Grand Duchess Elisabeth was born in 1864 in Germany into a Protestant family of Grand Duke Louis IV of Hesse-Darmstadt and Princess Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria of England.
The children were raised in the old English tradition of strictness and austerity that their mother upheld. The life of the family was firmly grounded on the Christian commandments. The children were taught from an early age to love their neighbour and have mercy for those in need.
Elisabeth Feodorovna in childhood with her family
Elizabeth’s parents donated a large portion of their income and assets towards charity. The children always accompanied their mother on her numerous visits to hospitals and orphanages.
Everyone who knew Duchess Elisabeth in childhood admired her for her exceptional piety and generosity. As Elisabeth herself would later say, she had been inspired ever since her childhood by the life and works of Saint Elizabeth of Thuringia, in whose honour she was named.
Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna
In 1884, at 20 years of age, she married Grand Duke Sergey Romanov, son of the Russian Tsar Alexander II.
Grand Duchess Elisabeth made a great effort to learn the language of her new homeland and to educate herself about its culture, and especially its religion. Her husband Sergey Alexandrovitch was a god-fearing man who always followed the religious canons, observed the fasts, attended church services and visited monasteries. His wife accompanied him on all his visits and stood at the worship services, no matter how long they would be.
In 1888, Emperor Alexander III appointed Sergey Alexandrovitch to represent him at the consecration of the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. Duke Sergey Romanov had already visited the Holy Land in 1881, as a founder of the Orthodox Association in Palestine of which he became president.
In October 1888 Grand Duke Sergey departed for Palestine in the company of his wife. The Church of Saint Mary Magdalene stood in the garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Enthralled by this beauty and the divine grace of the location, the Grand Duchess exclaimed: "How I would like to be laid to rest here when I die". Little did she know then how prophetic her words would turn out to be.
After the visit to the Holy Land, Grand Duchess Elisabeth made a resolute decision to convert to the Orthodox faith. In January 1891 she wrote to her father: “I convert of my own will. I find the Orthodox faith to be the most superior, and I embrace it wholeheartedly, with full confidence and deep belief that I have God’s blessing for my conversion."
In April 1891, on Lazarus Saturday, the sacrament of baptism was performed on the Grand Duchess Elisabeth. From that moment on, she could rightfully apply to herself the words of the biblical verse: “Your people have become my people and your God, my God" (Ruth 1:16).
That same year, Emperor Alexander III appointed the Grand Duke Serge Governor-General of Moscow. For Grand Duchess Elisabeth, this meant having to accept and fulfil a number of additional public functions, such as accompanying her husband to official receptions and other social engagements. Soon after Duchess Elisabeth moved to Moscow with her husband, her father died. It took her a long time to come to terms with her bereavement. For her, this was a period of great spiritual transformation.
Grand Duchess Elisabeth with her husband Grand Duke Sergey Romanov
The people of Moscow soon came to appreciate her magnanimity, kindness and generosity. Grand Duchess Elisabeth made frequent visits to hospitals, almshouses and orphanages. She did her utmost to help the needy and alleviate their plight by distributing food and clothing, donating money and working to improve their living conditions.
When the Russo-Japanese War broke out, the Grand Duchess Elisabeth took charge of the initiative to aid the soldiers on the frontline and their families. Donations were coming in from all over Moscow and the provinces. She oversaw the shipment and delivery of supplies, equipment, medicines and presents for the soldiers. She set up an infirmary for the wounded in Moscow and established committees for aiding war widows and orphans.
Her life changed dramatically when her husband was assassinated in February 1905 by a radical revolutionary.
After the death of her husband, Grand Duchess Elisabeth went into mourning. She spent most of her time in prayer and observed a strict fast. His room resembled a monastic cell. From then on, nothing connected her to the high society to which she used to belong.
She resolved to dedicate her life to the Lord, to serve Him by helping others, and to establish a philanthropic community of monastics in Moscow. To this end, she procured a property with four houses and a large garden. The community, named in honour of Sts. Martha and Mary, had two churches, that of Sts. Martha and Mary and that of the Protection of the Mother of God. There was a functioning hospital, a pharmacy that distributed free medicines to the poor, an orphanage and a school.
Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna as a nun after her husband's death
The monastery became active in February 1909. In April 1910, the first sisters were tonsured, and Grand Duchess Elisabeth became its Mother Superior. Grand Duchess Elisabeth wrote: “I am leaving behind lustrous high society... and I am entering, together with you, a greater world, by dedicating my life to helping the poor and the needy."
The naming of the monastery in honour of the women myrrh bearers was truly symbolic. The monastery was conceived in the hope that it would become like the house of Holy Lazarus where our Saviour stayed multiple times. The monastic sisters were called upon to aspire to the noble destiny of St. Mary, heartened by the words of our Saviour about a life eternal, and following the example of Martha, who was serving God by helping the least of His brothers and sisters.
The convent of Sts. Martha and Mary was established as a cenobitic monastery. Archpriest Mitrofan Serebryansky took overall responsibility for guiding the life and works of the monastic sisters as the Spiritual Father of the monastery. The sisters were instructed that their mission went beyond providing nursing care, but that it was also to give spiritual guidance to the fallen, the abandoned, and the desperate.
Grand Duchess Elisabeth was setting an example of living an ascetic life. She slept on a wooden bed without a mattress, observed strict fasts, and ate nothing but vegetarian foods. After the morning prayer, she assigned the obediences to the sisters for the day. Throughout the day, she worked in the hospital, received visitors, examined requests and answered letters. In the evening, she inspected the hospital, staying there until midnight. During the night, Mother Elisabeth prayed at the church or in the chapel. She rarely slept more than three hours. At the hospital, she performed some of the most difficult tasks and responsibilities. She assisted at operations, applied wound dressings, and comforted those in pain.
She set up courses for the sisters to acquire and deepen their medical knowledge and skills. One of the sisters’ most important tasks was to visit the sick and the destitute and orphaned children and provide them with material, medical and spiritual support.
Of special concern to Grand Duchess Elisabeth was the life of the poorest of the poor inhabiting some of the most desolate places in Moscow such as Khitrov market. Accompanied by Sister Barbara Yakovleva, Duchess Elisabeth Fiodorovna travelled to such areas frequently. She went from one place to another to convince the street children to accept shelter at the convent, and to ask parents to send their children to the Convent’s school.
Helping the children of Khitrov market was her special priority. She could not be stopped by foul language or unsavoury remarks, or the sight of people who seemed to have lost all human dignity. “The image of God in a person may be obscured, but it can never be wiped out," she used to say.
Duchess Elisabeth established orphanages for abandoned children and almshouses for the disabled and seriously ill; she always found time to visit the residents of these institutions, bring them presents and support them financially.
Elisabeth Feodorovna in the hospital
Duchess Elisabeth was hopeful that the Monastery of Sts. Martha and Mary would grow like a large fruit-bearing tree, and chapters would be opened throughout the Russian provinces to do works of charity for the people.
The start of World War 1 made life for the Grand Duchess and her Convent even busier, as the hospital began to take growing numbers of soldiers and civilians wounded in the war. Some of the sisters had to be released to work at the field hospitals on the frontline.
The abdication of the throne by Emperor Nicholas II came as a great shock for Grand Duchess Elisabeth. She saw Russia sliding into an abyss, but she felt powerless to stop it. Her heart was filled with grief for her homeland, the Russian people and the royal family.
In her letters at that time, Duchess Elisabeth wrote: "I have deep pity for Russia and its children who do not know what they are doing. But do we not love our children a hundred times more when they are ill than when they are in good health? There is nothing we will not do at these moments to bring them relief. Holy Russia will not die. But Great Russia is no longer there. We must direct our thoughts towards the Kingdom of Heaven and say with submission: May Thy will be done.
Two days after Easter, on the Tuesday of Renewing in April 1918, the Bolsheviks came to arrest Duchess Elisabeth. Sisters Barbara and Catherine went with her. In May, she was brought to the Siberian city of Alapayevsk. Prince Sergey, his secretary Fiodor Réméz, and Princes John, Constantine, Igor, and Vladimir Palei had also been delivered there. The sisters who accompanied Elisabeth were released, but Sister Barbara obtained permission to stay with the Grand Duchess.
On the night of July 5 (18), 1918, the Grand Duchess Elisabeth and Sister Barbara and other members of the imperial family were thrown into an old abandoned mine near Alapayevsk. As the executioners pushed Mother Elisabeth into the black well, she was saying the prayer: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). Then they began to throw grenades. One of the peasants who witnessed the murder heard the singing of the cherub hymn coming from the mine. That was the singing of the new Russian Martyrs as they departed into eternity. The Grand Duchess Elisabeth fell on a ledge 15 metres below the ground. Next to her, the body of Prince John was found with a bandage on his head. Despite her deadly wounds, Duchess Elisabeth was still taking care of the prince trying to relieve his pain.
In 1920, the remains of the founder of the Monastery of Sts. Martha and Mary and those of Sister Barbara were taken to Jerusalem and laid to rest in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives.
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