At the very end of July, only four days apart, the Belarussian Orthodox Church commemorates two of the very first Russian Saints who happen to be related to each other - Saints Olga and Vladimir.
The date of St Olga’s birth is unknown. She could have been born anywhere between 890 and 925 in modern-day Pskov, a city in the northwest of Russia. As a young girl (she was around the age of fifteen), Olga married Igor - the Prince of Kiev. Later, she gave birth to their son, Sviatoslav.
Prince Igor died in 945 after being captured by the Drevlians - a neighboring tribe that wasn’t friendly with Kievan Rus'. Igor’s son was only three years old at that time. Because of this, Olga became the first woman to rule Russia.
The Primary Chronicle tells us about Queen Olga during the time of her reign. She planned and executed bloody revenge on the Drevlians. Her army killed most of the Drevlian people. We also know that as a ruler of Kievan Rus’, she changed the old system of tribute gathering and defended her city in 968 during the devastating Siege of Kiev, eventually passing the throne to her son.
In the 950s, Olga went to Constantinople and became interested in the Byzantine Empire’s religion, Christianity. She was baptized by the Emperor and received her Christian name, Helen. The Chronicles suggest that the Emperor of Constantinople Himself wanted to marry Olga, but couldn’t because, after baptism, she became his goddaughter. However, some historians agree that it might not have happened because the Emperor already had a wife.
After returning home, Olga tried to convert her son. Unfortunately, her attempt was unsuccessful. This is how it is explained in the Chronicles: “For to the infidels, the Christian faith is foolishness. They do not comprehend it because they walk in darkness and do not see the glory of God.”
Father Andrey preaching in front of the icon of Saints Vladimir and Olga
However, Olga managed to persuade Sviatoslav to never persecute the Christians of the Kievan Rus’.
According to the Chronicles, Olga died in 969 after battling a serious illness. She was named a Saint 600 years after her passing. Because of her influence, the Church recognizes her as Equal to the Apostles.
On the day of the Feast of Saint Olga (July 24 in the Belarussian Orthodox Church), we serve a festive Divine Liturgy and sing special hymns:
“Giving thy mind wings with the knowledge of God, thou didst soar beyond visible creatures, seeking the God and Creator of all things; and having found Him, thou didst receive rebirth by baptism. Since thou dost enjoy the Tree of Life, thou remainest incorrupt for all eternity, O ever-glorious Olga.” (Troparion of Olga, Equal to the Apostles)
Grand Prince Vladimir, St Olga’s grandson, was born in 958 and became the official Prince of Kiev in 980.
Prince Vladimir was a pagan in his childhood and youth, as was the majority of the population under his reign. Vladimir was a great conqueror. His goal was to expand his kingdom. He had many wives, just like his predecessors.
One day, he started questioning his paganism and thinking about the different religions that exist in the world. It was his decision to send his envoys to find out about the world’s religions and find the one true Faith.
St Vladimir’s envoys learned about Islam, but it seemed to them like there was no joy in this religion. Then they found out about Judaism but didn’t like it. Catholic Christianity didn’t impress them.
When they came to Constantinople and attended an Orthodox Divine Liturgy, they were shocked. They could not determine if they were still on Earth or already in Heaven.
They returned to Kiev and told Vladimir about Orthodoxy. The Prince was so impressed that he decided to be baptized almost immediately. He learned everything that he could about the Faith to be able to execute his big plan: he wanted to Christianize the Kievan Rus’.
He destroyed the pagan statues and places of worship and replaced them with Orthodox Christian Churches. He set an example for his people by creating a Christian family with one wife, and he raised his children in the Faith. In fact, two of his children ended up being Saints just like their father. They are the well-known, Boris and Gleb the Passion-Bearers.
It is because of St Vladimir (Basil in Baptism) that the Russian lands were introduced to Christianity. This is the reason why the Orthodox Christians venerate and love Saint Vladimir so much. Here at St Elisabeth Convent, we have a large icon of the saint, it is situated in our Church in Honour of the Reigning Icon of the Mother of God.
We always serve a festive Divine Liturgy on the day of the Feast of Saint Vladimir, which we celebrate on July 28. The celebration is always filled with prayers of thanksgiving and beautiful hymns like this one:
“Most glorious Vladimir, in your old age you imitated the great apostle Paul: He abandoned childish things, while you forsook the idolatry of your youth. Together with him you reached the fullness of divine wisdom: You were adorned with the purity of holy baptism. Now as you stand before Christ our Savior, pray that all Orthodox Christians may be saved.” (Kontakion of Holy Great Prince Vladimir Equal of the Apostles)
This year the women’s farmstead of Saint Elisabeth Convent celebrates its 10 year anniversary. It was established in 2011 in a former military base near Vishnyovka village, some 25 kilometres from Minsk.
The Great Lent starts on March 15 in the Belarusian Orthodox Church this year. The sisters of Saint Elisabeth Convent will embark on this journey to Easter by reading what the Church Fathers have said about the three pillars of Lent.