The Grand Duchess & Martyr: St. Elizabeth The New Marty
St Elizabeth the New Martyr (1864-1918) was the Princess Diana of her day: fabulously wealthy, a royal princess, highly educated, intelligent and stunningly attractive. And yet unlike Princess Diana, her life of privilege and wealth, parties and the high society of Europe underwent a dramatic change in February, 1905.
The Grand Duchess Elizabeth was born in 1864 into the German Royal Family and was one of the favorite granddaughters of the famed Queen Victoria of England. She led a typical life of 19th century European royalty, a life of money and privilege with the best of education and every opportunity in life. She was raised in a pious, Christian home, in the Lutheran faith of her father, Grand Duke Louis IV of Hesse-Darmstadt. Known as “Ella” within her family, she grew into a beautiful young princess and was considered one of the most desirable brides in all of Europe. Despite many suitors it was Grand Duke Serge of Russia who won Elizabeth’s hand and they married in 1884. Her new life in Russia was much like her life in Germany: a whirl of parties and formal balls in the royal palaces of Russia. The Grand Duchess was known as a good dancer and had a fine taste and gift for choosing the right fashions.
From the beginning of her married life, Elizabeth felt attracted to the Orthodox Faith of her husband. She continued to attend Protestant services on occasion but she felt that this faith could no longer satisfy her spiritual quest. She saw the joy that Serge felt after receiving Holy Communion and she herself wanted to share this joy with her husband. After years of study and contemplation, with no pressure from Serge, and despite the disapproval of her German and English family, she converted to the Orthodox Faith in 1891. In that same year, Czar Alexander III named his brother Serge as the Governor-General of the city of Moscow. As the first lady of Moscow, Elizabeth was touched by the poverty of many of its residents and involved herself in work as the head of various charitable organizations.
Elizabeth’s life was forever changed on February 18, 1905 when her husband Serge was assassinated with a bomb as he rode in a carriage to his office in the Governor’s Palace. Hearing the sound of the explosion, Elizabeth rushed to the spot only to find pieces of her husband scattered in the snow. Three days after Serge’s death, Elizabeth visited his murderer in prison, forgave him and encouraged him to repent and ask God’s forgiveness, leaving behind an icon and copy of the Holy Bible.
With the sudden death of her husband, Elizabeth’s old life of parties, balls, dances, clothes, and royal politics seemed more and more empty. She began to see the futility of all the temporary things of this world and increasingly turned her attention to the spiritual life. She slowly began to discover a new purpose to her life. She decided to become a nun in order to devote her life to serving God. Elizabeth sold her extensive collection of clothes and jewels in order to found a new monastery in Moscow: the Monastery of Sts. Martha and Mary. Taken from the Gospel story of Sts. Martha and Mary – the sisters of Lazarus – and the Lord’s teaching on the need for contemplation along with a life of service, the monastery would be a new type of monastery. Along with hours spent in prayer each day, along with a life of self-denial and fasting, she and the nuns would devote themselves to helping the poor and the sick of the city. The convent established a hospital with 22 beds and gave free care to any needy person who came to their doors. The poor were fed in the monastery kitchens with more than 300 meals served daily. On the day of her tonsure as a nun, Elizabeth said to her fellow nuns:
I am leaving the brilliant world where I have occupied a high position, and now, together with all of you, I am about to ascend into a much greater world, the world of the poor and afflicted.
In the monastery, the Grand Duchess led the life of a true ascetic. She slept on a wooden bed without a mattress, often sleeping no more than three hours a night, rising at midnight to pray in her chapel. When a seriously ill patient tossed in pain and called for help, she would stay at his bedside until dawn.
With the overthrow of her brother-in-law, Czar Nicholas II in 1917 and the Communist ascent to power, Elizabeth’s life was in danger as a member of the hated royal family. Despite pleas from her English and German families to flee there to safety, Elizabeth refused to leave the needy people of Moscow and her monastic sisters. At first the Bolsheviks did not interfere with the monastery as one by one the members of the Czar’s Romanov family were arrested. Lenin’s policy was to liquidate every person who bore that name or who was connected to the Czarist dynasty in any way. The Grand Duchess was finally arrested during Bright Week of 1918 and was taken in exile to the town of Alapaevsk along with her assistant, Sister Barbara. On the night of July 17-18, 1918, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, Sister Barbara and several other members of the Royal Family were martyred by being thrown alive into a deep mine shaft. The fall did not immediately kill Elizabeth and her companions. It was reported by local people that they heard the sound of singing coming from the bottom of the pit including the hymn “O Lord, save they people...” The Sts. Martha & Mary convent was eventually closed, the remaining nuns sent into exile and the church converted into a movie theater. The relics of St. Elizabeth and St. Barbara were recovered from the mine shaft and today are enshrined in the monastery of St. Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Today her old monastery in Moscow has been restored once again as a convent and house of worship. A statue of St. Elizabeth has been erected in the garden outside the monastery church with the words: To the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, with repentance”. The old mine shaft outside of Alapaevsk has become a place of pilgrimage and there a shrine to her memory has been erected.
As read in the Gospel of St. Luke, chapter 10 the story of Jesus in the home of Martha and Mary, Jesus said that “Mary has chosen the best part” or other translations say she has “found the one thing needful”. So much of the lives of people are spent on what they consider to be important, but often those things are not “the best part” or “the one thing needful”. It has been my privilege to work for over 20 years as a pastoral counselor with terminally ill patients under the care of a hospice program. I have yet to hear one patient say to me: “I wish I had been more successful in my career....I wish I had spent more time at work....I wish I had nicer clothes or car....” But patients have said to me: I should not have neglected my faith for all these years....I’m sorry I didn’t give my kids a better foundation in their faith....I should have spent more time with my family”. Unfortunately, it is often only through difficult situations and tragedies that everything in life becomes clearer. St. Elizabeth made a drastic change in her life because of a terrible tragedy. Her life of clothes, palaces, and parties lost their appeal. Like St. Maria Skobstova of Paris who underwent such a conversion when her young daughter died, it literally took an explosion for St. Elizabeth to reconsider what is “the best part” or “the one thing needful”. There is a PBS television station in New York that has as its motto “Keeping what matters in sight”. It is often difficult for us, living in this world with all its distractions and attractions to keep what is truly important in sight. Sometimes the Lord will use bad experiences, problems and even tragedies in order to awaken us to what really matters, to lead us to repentance and to a change of life. It is a mistake to believe that the Lord is the source or cause of our problems and tragedies but it is true that the Lord can and will use these evil things to lead us to salvation. The Epistle of St. Paul teaches: “In all things, God works for the good of those that love Him...” (Romans 8:28) In fact, some of the great saints of the Church, such as St. Theophan the Recluse, taught that if a person’s life is peaceful and without problems and difficulties it is a sign that God is neglecting that person. They teach that it is only through these bad experiences that God is working with us to wake us up and place us on the right path. This was the experience of St. Maria of Paris and of St. Elizabeth the New Martyr.
Tropar (Tone 4)
Causing meekness, humility and love to dwell in your soul,
You earnestly served the suffering,
O holy passion-bearer Princess Elizabeth;
Therefore, with faith you endured sufferings and death for Christ, with the martyr Barbara.
With her pray for all who honor you with love.
Kondak (Tone 4)
Taking up the Cross of Christ,
You passed from royal glory to the glory of heaven,
Praying for your enemies, O holy martyr Princess Elizabeth;
And with the martyr Barbara you found everlasting joy.
Therefore, pray in behalf of our souls.
- Very Rev. Dr. Edward Pehanich
- Father Edward Pehanich