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Experience of mercy and diakonia in the person of St. Elizabeth Feodorovna


The history of Christianity is associated with the names of outstanding ascetics who chose the service of mercy as the goal of their life. Among them is St. Elizabeth Feodorovna Romanova who left a bright imprint on the history of the Russian State and Russian charitable work and who has become in the modern time a symbol of the revival of church diakonia.

Combined in her life were seemingly incompatible things. Ella of Darmstadt, the second daughter of Grand Duke Ludwig IV von Hessen-Darmstadt and Princess Alice, and a granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England, she became Russian Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, who came to love her new homeland with all her heart, selflessly served it and suffered martyrdom in it.

She was Lutheran by origin and was named after the Catholic St. Elizabeth of Thuringia who was canonized for her charity feats in the 13th century and whose example inspired the grand duchess through her life. She embraced Orthodoxy consciously, not as a duty, and later was canonized by the Orthodox Church.

In 1884, when she was preparing for marriage, Europe boasted two beauties - Elizabeth of Austria and Ella of Darmstadt. Her refined manners, charm and beauty made high society admire her. A few years later, however, she would take the vows of Sisters of the Cross, begin real monastic life and devote herself to the sick and the destitute.

This woman is a symbol of two epochs, namely, the late 19th- the early 20th century and the modern 'post-perestroika' era of the revival of church diakonia.

So, Princess Ella - Elizabeth of Darmstadt was born in 1864 in Darmstadt, a land of landgraves, kurfursts and later Dukes of Hessen and the Rhine, a land tied with Russia by long dynastic bonds. Four Princesses of Hessen-Darmstadt became part of the Russian and German history - Natalia Alexeyevna, the first wife of Grand Prince Paul Petrovich, later Emperor Paul I; Maria Alexandrovna, the wife of Alexander II and mother of Alexander III; Elizabeth Feodorovna, the wife of Grand Prince Sergey Alexandrovich; and, finally, Alexandra Feodorovna, the wife of Nicholas II.

In 1884, Princess Ella married Grand Prince Sergei Alexandrovich Romanov and was to live in Russia for 34 years. Seven years after the marriage, she embraced Orthodoxy and learnt Russian so well that spoke it almost without an accent.

She fully merged into high society and, as her high position required, was engaged in charitable work first in St. Petersburg and, after her husband was appointed Moscow governor general in 1891, in Moscow. In her husband's estate at Il'inskoye near Moscow, she did much to relieve the lot of local peasants.

A severe trial fell to the grand duchess's lot when her husband was assassinated by revolutionary I. Kalyaev in 1905, during the ordeals of war. This tragedy became a turning point in her life, as she began a new, lonely but extremely busy life, dedicating the rest of it to charity.

Elizabeth Feodorovna took part in 154 charities, contributing her own funds, helping to attract benefactors by using her high position in society and organizing numerous charitable, as they say today, find-raising events, such as fairs, lotteries, collections of offerings, etc. She herself established a great number of charities, patronized them and closely followed their work.

It is difficult to find a sphere of social service that would not be embraced by her patronage. Here is a list of her duties:

  • Honorary chair of the Moscow City School's house for fostering orphans of killed soldiers.
  • Chair of the Elizabethan High School for Girls.
  • Honorary member of the Russian Music Society and the Water Rescue Society.
  • Chair of the Palestine Society.
  • Patron of the Sivtsev Vrazhek Military Hospital, the committee for military hospitals, the committee for mobile churches and hospitals in Moscow, etc.

It is popularly accepted that her main creations were the Elizabethan Society and the Ss Martha and Mary Convent.

Foundation and activities of the Ss Martha and Mary Convent

In 1907, Elizabeth Feodorovna purchased a house and a plot of land in Bolshaya Ordynka Street and was busy establishing and developing a Ss Martha and Mary Convent of Mercy up to 1915, devoting to it most of her time and money.

On February 10, 1909, the Ss Martha and Mary Convent began its work. The grand duchess's appointment as its mother superior was approved.

The first sisters took the vows of obedience, non-possession and chastity without taking monastic vows and promised to do good works in the spirit of Christian love and care of the poor and the sick.

In 1910, there were 18 sisters in the convent; in 1913 they were 97. They received mandatory education in medicine and religion. First they began wearing special clothes and were initiated as 'Sisters of the Cross' in the rite created by Bishop Triphon of Dmitrov (Prince Turkestanov).

The work of the sisters consisted in support for the poor, the sick and those who suffer. The main area of their work was medical aid to the population, houses for children and care for the needy as well as religious education.

They served in the convent's free institutions: a hospital, an outpatient clinic, a chemistry, an orphanage, a Sunday school, a library, a sewing shop, a soup kitchen for the poor, a house for hectic women. The sisters visited doss-houses, clothed the homeless, provided them with shoes, treated them and got employment for the needy. They gave medical aid to mates of the notorious doss-houses of the Khitrovka market place and placed children in orphanages.

For the short time of its existence the convent managed to involve hundreds of young women in the work of charity and aid to thousands of those who suffered.

In speaking separately about the Martha and Mary convent's medical service, it should be mentioned that for their time it was an exemplary healthcare institution. From The Memorandum on the Aims and Tasks of the Martha and Mary Convent, which has been opened in Moscow, drafted by Elizabeth Feodorovna herself, it is known that the sisters' medical obedience consisted in the running the following:

  • a 25-bed hospital for poor women and children;
  • an 18-bed hospital asylum for hectic poor women;
  • an outpatient clinic for the poor with one surgical, two therapeutic and gynecological rooms;
  • chemistries.

From March 1901 to November 1910, the hospitals and the outpatient clinic provided free treatment with free medicines for 1500 poor people. The high level of the medical aid given in the hospital is testified by the fact that an effective laparotomy operation was performed on one of the Most High members of the Romanov Royal Family.

In addition to the hospital and the outpatient clinic, medical sisters worked in houses of low-income townsfolk. Along with medical aid, they did household work and took care of children substituting for the sick member of a family.

With the beginning of the Russian-Japanese war, Elizabeth Feodorovna organized a Special Committee for Aid to Soldiers. The committee ran a storage of offerings to soldiers at the Grand Kremlin Palace, which was used to prepare bandages, to sew clothes and to collect parcels.

Among the new types of charity was the free placement of the sick and wounded who came back from the war. In April 1905, from 1 to 3 trains came daily to Moscow carrying the wounded and the sick, up to 500-600 people each.

Elizabeth Feodorovna formed several hospital trains, opened a hospital for the wounded and organized special social security committees for widows and orphans of those who were killed in action.

During the First World War, she was actively involved in the assistance to the Russian Army including wounded soldiers. She also sought to help war prisoners who overcrowded hospitals and, as a result, was accused of complicity with the Germans.

In the convent, the grand duchess lived a life of an ascetic, sleeping on a wooden bed without a mattress, often no longer than three hours, eating quite moderately and holding strict fasts. During the night she got up for prayer and then made a round of all the hospital wards, sometimes staying at the bed of the critically ill till dawn. She herself nursed virtually doomed patients.

Throughout the ten years of her life in the convent, Elizabeth Feodorovna was its greatest benefactor; her donations amounted to 70% of all the contributions.

In order to become aware of the peculiarities of the status and work of the Martha and Mary Convent and its founder, it is necessary to consider the historical and social context of that time.

The 19th century saw a rapid development of public and private charity with women predominating it since charity was one of few spheres in which they could seek self-fulfillment without exceeding the limits of society's traditional regulations. With the introduction of a new education system and emergence of education institutions for girls from noble families, women began seeking active social work including in the sphere of private charity.

Charity soon became fashionable and an important role in it belonged to members of the royal family who gave much attention to it. The first step in that direction was made by Empress Maria Feodorovna, the wife of Paul I, who did much work in this area. All the subsequent empresses and grand duchesses took part in charitable work to this or that extent.

The Martha and Mary Convent was opened in 1909 when there already were other charitable convents in Russia. The first community of sisters of mercy was founded in March 1844 in St. Petersburg. Since 1873 it was called Community of the Holy Trinity and functioned till 1917. In 1848, the first community to appear in Moscow, that of St. Nicholas, was organized at the Police Hospital for the poor and homeless created through the efforts of Dr. F. Gaaz. Its sisters gained considerable popularity by their selfless aid to choleric patients during another epidemic in Moscow.

The communities of sisters of mercy were one of the first public organizations in Russia. Most of them were public and private charities. The Church was not their founder. Usually, they were governed solely by a directrix or collectively by a board of patrons.

The establishment of communities of sisters of mercy also became in fact a new stage in the development of Russian medicine. It was expressed not only in the emergence of a new medical occupation but also in a cardinal change in the attitude to the wounded.

What actually made the Martha and Mary Convent different from other contemporary communities? - First of all, its structure. Its statute combined two types of governance - personal and collective, with the leading role given to the mother superior and the supplementary one to a council.

Another important distinction is the sister of mercy status in the communities themselves. In most communities, sisters of mercy did not take any part in governance and were to show absolute obedience to their superiors. In case of leaving a community for the reasons of old age or sickness or another reason, they often lost even their title and the community was not obliged to help them. In the Martha and Mary Convent however, the greatest care was given to sisters as it did not abandon its workers in adversity and in any case took care of them to the rest of their lives.

As for the service of the communities, most of them were engaged exclusively in medical work without going into other spheres of charity. Elizabeth Feodorovna extended the scope of the convent's activities, actually placing no limitations on them.

Here is how Elizabeth Feodorovna herself explained this broad scale in her 1910 work report: 'All the forms of charity emerged at the convent of their own from requests for help asked with hope by the poor, the sick and the helpless who appealed to the convent daily. These appeals demanded that some should be visited at home so that the scale of the need could be seen at first hand and the necessary help could be determined, others should be treated and fed, still others should be rescued from the terrible situation in which they found themselves so that every Orthodox Christian could be given an opportunity to recover and learn elementary literacy and things that should be known. Coming with all possible help to those in need, the convent gradually discovered and broadened its service in hospitals, in schools and in mission, if one may say so, meaning by mission the service of the holy Church performed by sisters when they visit homes… not to see others' poverty, sometimes flagrant and terrible but to give consolation and show kindness by all possible means in the Christian spirit to a poor, sick and helpless one as the holy myrrh-bearing women and holy ascetic deaconesses did it reaching out to those who suffer or delude themselves, bringing them the joy of holy devotion… In Moscow alone, there are up to 100 thousand poor families and up to 40 thousand children who need to be taken care by society… For this reason sisters' visits of themselves become an inner mission, to which they are dedicated by taking the vows of service of the Lord and the holy Church; for to serve the salvation of a wrecked soul is a great task of Christian charity and its true image'.

In the late 19th - early 20th century, all the communities of mercy set themselves as their primary task to train sisters of mercy focusing on professionalism and leaving things spiritual to the Church. Elizabeth Feodorovna wished that her sisters might live all together behind a monastery fence and were distinct from other sisters of mercy by their capacity and spirituality. She wrote, indeed, 'they have the medical task alone, while other forms are not even touched upon. Secondly, they have no church organization, and spiritual life is secondary for them whereas it should be the other way round'.

Reflecting on the future order of the convent, she dreamt of turning it into a convent of deaconesses. The point is that in the 19th century, a number of church leaders repeatedly raised, even before the grand duchess did it, the problem of restoration of the Old Christian rank of deaconesses. Evidently, it was part of a broad discussion about the social service of women and their involvement in the internal mission of the Church.

Most of women's monasteries of that time were not engaged in any social or educational service, while communities of mercy, in the grand duchess's view, were too freethinking. She believed they had a defect in that much in them depended on the personal disposition of the superiors and sisters themselves, and 'all the energy is invested in practical training for nursing the sick and other forms of charity, with little awareness of the truth of the teaching of Christ the Saviour about sinful infirmities as causes of physical illnesses and every suffering and evil. For this reason, forgotten was also the way of true doctors revealed in the feats of holy healers and true sisters of mercy in their ministry of deaconesses'.

For this reason, she decided to create a cross between a convent and an institution of sisters of mercy, and in her Martha and Mary Convent gave room for both sisters who took the vows of obedience, celibacy and non-possession during their service in the convent and sisters who took or were preparing for taking the monastic vows. The idea of creating a convent with a strict monastic order but without taking the veil attracted young women and give them the right to choose either problem-free departure from the convent in case of marriage or taking the veil in the convent's hermitage, or taking the vow of obedience within its walls.

Elizabeth Feodorovna also exerted much effort to petition to the church authority to introduce the rank of deaconesses. However, she believed that out of the two categories of deaconesses - specially clad and ordained, it was appropriate to initiate precisely the specially clad deaconesses who would only receive a blessing for doing the works of mercy and keeping the obedience vows.

In 1911, the statute of the convent was approved. It stated as its principal aim to give help, through the work of sisters 'and other possible means, to the sick and the poor and give support and consolation in the spirit of the Orthodox Church of Christ to those who suffer and experience grief and affliction'.

The idea of the grand duchess took root and began growing in breadth and depth. For two years, similar convents emerged in all the major Russian cities.

In 1918, after the socialist revolution of 1917, Elizabeth Feodorovna refused to leave Russia. In summer 1918, she was put under arrest and exiled from Moscow to Perm. In May 1918, she together with other members of the Romanov family was transferred to Yekaterinburg and then to Alapaevsk. Together with other members of the royal family and her cell-attendant Sister Varvara, she was thrown down a mine at the outskirts of the city.

Three months later, after the city was occupied by Admiral V. Kolchak's troops, the bodies of the martyrs were extracted from the mine. Elizabeth Feodorovna's body remained partly uncorrupted. With great difficulties her friends took her body to the city of Chita and then to China, and in January 1921 she was buried at the church of St. Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem at the foot of the Mount of Olives - the place where she had wished to rest in peace.

Officially the Martha and Mary Convent was closed in 1918. The Cathedral of the Protecting Veil functioned till 1925.

In 1992, the Bishops' Council of the Russian Orthodox Church canonized Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna and Sister Varvara as honorable martyrs and they were included in the Synaxis of Russia's New Martyrs and Confessors. Earlier, in 1981, they were canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

There are several Orthodox convents and churches dedicated to the grand duchess in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.

The further fate of the Martha and Mary Convent

In our days, the traditions of charity laid by Elizabeth Feodorovna continue at the restored Martha and Mary Convent. In 1992, a decree was issued that the architectural complex of the convent be handed over to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Initially, the restoration work was carried out under the guidance of Archpriest Boris Guznyakov, rector of the church of Our Lady the Joy to All the Afflicted in Bolshaya Ordynka Street and dean of the Zamoskvorechie district. He organized a Martha and Mary Charity with the task to help restore the convent. Father Boris was the restorer and the first spiritual father of today's Martha and Mary Convent.

In 1993, the first sisters came to stay in it. Maria Nikolaevna Kryuchkova, her monastic name is Sister Elizabeth, became the first mother superior. In 2000, the convent was granted the status of Patriarchal Representation and in 2014 it was transformed into a stauropegial convent with a special way of life tracing back to that adopted by its founder, the Honorable Martyr Elizabeth.

As of the late 1999, there were some 40 novices; in 2005 - 11 nuns and over 100 sisters who worked with homeless and disabled children and orphans, disabled soldiers, refugees and the homeless. They visited hospitals and prisons attending to inmates, offering counseling at home and at the convent. They worked at the cardiology and reanimation wards and the burns center of the Sklifosovsky Medical Research Institute and ran their own home nursing service.

In 1996, the convent officially opened an orphanage. At different times there were from 12 to 20 children from six to twenty year old.

The sisters considered it especially important to resume the medical service, which began with the recreation of a charitable training center. In 1999, a section for training sisters of mercy with a 3-year curriculum and a separate dormitory was opened at a state medical college. Special attention was given to cultivating in students the qualities of compassionate love for the sick.

From the very beginning of the restoration of the convent, its work was organized on the basis of Elizabeth Feodorovna's statute. The model of convent she created as a cross between a convent and a sisterhood proved to be very relevant for our time.

Soon after the convent's resumption, its followers appeared in regions - Martha and Mary Sisterhoods based on the convent's statute. In the beginning of the 2000s there were 22 sisterhoods/convents.

In the convent there are an orphanage for girls, a cultural and educational center, a soup kitchen, a home nursing service, and a medical center called Miloserdie (Mercy). Today there are 12 girls from 2 to 17 years of age living in the orphanage. The Martha and Mary sisters run such social programs as daytime groups of disabled children, a center for placing orphans in families and a summer camp for disabled children. More details about the work of the convent are available on its site at http://www.mmom.ru.

Key to success of Elizabeth Feodorovna's activities

What is in the bottom of the success of Elizabeth Feodorovna's charitable work and her unrelenting popularity today?

Researchers believe that underlying her success was always her invariable personal involvement in all her pursuits. She personally controlled the funds and resources of not only the Martha and Mary Convent but also many other charitable bodies she patronized. She personally assisted in operations performed at the convent's hospital. She personally visited Khitrovka - Moscow's underworld with its population of the poor and criminals, to which even policemen were afraid to come.

Planning the work of her organizations, she took advanced actions foreseeing the course of events and needs. She took a thorough approach to everything she did, thinking out details and following the scheduled time.

She believed that financing was of no small importance for the success of a charitable project and arranged various events to raise as many as possible means for her initiatives.

This approach stemmed primarily from her personal qualities - outstanding organizational skills, developed feelings of justice and empathy, analytical thinking, thoroughness and the highest degree of moral responsibility for others.

Highly attractive and convincing is the image of the grand duchess herself as a representative of the royal house - a beauty and successful society woman and at the same time an active private initiator, organizer and benefactor who took the church vows of charitable service according to the rank of deaconess. She is an embodiment of the idea of integration of various forms of charity as well as a personality who managed to change the contemporary customary ideas of social service and charity and the role of women in church and society. In the modern time, St. Elizabeth has become a symbol of the revival of diakonia in Russia and after her canonization a heavenly patroness for all who work in this field.


  1. Kozlovtseva E.N. Moscow community of the Sisters of Charity in the second half of XIX - early XX centuries. Abstract of dissertation for a candidate degree in historical sciences. - M., 2006.
  2. Vorobiev S., Charitable activities of Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna Romanova, as an example of public service. Report. - M., Moscow State University, 2014.
  3. Belyakova E.V. Ecclesiastical Court and problems of church life. - M., 2004, 664 p.

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