St.Elisabeth: The Unfading Crown of Glory

Grand Princess Elisabeth... German by birth, raised Lutheran , Russian in spirit, canonized as one of the holy new martyrs and confessors of Russia. This saint has a special place in Russian history. Her image shines with incredible spiritual glory and moves the hearts of many people nowadays: her icons can be found in many Orthodox churches and not only in Russia, but Belarus and other countries worldwide.

St Elisabeth

The name Elisabeth means "she who venerates God". Indeed, pious veneration of God and love towards all things divine permeated the entire life of Saint Elisabeth. She possessed everything a person might dream of: noble birth, wealth, beauty, a loving family.  Nonetheless, grief, sorrow, and suffering entered her life. From the human point of view, the fate of Elisabeth Fyodorovna is quite tragic; on the other hand, the Divine Providence sent her on an unparalleled journey, filled with selfless ministry to the needy and the destitute, that led her to become a saint. What was so special about her life?

A German Princess

Elisabeth Alexandra Louise Alice (known as "Ella" within her family) of Hesse and the Rhine was born on November 1, 1864 in Darmstadt, the capital of the Grand Duchy of Hesse and by Rhine. She was the second of the seven children of Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse and the Rhine and Princess Alice of Great Britain and Ireland, the second daughter of Queen Victoria.

The young princess was named after St Elisabeth of Hungary, the
 founder of the House of Hesse who had lived in the 13th century and had devoted herself to deeds of mercy. Our St Elisabeth took after her mediaeval namesake in many respects. Despite being seven centuries apart, their biographies closely resemble one another. Moreover, recent research has shown that St Elisabeth of Hungary was linked to Russia, too: the mother of Béla III, the King of Hungary, her grandfather, was Euphrosyne, a sister of Izyaslav Mstislavich, the Prince of Kiev and a grandson of Prince Vladimir Monomakh. Ella venerated the holy patroness of Thuringia and Hesse, canonised by the Catholic Church, and  followed her example.

Ella’s parents helped the poor a lot. They spent a large portion of their wealth on charity. Grand Duke Ludwig IV was famous for his kindness; his wife, Princess Alice, was often called 'an Angel of a princess' because she helped everyone – the rich and the poor alike. The grateful residents of Darmstadt even erected a monument to her with donations coming from the city dwellers for whom Princess Alice had established several charitable societies, such as the first lyceum for women, a birth centre, a hospital, and many more.

For the young Ella, her mother was the first example of a believer

who fully devoted herself to serving people, a person who sticks to her chosen path and is determined to see her plans come about. Princess Alice tried very hard to pass her own convictions and ideals on to her children, teaching them to love their neighbors in the spirit of Christian commandments and to care for the unhappy and the impoverished. Her children would often accompany their mother to hospitals, shelters, nursing homes, where they did not just try to comfort the sufferers but also were effectively learning the basics of practical healthcare.

The Grand Duke and his wife wanted their heirs to be diligent and ready for difficult situations in life. That was why every day was built around a very rigid routine, traditional for the old England. They wore simple clothes and ate simple food. The older daughters did household chores and learned to do handicrafts.
Princess Alice died of diphtheria when Ella was twelve. After her mother’s death, the princess was raised and educated in Britain under the guardianship of Queen Victoria.

With regard to Ella’s personality, people would say that she had her head in the clouds even when she was a child. The girl always sought to help those in need; she did not blame anyone – on the contrary, she was eager to forgive their mistakes and shortcomings. She was a multi-talented child, fond of theology, painting, and music. Ella had a refined taste: she appreciated the beauty of nature, especially flowers. Later, when she arrived in Russia, she painted icons and embroidered church vestments, painted on porcelain, carved out pictures, collected fine arts.
Archbishop Anastasius (Gribanovsky) who often met Ella in Moscow, characterised her as “a rare combination of a noble Christian attitude, moral dignity, an enlightened mind, a tender heart, and a refined taste. She possessed an extremely delicate and versatile personality... Her personal traits were very well balanced to the extent that no one could call her biased in one way or another. Her rich talents were sharpened by a wide and multifaceted education, which not only corresponded to her intellectual and aesthetic requests but also enriched her with practical skills every woman had to have in her daily life.”

The Grand Princess

Princess Elisabeth was strikingly beautiful. Moreover, her physical attractiveness reflected her truehearted spirituality. She was special – unlike everybody else – and there was no photo that could accurately render this refined and elusive beauty. According to Archbishop Anastasius (Gribanovsky), “she carried the pure scent of a lily wherever she went; it may be the reason why she loved white so much: it was the colour of her heart.”

Soon enough Ella caught the eyes of the best suitors of Europe but she chose to marry Grand Prince Sergei Alexandrovich – Emperor Alexander II’s fifth son. Elisabeth got to know him very early, when the prince visited Germany with his mother – Russian Empress Maria Alexandrovna, née Princess of Darmstadt. Their wedding was held in June 1884. Ella was twenty at that time. Their marriage became an example of love and fidelity.
Ella’s entire family accompanied her to Russia. Her twelve-year-old sister Alice met her future husband and the would-be Emperor Nicholas II of Russia on that trip to Russia with her.
Everything was new for the Grand Princess in Russia: its language, the lifestyle of the Russians, and their Orthodox faith. She began learning the language of her new land, at the same time admiring its culture and faith.
Several years after the death of Empress Maria Alexandrovna, her sons built a breathtakingly beautiful church in Jerusalem in her memory. It was solemnly consecrated in honour of Saint Mary Magdalene in October 1888. Grand Prince Sergei Alexandrovich and his wife attended the ceremony. The splendour of the Holy Land, the remarkable architecture of the church surrounded by the Garden of Gethsemane, the closeness of holy places and solemn Orthodox worship made the soul of Elisabeth Fyodorovna tremble. “It’s like a dream – to be able to see all these places where our Lord suffered for our sake. At the same time, it is so comforting to visit Jerusalem,” she wrote to her grandmother Queen Victoria. “I am glad that… I can quietly pray, bringing to mind the things that I heard when I was a little child, when I embraced everything with immense awe.” It was here, in the Gethsemane, at the bottom of Mount of Olives, that the Grand Princess uttered, “How I want to be buried here!” Her desire came into reality thirty-three years later.
Ella’s husband – a profoundly religious man – greatly influenced her spiritual life. According to the laws of the Russian Empire, the Grand Princess was entitled not to change her faith but she was growing more and more inclined to become Orthodox, especially after her visit to the Holy Land. She converted to Orthodoxy on the eve of Easter in 1891, guided (as Patriarch Kirill of Moscow put it) “by her own will, not external pressure, the circumstances of her life, or the outward grandeur of the Orthodox worship – as her father would sometimes surmise – but by a clear understanding of the fact that her religious feelings would be realised and bring fruit easier and with a greater intensity in the Orthodox Church. That was why she became Orthodox without consent of her father.” Her contemporaries attest that her conversion was sincere, profound, and wholehearted.

The First Lady of Moscow

Grand Prince Sergei Alexandrovich was appointed the Governor General of Moscow. His new status obliged him to organise public entertainment, dance at balls, go to concerts; however, this did not stop Elisabeth Fyodorovna from doing charitable work. She visits hospitals for the poor, alms-houses, and orphanages. Wherever she come, she tried to alleviate the suffering by giving alms, food, and her attention to the needy. In her opinion, “Happiness isn’t about living in a palace and being wealthy. You can lose everything at once… Try to make people around you happy, and you will be happy, too.”

A list of charities founded by the Grand Princess is an exhaustive
one, even if we name only the most spectacular ones, such as the Charitable Fellowship of HIH Elisabeth. It supported nine thousand children in the twenty-five years of its operation.
Elisabeth Fyodorovna paid much attention to culture: she took care of museums, art, music, and theatrical institutions. It was thanks to her polished taste and her gift for spotting the beauty around her, which were also demonstrated by the way she dressed: she always wore elegant and impeccable clothes. Who could guess that this brilliant beauty would become a humble abbess of a convent of mercy?!

She spent a lot of time going on pilgrimages. The Grand Princess visited the holy places of Russia for over thirty years. She also took part in events related to canonisations of new saints. Thus, she actively backed up and later participated in the translation of the relics of St Euphrosinia of Polotsk, a great Belarusian saint, from Kiev to Polotsk in 1910.

Her sister, Princess Alice, married the heir to the Russian throne Nicholas Alexandrovich in 1894. Soon after that, her sister was crowned together with her husband.
Elisabeth Fyodorovna endeavoured to help the army during the Russian-Japanese war. Almost the entire Kremlin Palace was occupied by workshops where thousands of female workers prepared parcels with food, clothes, and medicines for soldiers. Apart from that, the Grand Princess organised a hospital for the wounded in Moscow and special committees to support the widows and orphans of the soldiers and officers.
This period in the life of the Russian Empire was marked by growing social and political unrest, unprecedented spread of terrorist attacks, mass rallies, and strikes - the tragic 1917 was near.

Husband's Death

Sergei Alexandrovich was murdered with a bomb thrown by Ivan Kalyayev near the Kremlin walls on February 4, 1905. The shocked Grand Princess saw the bloody mess out of her husband's body. She did not go mad, she did not scream nor throw a fit of hysteria: instead, she knelt and started gathering the scattered parts of her husband's body into stretchers.
The immense spiritual power of this woman was demonstrated when she met Ivan Kalyayev in jail and urged him to repent. He refused, although the Grand Princess forgave him and even asked the Emperor to pardon him.

Elisabeth Fyodorovna did not stop her public ministry when her husband died. On the contrary, she took over many of her late husband's duties in organisations that he had supervised. In particular, she was actively involved in the activities of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society. It was thanks to her efforts, that a mission with a church for Russian pilgrims were built in Bari, Italy, where the relics of St Nicholas lay, as well as a big guest house in Jerusalem. The Grand Princess managed to channel budget money into supporting 101 schools of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society in Syria and Lebanon, where eleven thousand Arab children received education annually. Russian hospitals and outpatient clinics provided free medical care to tens of thousands of patients.
Since her husband's death, Elisabeth Fyodorovna wore mourning; she did not attend public events; she fasted and prayed a lot. Her bedroom in Nicholas Palace now resembled a nun's cell - she had all luxurious items removed.
The day of her husband's assassination was a utterly tragic day in the life of Elisabeth Fyodorovna; at the same time it was the day when the majestic princess of high society died and a devoted champion of mercy and a Russian Orthodox saint was born.

SS Martha and Mary Convent of Mercy

We do not know exactly when and how the Grand Princess decided
to establish a convent of mercy. She saw the ministry of the diligent Martha and the prayerful Mary, the sisters of St Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead, as its prototype. Archbishop Anastasius wrote that she was guided by the following principle: "You must be not of this world but at the same time live and act within this world in order to transform it."

Elisabeth Fyodorovna bought an estate on Bolshaya Ordynka in Moscow for the future Martha and Mary Convent. It consisted of four houses and a garden. It was here that service spaces, a church, a hospital, a pharmacy, an outpatient clinic, a school for orphan girls, and a library were situated. Later, another architectural masterpiece - a church in honor of the Holy Protection of the Mother of God -  was built nearby.

The Very Reverend Triphon (Turkestanov), bp. of Dmitrov, professed eighteen sisters of the convent, including Elisabeth Fyodorovna, into the rank of sisters of love and mercy on April 9, 1910. The Grand Princess told her sisters, "I abandon the splendid world where I had a brilliant status. Together with all of you I ascend to a greater world - that of the poor and the suffering."

The convent, its churches, worship and daily life impressed its contemporaries. Apart from the spiritual father of the convent, the Rev Metrophan Serebryansky, other distinguished priests from Moscow and other Russian cities and towns served and preached here. Not only the churches were wonderful; the park with flowerbeds and the orchards were magnificent, too. "Everything that the Grand Princess did was marked by elegance and exquisiteness - not because she stressed its importance but because it came as natural for her creative mind." (The Most Rev Anastasius) 

The efforts of a feeble woman who faced the turbulent sea of political and social turmoil that gradually swallowed up Moscow and Russia were enough to create SS Martha and Mary Convent - this amazing domain of practical Christian love, mercy, and beauty.
The life of the abbess was extremely ascetic, selfless, stretching the limits of the impossible. She slept for about three hours every night on a wooden bed without a mattress. She would fast very strictly. Every morning, she would get up and pray, and then distribute the chores among the sisters, work in the clinic, receive guests, and deal with the post.

She would do a hospital round in the evening. After this, she would go to church and pray. If a seriously ill person needed help, she would sit by his or her bed till dawn. She assisted doctors during surgeries and bandaged wounds. Abbess Elisabeth found comforting words for everyone, trying to alleviate the patients' suffering. Moreover, they said that her very presence was a remedy. Elisabeth Fyodorovna would often repeat, "Is it hard to pay some attention to a grief-stricken person: say a kind word to a person who is hurt, smile to a distressed person, defend someone who is offended, reconcile those who quarrel, give alms to a needy person? All these easy actions bring us closer to the Heaven and to God himself, if only we do them with prayer and love."
It wasn't surprising, then, that people began calling the abbess of SS Martha and Mary Convent a saint when she was still alive. Many people would make the sign of the cross and bow when they met her; they also kissed her hands and her garments. Indeed, the kindness and patience of the holy abbess worked miracles. Thus, a woman with severe burns was admitted to Martha and Mary
hospital one day. Her entire body was one big wound, a gangrene started; there was literally no chance of rescuing her. The Grand Princess started to look after the dying woman, and an incredible miracle happened: the woman survived and her wounds healed.
SS Martha and Mary Convent became famous all over Russia in the nine years of its existence; its hospital was considered to be the best one. The most experienced doctors worked here; all surgeries were free. They did not hesitate even to deal with hopeless cases; the healed patients would weep when they had to leave the convent of the Great Matushka - that was how they called the abbess.

At first, there were six people close to the Grand Princess' way of thinking who worked with her; by 1918, there were 105 such people. All sisters of the convent studied the basic medical skills and knew how to look after the patients. However, Elisabeth Fyodorovna paid attention not only to the hospital, but also to helping the needy. She founded residential homes for orphans, the less able, and the terminally ill. She paid multiple visits to all these facilities with her sisters, rendering material and spiritual assistance to the distressed. The convent would receive over ten thousand petitions every year; none of them was left without a reply.

The Great Matushka paid special attention to Khitrov Marketplace. She was not afraid of the fact that her life was in danger whenever she went there; she was not repelled by the dirt and by having to talk with people who had lost human image. She, her cell attendant Barbara Yakovleva, and other sisters visited the most notorious places and gathered children who lived in Khitrovka, eager to provide good education to them. All residents of the marketplace respected Abbess Elisabeth, even though the police warned her that they could not defend her if anything wrong happened. The Grand Princess would always reply in a calm voice that her life belongs not to herself but to God.
Her contemporaries mentioned her incredible spiritual beauty. Georges Maurice Paléologue, the French ambassador to Russia in 1914-15, wrote: "In spite of the fact that she is about 50, she has retained her gracefulness and slenderness. She is as elegant and lovely under her flying white woolen veil as she used to be before her widowhood… Her face… is strikingly lively. Refined traits, pale skin, profound and distant life of her eyes, the tenderness of her voice, a reflection of light on her forehead — all that discloses her permanent connection with the unspeakable and divine."

The First World War made the Grand Princess work even more: she had to care for the wounded in military hospitals. Some sisters of the convent were sent to work in field hospitals.

Now, it was the fateful year 1917. In the spring of that year, on behalf of Wilhelm II, the German Emperor, a Swedish minister suggested the Grand Princess to leave the Russian Empire. She refused. A year later, the German ambassador on behalf of his government made two attempts at organizing her evacuation from Russia, but Elisabeth Fyodorovna was adamant in her decision to share the fate of the country she considered to be her new homeland. She could not be aware of the trials that awaited her in the future but she was ready for everything in the Name of the Lord whom she loved with all her heart and all her thoughts: "I accepted my fate not as a cross but as a road full of light."

The Unfading Crown of Glory

The authorities did not intervene in the life of Martha and Mary Convent immediately after the October Revolution. Nevertheless, this silence was delusive. Tikhon, the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, visited the convent on the third day of Easter in 1918. He celebrated a service and had a long talk with the abbess and the sisters. On his leaving the convent, the abbess was arrested. Seeing her off, everyone cried: they knew she was unlikely to return. In spite of Patriarch's intercession, his efforts were futile: all members of the royal family were doomed.

Elisabeth Fyodorovna spent the last months of her life in prison on the outskirts of Alapayevsk together with Grand Prince Sergei Mikhailovich, his secretary Fyodor Remez, John, Constantine, and Igor (three brothers, sons of Grand Prince Konstantin Konstantinovich), Prince Vladimir Paley and her faithful cell attendant Barbara Yakovleva. Mother Superior knew her end was near, so she prayed incessantly.

Late at night on July 18, 1918, Elisabeth Fyodorovna and other members of the Romanov family were thrown into an old mine shaft alive. During that wicked crime she constantly repeated the words, which the Savior of the world had uttered on the Cross: "Lord forgive them for they know not what they are doing." In an attempt to hide their cruel crime and bury the bodies, the Cheka officers threw several grenades into the mine shaft…

St Elisabeth & St Barbara

However, moans and prayers could be heard from under the surface of the earth for as long as two days. The prisoners were dying slowly, in terrible pain from thirst, hunger, and wounds.
When the White Army regained control over Alapayevsk, the martyrs' bodies were taken out of the mineshaft. Forensic experts confirmed that some of them had remained alive for several days. The experts were impressed by what Elisabeth Fyodorovna had done. Her body lay on a small ledge 50 feet deep, and the remains of Prince John Konstantinovich lay nearby. His head was bandaged. The dying Great Matushka who suffered from pain and thirst did not betray the cause she upheld for her entire life and continued to act out of compassion, eager to comfort and mitigate her neighbour's suffering.


The remains of the Abbess of Martha and Mary Convent and her faithful cell attendant were brought to Beijing in 1920. A year thereafter, thanks to the efforts of Princess Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg (Elisabeth's sister), her relics were brought to Jerusalem and buried in the undercroft of St Mary Magdalene Church.

Just before the canonisation of the New Martyrs of Russia by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in 1981, their coffins were opened. When they opened the coffin of the Grand Princess, everyone at that place could feel a strong, sweet and fragrant smell of honey and jasmine. The relics of the New Martyrs Elisabeth and Barbara turned out to be partially incorrupt. They were solemnly moved to the church of St Mary Magdalene. Currently, their relics lie near the sanctuary, so everyone can see and venerate them.
The Russian Orthodox Church canonised the Grand Princess
Elisabeth and Nun Barbara in 1992. They are commemorated by the Church on July 18.
The relics of Saint Elisabeth were brought from Jerusalem to Russia for half a year in 2004 - the 140th anniversary of the Grand Princess Elisabeth's birth and the 95th anniversary since Martha and Mary Convent was founded. Thousands of believers from the CIS and Baltic states had the opportunity to venerate the incorrupt relics of the German princess turned a Russian saint, who had loved Russia with all her heart and had done so much for her people.

People in Alapayevsk venerate the Grand Princess, too. There is a monastery in honour of the New Martyrs of Russia near the mineshaft where Elisabeth Fyodorovna and those with her had suffered.
The memory of this favourite Russian saint was honoured in England, as well. 

Statues of ten 20th century martyrs were unveiled in London on the western wall of Westminster Abbey in 1998. One of these martyrs was Elisabeth Fyodorovna — the granddaughter of the British Queen Victoria, the Grand Princess of the Russian Empire, and the Great Matushka.

Monasteries and churches in many countries of Europe are named in her honour. Thus, a sisterhood and a convent in honour of the Holy Martyr Elisabeth operate in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. In fact, this community is one of the largest Christian charities in the country. Numerous public and ecclesiastical organisations revive and continue the traditions of missionary, educational, and charitable work of Elisabeth Fyodorovna.

She who, as Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia put it, "abandoned palaces and moved to a monastic cell, putting all her skills, connections, appeal, diplomacy to the service of the most abandoned and needy people," deserves our admiration and pious veneration, doesn't she?