Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia




Homily given by Marilyn Robbat on Sunday, March 15, 2009 for Antiochian Women's Month - March

In her 53 brief years, Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia lived a life so full, so rich, so meaningful, so Christ-like....that she became a saint.

She was born:  Nov. 1, 1864, the daughter of Grand Duke Louis IV of Germany & Princess Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria of Great Britain & Ireland.

There were 7 children in her family.  Elizabeth's mother, Princess Alice, was a devoted wife and mother and took no pleasure in court life but surrounded herself with cultivated and enlightened people in order to help her country and instill in her children a feeling for art and music as well.  She founded a number of charitable institutions and was much loved by her people distributing her wealth to the poor, visiting hospitals and orphanages -- taking her two eldest daughters with her. The girls did their own chores-making their beds and cleaning their rooms.  There were frequent visits to England to visit her much loved grandmother, Queen Victoria.

This close family suffered tragedy when 3-yr old Frederick fell to his death, 4-year old Mary; and at age 35, Princess Alice died of Diphtheria in the same year.  It was young Elizabeth-then 14, who consoled those near and dear to her giving no thought to her own sorrow; even to console her own grandmother.

With the loss of her mother, the family responsibilities fell to Victoria and Elizabeth, the two eldest.  Elizabeth was growing into a pretty, graceful girl tall and slender with a gift for the fine arts and deeply religious.  She was considered one of the most beautiful women in Europe at the time with many admirers; but she fell in love and married Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich of Russia's House of Romanov, a deeply religious man, whom she had known from childhood. There was an elaborate Orthodox wedding ceremony in the Winter Palace Chapel followed by a Protestant service held in the Palace's Reception Hall.  Elizabeth remained a Lutheran for the time being.  Her family was not happy with the match  nor was her grandmother, Queen Victoria; however, she was at least gracious about the union.

The newly-weds were inseparable and Elizabeth endeared herself to the Russian people by showing respect for her husband's Orthodox faith at all times.  They lived a simple country life-Elizabeth learning Russian and getting closer to the people of her new country.  She started visiting nearby villages to become familiar with their way of life quickly realizing that poverty was all around-miserable conditions abounded in a school and an under-manned hospital.  So at 19 and on her honeymoon, Elizabeth started her charitable works with her husband's help.  She developed a kinship to the countryside and its people.

Then, it was on to St. Petersburg where Elizabeth's beauty and charm preceded her.  She was a social success in High Society Circles but yearned for solitude and quiet.  The married couple grew closer and Elizabeth was also drawn to the Orthodox Faith of her most devout husband.  Serge showed by example, observing all the fasts and Cannons; but never putting into words his desire for Elizabeth to convert to Orthodoxy.  She read independently and studied; and after a trip to the Holy Land, Elizabeth decided to convert to Orthodoxy-much to the chagrin of her family-particularly her father, Grand Duke Louis IV of Germany.  Only her grandmother, Queen Victoria, showed understanding.  The people of Russia loved their Grand Duchess and she endeared herself even more when she devoted much of her time to the sick and needy, and to various charitable organizations. 

When Elizabeth and Serge moved to Moscow, she saw first-hand the poverty in this prosperous city; and she visited hospitals, orphanages and old-age homes for the poor and even prisoners in city jails.  She brought with her food and clothing and offered them improved living conditions. 

When Russia went to war with Japan, Elizabeth supported the war efforts  and mobilized all levels of Russian society to get involved-even opening the Kremlin Palace for workers and it become the focal point for contributions of money and goods from all over Moscow of clothing, food, medicines and gifts, which were sent to the front.  She visited  hospitals, sent field chapels, icons and everything necessary for religious services to the Far East. 

The war dragged on and on  and the people were became more and more unhappy and rebelled.  There were strikes and political unrest; and on Feb. 18, 1905 Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich, Elizabeth's beloved husband,  was assassinated with a terrorist bomb.

The spiritual strength that sustained her during this tragic time was visible by all even to the point of Elizabeth secretly visiting her husband's assassin in prison offering forgiveness leaving the Holy Scriptures and a small icon asking him to repent of his sins, which he refused to do.  She even asked her brother-in-law, Tsar Nicholas II, to pardon the assassin; but the assassin chose death instead was later hanged. 

Her husband's death brought her into even deeper piety and and now she only wore only  mourning clothes; but she did not abandon her social and charitable activities-working even harder for the poor and sick.  There was revolution and unrest; but she continued to leave the Kremlin  gates to visit the hospitals and attended church.   Elizabeth even gave away her fortune of jewels and luxurious possessions.  She divided her  family royal jewels  and possessions (including her wedding ring) into three groups:  The first group which were presents from the Imperial Family, she turned over to the State treasury.  The second group was to be given as presents to her relatives; and the third and major part of the fortune was to be used for the realization of the long cherished project: the construction of a convent dedicated to Saints Mary and Martha, which would be used for prayers, labor and charity.   Plus, additional valuables--like works of art,  were all disposed of and the monies earmarked also for the convent. 

Nuns in Russian Convents, Elizabeth had observed, did no practical work other than needlepoint; however, Hospital Nuns were free-thinkers and some people resented that.  And she wanted to create something in between a monastery and a nursing institution.  She believe that constant prayer and contemplation was a num's final reward AFTER she'd given all her strength to save her fellow man.  Elizabeth wanted first of all to serve mankind.  For did not Christ say:  I was hungry and you gave me meat; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a strange and you took Me in, naked and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited Me;  I was in prison, and you came to Me.  And in answered to those righteous who asked Him when this was, He replied, Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these my brethren, you have done it to Me.   (Matthew Chapter 25 - Verses:35-40)  

She bought an estate  in Moscow with four buildings for her Convent and became its Abbess.  She soon built on its grounds  a dining Room for the sisters, a kitchen, storeroom and other service facilities, a Hospital with four wards, an operating Room and Surgical Station, and a Chapel.  Next to the Hospital, Elizabeth set up a Pharmacy and Dispensary to serve out-patients.  There were classrooms for orphan girls of the Martha & Mary Orphanage and a Library.  A beautiful garden was planted surrounding the house and church with white flowers-her favorite color. 

Elizabeth considered work to be the basis of all religious life.  The Convent was named for Lazarus' sisters-Martha and Mary.  Its sisters were to hear the Word of Eternal Life as did Mary AND serve the least of the Lord's brethren as did Martha.  The Gospel tells us:  When the Lord visited Lazarus, Martha busied herself to provided a fitting reception for the Lord; and when Mary did not help, the Lord answered:  Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:  But one thing is needful:  and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken way from her (Luke Chapter 10, Verse 41-42).  So Martha is a symbol of ACTIVE service to the Lord; while Mary -a spiritual absorption in the Divine Mysteries.

The Grand Duchess had a particular concern for an area called Hitrovka, a slum and the shame of Moscow. Thieves, gangs, the dregs of the earth-the poorest of the poor.  Her main objective:  to rescue the Children and educate them.  Usually she went alone or with one other. 

Wars and terrible times continued throughout Russia.  As things became more and more difficult, The Grand Duchess was urged to leave Russia on many occasions for her personal safety; but she would always refuse and return to her prayers and service to the people of Russia.

In 1918, the Provisional Government fell; and at first, the Convent was not interfered with.  But the Imperial Family and many of the Romanov Royal Family had been arrested; however the Grand Duchess Elizabeth was so well loved that the Bolshevik regime decided to quietly take her from the Convent, accompanied by one other sister.

On July 18, 1918, Grand Duchess Elizabeth and the nun who accompanied her from the convent, Sister Barbara as well as seven members of the Romanov Royal Family were herded into a forest, beaten and pushed down an abandoned mineshaft and killed.

On the following day, when the bodies were discovered, it was found that Elizabeth had died of her injuries from the fall down the mine shaft; but not before she had bandaged the head of one of the dying Romanov Family Princes with her handkerchief.  Elizabeth's remains were ultimately taken to Jerusalem, where they lie today in the church of Mary Magdalene, which she and her husband had helped to build.

Elizabeth was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church OUTSIDE of Russia in 1981 and by the Russian Orthodox Church inside Russia in 1992 as the New-Martyr Elizabeth.  Her principal shrine in Russia is the Ss. Mary and Martha Convent, which she founded in Moscow.  Her Feast Day is celebrated on July 5. 

And this is how a German Princess, born Elizabeth, became Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodrovna of Russia and THEN, became the New Martyr Elizabeth.