Yandex Metrika
The Life of the Venerable Gabriel of Samtavro

Saint Gabriel of Samtavro, Georgia’s Beloved Modern Saint

Saint Gabriel of Samtavro

Rejoice, most wondrous preacher of love
Rejoice, teacher of repentant sinners
Rejoice, true servant of Christ the Saviour in the struggle
with opponents of God’s will
Rejoice, radiant pillar of the end of times.
Ikos 1 of the Akathist to the Venerable Gabriel of Samtavro

In bygone years, when sin multiplied and Orthodoxy was being rooted out, when the open practice of the faith was being punished and monasteries were being closed, when monks were guarding churches or working in agricultural artels, the world suddenly received a fresh lease of God’s grace. On 26 August 1929, God gave the world a would-be saint and God-pleaser, Father Gabriel (Urgebadze). Of him, the Bishop of Tsalka Gregory (Katsia) wrote:

"The virtues and gifts of grace, handed down over centuries from one generation of monks to the next, came together in him as if in a distinctive link of an infinite chain of saints. He is to us an intercessor and an ascetic, a confessor and a healer, a martyr and a preacher, a fool-for-Christ and an advocate for our long-suffering homeland and the whole Christian world.”

Father Gabriel was born in Tbilisi, to a family that lived near the church of the Great Martyr Barbara. He had a childhood full of hardships. He lost his father at an early age, and his family addressed him by his late father’s name, Vasiko. His mother, Barbara, never knew her parents. It is rumoured that in the years of the Russian Revolution, a large family was traveling through Tiflis (now Tbilisi). While in Tbilisi, the mother of the family gave birth to a girl child named Barbara. The family was in serious trouble, and left their newborn in the care of some Armenians, along with a large sum of money for her upkeep. The family was hoping to return and take the girl back, but they never did.

An old woman adopted Barbara. She loved her dearly and took good care of the girl's health and other needs. She sent her to a gymnasium and looked for an appropriate marriage partner for her. By age 20, Barbara was already married with three children: Emma, Mikhail and little Goderdzi. He was about two years old when his father Vasily Urgebadze was killed under obscure circumstances. His wife was left with three children, whom she raised together with her stepmother, trying desperately to keep them alive during the bitter famine of 1931.

Vasiko with his mother Barbara

Vasiko with his mother Barbara

From early childhood, Vasiko was endowed with the gift of God's grace. From the pebbles he found in the street, he built churches and put lighted matches inside. His mother (eventually tonsured with the name Anna) was afraid that someone might notice her son’s hobby, especially as he had preferred solitary prayer to playing with his peers from early childhood. Vasiko would often pick up a stick and go on solitary walks. Birds from all across the neighbourhood would fly to the stick and chirp around him. The sight of him walking amid the birds astonished many. Vasiko had a big heart. He did not let anyone use a mouse trap in the house. He caught the mice alive in a cage and set them free in his backyard.

Vasiko completed only six years of school. Once he overheard a loud conversation between two women from his neighbourhood. One shouted to the other: "Stop crucifying me like they did Christ!" Vasiko wondered: "Why did they crucify Christ?" Nobody in the village could give him any answer. Instead, they sent him to the church, which was always closed. The guard who opened the church door for him showed the boy the Crucifix, and Vasiko bowed to it with deep reverence. He also advised him to read more about Christ’s life. Vasiko started saving money for a Gospel and finally acquired one with God's help. From then on and for the rest of his life, he lived by only one thought and desire: to dedicate himself fully to Christ.

The harsh political regime, the difficult years and the tense environment within the nation were possibly pushing the boy’s mother to implore her son to be like everybody else and ignore his calling towards God. His mother’s opposition caused Vasiko to leave home. He traveled from one monastery or church to another. At Bethany Monastery, he met his spiritual father, Elder George (Mkheidze), now glorified as a saint, a disciple of several ascetics expelled from Mount Athos. All the time, his mother had been looking for Vasiko without stopping, until she finally learned his whereabouts. "Just come back, son, and I will let you act as you have chosen. I will not be opposed," she promised when she finally found her boy.

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Vasiko returned. Thereafter, his mother Barbara abandoned her strictness, even though she did ask him from time to time to consider leading a normal life in every aspect, including religion. But Vasiko continued to climb to Bethany Monastery at least every month to work with the monks.

Another event happened in those years that altered the course of Vasiko's life. The Soviet authorities had decided to plant a garden in the old Veri cemetery that had the graves of the cadets who had perished in the fight for Georgia’s independence. They ploughed the cemetery up with tractors. As a result of this barbaric act, the bones of the deceased soldiers were brought to the surface. The young Vasiko was distraught. By night, he gathered the bones in bags and buried them again.

Private Urgebadze during his compulsory military service

Private Urgebadze during his compulsory military service in the Soviet Army

He was drafted into the Soviet army in 1949. He served as a border guard in Batumi. One day as he was visiting a church he stopped before the icon of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker and prayed long and hard that he would have more time to spend in church. By God's mercy, he was soon assigned to deliver mail, enabling him to attend church after completing his daily duties.

He fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays under the pretext of having stomach pains. A priest secretly communed him in the church altar. For the rest of his time in the army, he successfully combined his military duties with church attendance.

After his return from the army, his difficulties continued. In these Godless years, Christians were bitterly persecuted. Vasiko was called in for a medical examination, where he was questioned, declared insane and sent home to the care of his mother. He was made a recipient of a disability pension.

Vasiko began to build a church right in his backyard. He salvaged the icons for his church from the city dumps where they were thrown away in large numbers as waste. He had established a workshop to clean the icons and put them into frames and Oklads from a variety of materials.

The young Vasiko drew the attention of His Holiness and Beatitude Melchizedek III, Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia. With his blessing, Vasiko served as a guard and eventually as a psalmist at the Cathedral of Sioni.

On 25 January 1955, at the age of 26, he petitioned his superiors at church: "As I have been steadfast in my desire to serve the Holy Mother Church ever since childhood, I ask to be appointed an unsalaried deacon of the metropolitan cathedral (as I am a disabled person of group II). I also bring to your attention that I have been an altar servant and caretaker of the church for two years and acted as an assistant during worship services." A few days later, Vasiko was ordained a deacon.

Soon, he wrote a new petition to Bishop Gabriel of Kutaisi-Gaenata: "I have been drawn to monasticism from childhood, and therefore I humbly ask you to tonsure me to the small schema and give me a new name in honour of St Gabriel of Athos."

Hieromonk Gabriel (Urgebadze)

Hieromonk Gabriel (Urgebadze) on a photo from 1955 - 1965

Deacon Goderdzi Urgebadze was tonsured with the name Gabriel on 27 February 1955 at Motsameta monastery by the Bishop of Kutaisi-Gaenata. Three days later, Bishop Gabriel (Chachanidze) ordained him to the rank of hieromonk in St Peter and Paul Cathedral.

From the first day of his monastic life, the newly tonsured Gabriel dedicated himself to the service of the Lord and his neighbour illuminating God's love for all the people. With the blessing of Melchizedek III, he served in Sioni, and from 1960 at Bethania Monastery, together with his beloved spiritual teacher, Father George (Mkheidze) and Hieromonk Basil (Pirtskhalava).

Fr Gabriel never lost his vigilance. He was always proactive, and his exploits challenged the realm of human possibilities. He loved, rejoiced, and sympathized with others. He was vigorous in his condemnation of sin. He had zero tolerance for blasphemy, facetiousness, pride and cruelty, and he was unafraid to fight for a good cause single-handedly.

1 May 1965, celebrated across the Soviet Union as International Workers' Solidarity Day, he did something that shocked the whole country. Father Gabriel poured kerosene over the twenty-meter portrait of Lenin on the building of the Council of Ministers and set it on fire. For this act, he endured a beating from an angry mob. He suffered eighteen fractures and was delivered, barely alive, to a detention facility of the KGB, which charged him with anti-Soviet agitation. The officers who questioned him demanded a confession that he had been acting on the orders of the Church hierarchy. Father Gabriel refused, insisting that he was acting out of his conviction that only God was worthy to be glorified, but a mortal was not. No number of death threats and no amount of pressure could force him to change his story. It was almost like a confession of faith. "Why do you write 'Glory to Lenin?' No human being would want any such glory!” preached Gabriel. You should write: 'Glory to the Lord Jesus Christ, who has conquered death and given us eternal life.'

The only thing that spared Father Gabriel from a death sentence was his mental diagnosis. On 19 November 1965, Father Gabriel was discharged from a mental clinic and sent home, where he continued to build his church in his backyard.

When he completed his undertaking, news about the new church reached the Religious Affairs Commissioner. He summoned a high-level church hierarch to his office and told him to take the church apart without delay. They arrived at Father Gabriel's house. The commissioner waited outside as the hierarch entered the room where Gabriel was praying. He said, "Gabriel, my son! You have built a wonderful church with your own hands. But do not you know that we are living in difficult times? Listen, my son. Take it apart. Better times will come. The situation will change, and you will build the church again. Tell the commissioner that you will do as I say." Father Gabriel went outside, found the commissioner and said to him: "I will take the church apart."

After several days, Father Gabriel dismantled the front wall, moved it two meters forward and put it back up again, making the church even larger than before. He said, "I listened and did what I was told. Now that better times have come, I have rebuilt the church again." Since that day, nobody pestered Father Gabriel any more. Today, his beautiful church continues to please the eye of many faithful.

After being declared insane, Father Gabriel began to act as a fool for Christ. Feigning drunkenness, he would preach in the streets and public places.

In 1977, 44-year-old Metropolitan Ilia of Sukhumi and Abkhazia became the patriarch of Georgia. With his ascent to the throne, large numbers of intellectuals and academics were drawn to the Church. Simultaneously, the authorities’ oppressive powers weakened.

Archimandrite Gabriel (Urgebadze)

Archimandrite Gabriel (Urgebadze)

In 1971, Monk Gabriel received the blessing of Patriarch-Catholicos Ephraim II to serve as abbot of the women's monastery in Samtavro and rector of the seminary in Mtskheta, where St Nino began her exploits and established Georgia's first monastic community. He was also given a place to live, a chapel at Samtavro Monastery, which he now owned. Father Gabriel would often say, with sincere joy: "By the Grace of God and the Most Holy Mother of God, and with the blessing of the two patriarchs, I now have this cell."

Father Gabriel was a man of phenomenal courage. He was not afraid of anyone or anything. He had the daring to denounce presidents, ministers, armed men and bandits. He projected so much power that his opponents preferred to keep silent and retreat. Over time, the nature of this power was revealed to all: it was the power of his love and prayer, before which everybody bowed, and which could tame a sinful man and the most ferocious lion.

In October-November 1991, the political situation in Georgia deteriorated, and Monk Gabriel was one of the few who foresaw the misfortunes that were coming. He lamented: "I see Blood on Rustaveli Prospect! Blood! The blood of Georgians!" He also forewarned: "Woe to that monk or priest who lives and serves without compassion for his people."

"My cross is the whole of Georgia and half of Russia, where I have borne it for over forty years like Moses did," said Monk Gabriel in answer to the question: "What is your cross?" To everyone around, he was like an open window in which the image of the Saviour Himself could be seen. His whole life was ultimately a glorification of Christ.

Father Gabriel (Urgebadze)

Father Gabriel (Urgebadze)

Death and glorification

In his final years, Father Gabriel suffered from dropsy. A leg fracture aggravated his condition even more. He remained bedridden for the last eighteen months, up until his dying hour. Only rarely was he able to overcome severe pain to rise from his bed and sit outside the church. "Your life is my life. Unless you sacrifice yourself for your neighbour, you cannot expect anything good to happen," the elder used to say.

People will remember him for his hospitality. To everyone, he would offer food which he had cooked himself. When he could no longer cook, he asked his cell attendant, Mother Parascevi, or somebody else to prepare some food to feed his guests. In serving others, he always worked hard to reduce their distance from God and bring them as close as possible to Him. For dozens of years, he preached the love of God and the neighbour, repentance, humility and goodness to everyone who came his way.

In his final days, Monk Gabriel spoke only about love. Tearfully, he exhorted his parishioners: "Remember, God is love. Do as much good as you can so you could be saved through your goodness. Be humble, for God sheds his grace on the humble. Love one another, for without love no person will enter the doors of Paradise."

The elder died on 2 November 1995, after Bishop Daniel finished reading the prayers for the departure of the soul over him. His epitaph keeps the last line of his final word: "Truth lies in the immortality of the spirit."

The Venerable Gabriel of Samtavro

The Venerable Gabriel of Samtavro

The elder’s grave has continued to draw pilgrims and visitors to this day. Thousands have found healing when they invoked his name in their prayers over his grave. There is a picture of Father Gabriel in almost every Georgian family and institution, and even in public transport.

On 20 December 2012, the Synod of the Georgian Orthodox Church glorified Archimandrite Gabriel (Urgebadze) as a saint, and on 25 December 2014, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church included his name in the church calendar. His incorrupt relics were discovered on 22 February 2014. About 700,000 people have visited his grave to date. His lifetime prophecy that half of the Georgians would visit him has thus come true.

Georgians call him lovingly, "Mama Gabrieli" (translates as Father Gabriel). The flow of visitors to Samtavro (Mtskheta) monastery coming to visit his relics has not stopped to this day.

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Written by the obitel-minsk.ru team
Photos: the Internet

Material for this article was drawn from the following sources:
1. Inspired by the Holy Spirit: the Venerable Gabriel (Ujrebatadze) of Samtavria, a Wonderworker. Мoscow Publisher: IP Zakharov (Synopsis), IP Sushkov AV (St. Nicholas’ Feast), 2021
2. Father Gabriel’s Diadem. Nun Evfimia (Mshvenieradze). Saint Tikhon Orthodox Humanities University, 2019.
3. The Venerable Gabriel (Urgebadze). E-book. Available online at litres.ru

August 24, 2023
Views: 4063
Ratings: 5/5
Votes: 18

seraphima

Heaven sent...This is Just what I needed today, as we must sell our church or dismantle it,
Holy St Gabriel , pray to God for us!

Gloria and Sal

Poor souls in purgatory. Married couples. World leaders. Peace.
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