the Bolshevik regime, on the third day of Easter 1918 Abbess Elizabeth was ordered to leave for the town of Perm in the Urals. She left together with two nuns, Catherine and Barbara, escorted by Latvian Guards. From here she was moved via Ekaterinburg, where the Imperial Family, including her sister, were held in confinement, to the town of Alapayevsk. She arrived here on 20 May 1918.
Abbess Elizabeth lived in captivity in Alapayevsk until the fateful night of 18 July 1918. It was the feast-day of St Sergius of Radonezh, her husband's namesday. On that night she, Sister Barbara, five members of the Imperial Family and a secretary, were taken to a mine and there martyred, first being blindfolded, beaten and then thrown alive into the mine-shaft. First to be thrown in was Abbess Elizabeth. As they seized her, she prayed, crossed herself and said: 'Lord, forgive them, for they know not what they do'. The murderers then tossed in hand grenades, but hearing the hymn,' O Lord, save Thy people…', they panicked and soon left. It is recorded that two of the murderers became insane shortly after their horrible crime. A peasant eyewitness reported that for hours afterwards he heard Abbess Elizabeth, mortally wounded, singing the Cherubic Hymn, hymns from the funeral service and hymns giving thanks to God and glorifying Him. These hymns continued into the following day.
When in September the White Army liberated Alapayevsk and found the mine, they removed the bodies, including that of Abbess Elizabeth. They found her not at the bottom of the 200-foot deep mine-shaft, but on a ledge about fifty feet down. Only one body had been torn apart by the grenades. On the same ledge near the Grand Duchess' intact body there were two unexploded grenades and on her chest an icon of Christ. This was the icon of the Saviour Not-Made-By-Hands. This had been given to her, probably by the Emperor Alexander III, on the day of her reception into the Orthodox Church on 13 April 1891. (It is now kept in the Russian Orthodox Memorial Church in Brussels). She had been lying next to the Grand Duke John and it was found that she had attempted to dress his wounds before herself expiring.
By order of the White General Admiral Kolchak, the bodies were all removed to the Cathedral in the nearby town of Alapayevsk on 1 November 1918. In 1919, the White Army, then in retreat, took the coffins with the bodies to Siberia and then in 1920 to China. The body of Abbess Elizabeth remained incorrupt. On 3 April that year the coffins were placed in St Seraphim's church in Beijing. However, from here they were removed to Palestine, thanks in part to the efforts of Elizabeth's elder sister, Victoria, Marquess of Milford Haven. On 15/28 January 1921, the relics were solemnly met in Jerusalem by Patriarch Damian, Russian and Greek clergy, members of the British authorities and innumerable Orthodox faithful. Here Abbess Elizabeth was buried in the church of St Mary Magdalene in Gethsemane. In 1888, before ever becoming Orthodox, the Grand Duchess had already expressed the desire to be buried here. This had been at the consecration of that very church, where she had gone with her husband, who was President of the Russian Palestine Society.
'Like a beautiful apparition, she passed through the world, leaving behind her a radiant trail' So wrote Abbess Elizabeth's early biographer, Metropolitan Anastasy. 'Together with the others who suffered for their homeland, she is both the atonement of the former Russia and the foundation of the Russia to come, which will be built on the relics of the holy New Martyrs…Not in vain had the voice of the Russian people proclaimed her to be a saint while she was still alive. As if to reward her for her glorious deeds on earth, and especially for her love of Holy Russia, her martyred remains were destined to rest near the very place of the Sufferings and Resurrection of the Saviour'.
Abbess Elizabeth was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in 1981, which canonisation was later recognised by the Church inside Russia when it became free to do so in the 1990's.
Holy New Martyr Elizabeth, pray to God for us!
Since 1998 we have been approached by a number of young girls both from England and the United States and also two professed nuns who have inquired about the possibility of establishing an English-language Orthodox Convent in Felixstowe.
Such a Convent would be faithful to the Russian Orthodox Tradition and Calendar, but expressed in the English language. It would be dedicated to the Holy New Martyr the Grand Duchess Elizabeth. Such a dedication would be most apt, given the Grand Duchess' Elizabeth's many visits to England and the many records and photographs of her visits here, which are kept in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle and Elizabeth's cousin's family visit to Felixstowe in July 1891.
Having spoken to Archbishop Mark about these inquiries, we were given the following advice. The Archbishop would not give his blessing to a new Convent without the initial presence of three nuns. Also, he is concerned that as a working priest, I would not be able to give the nuns the regular liturgical life, time and spiritual care which they would require.
I fully obey and agree with Archbishop Mark's advice. Moreover, despite the presence of an Orthodox church, priest and choir in Felixstowe and all the liturgical resources required, I cannot see how humanly any of this is possible, given our complete lack of financial resources. We would need hundreds of thousands of pounds in order to accommodate nuns, pay for the running costs of a Convent and provide daily liturgical services. However, it is also true that the need for an English-language Convent, faithful to the Russian Orthodox Tradition, is becoming more and more acute.
Therefore this is not an appeal for financial resources or donations. There is no episcopal blessing for such an appeal. This is an appeal for something even more precious, the prayers of our readers. Please pray that the need for such a Convent will somehow be met, either here or elsewhere, through the miracle of God's grace and according to His Will.
May you and Orthodox Christians everywhere, and all England, be blessed through the prayers of the Holy New Martyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth.
Fr Andrew Phillips
Sunday of the Forefathers
16/29 December 2002