"SAINT ELISABETH THE NEW MARTYR"
The Life of the Holy Royal Martyr Saint Elisabeth (Elizabeth) Fedorovna Romanov.
Her journey to sainthood began in early childhood. She had a gentle heart and was a person of exceptional inner beauty and deep character. Many writers and painters have portrayed her in their works, but her inner beauty eluded all of them. Perhaps these lines from the Song of Songs (6:10) can do her full justice: “Who is this that appears like the dawn, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, majestic as the stars in procession?”
Despite her family’s high position, she knew great sorrows from an early age. Her three-year-old brother died tragically in 1873 before his mother's eyes. Three years later, a diphtheria epidemic broke out in her hometown Darmstadt, claiming the lives of her four-year-old sister and her mother.
She prayed for her family, relieved the grief of her father and replaced the loss of her younger sisters and brother as best she could. Her family’s tragedy opened her eyes to what it meant to live the way of the cross, putting her on the path to sanctity and salvation.
She became acquainted with her future husband in her early youth. His name was Sergey Romanov, a nephew of the Russian Tsar Nicholas II. His religiousness, kindness and concern for others impressed her greatly. She married him at 19 and moved with him to Russia.
It was a marriage of two kindred spirits, a warm and cordial union. Sergey Romanov was her window on Russia and her model of genuine faith and her spiritual mentor. She impressed the court with her brilliance. Everyone at the royal court admired her, and this was helping her husband.
Sergey Romanov never asked her to become Orthodox but met the news of her voluntary conversion with joy. She joined the Orthodox Church in 1891. This conversion formally marked what had been a journey of faith as the Grand Duchess embraced Russia, her culture and her people and loved them as she loved her husband.
Her marriage came to an end in 1905, when her husband died in a bomb attack at the hands of a radical revolutionary. Elisabeth found strength in her faith and visited her husband’s assassin in prison. She hoped he would repent, leaving in his cell the Gospel and an icon. She forgave Kalyaev wholeheartedly and asked the Russian Tsar for clemency towards him.
The loss of her husband brought fundamental changes to her life fundamentally.
She abandoned her social life and vowed to devote herself to the service of God and the Church. With her estate, she bought a house and a piece of land in Moscow to establish the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent.
In a way, it was a memorial to her husband. A relief on the Convent’s Church of the Protection shows two angels, representing Elisabeth Romanov and her late husband. “I am in heaven with Sergey,” she explained, meaning that her husband’s death had moved her to another world.
The Marfo-Mariinsky Convent she established cared for the earthly needs of the needy and destitute while also pursuing religious ministry among them.
Considering work to be the basis of religious life and prayer its reward, she concentrated on the needs of the poorest and the most disadvantaged by establishing a school, hospital and orphanage for the destitute residents of one of Khitrovka, one of Moscow’s most troubled suburbs.
Soon she extended the Convent’s ministry to widows, wounded soldiers and the unemployed of Moscow.
Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna’s Death
Her service as the abbess of the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent coincided with the time of revolutionary upheaval in Russian history. A bloody war, civic strife and violence were its hallmarks. People were looking for worldly justice, but their Christian faith weakened, and love was growing scarce. Their hearts hardened, and desperation grew.
With her service, Saint Elizabeth Romanov melted hardened hearts and planted the seeds of hope and forgiveness that overcame despair and hate. She observed the storm gathering around her without fear and looked to eternity. Predicting her martyrdom and the humiliation of the royal family, she said, "This will serve for their moral purification and bring them nearer to God".
She was so powerful in her humility that she managed to pacify even the most ardent revolutionaries. One radical socialist who visited the convent remarked, “perhaps we are headed for the same goal, only by different paths." "We are still unworthy of a martyr's crown," concluded the saint at the end of that visit.
But the martyr’s crown was not far away from her. In April 1918, Elisaveta Feodorovna was arrested and taken away to the Ural Mountains together with two sisters from her Convent - Varvara Yakovleva and Ekaterina Yanysheva. She spent the last months of her life in prison, in incessant prayer. Her accompanying sisters were offered release but chose to remain with her, and not even the threat of torture convinced them to change their minds.
On the night of 18 July, the Grand Duchess Elisaveta Feodorovna was thrown an old mine together with several other members of the Royal family.
When the executioners pushed her into the pit, she prayed for them, “Lord, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23; 34). The victims did not die immediately after the fall, and the executioners threw hand grenades to kill them. To the last minute of her life, Saint Elisabeth was alleviating the pain of her fellow sufferers. All died painful deaths from thirst, hunger and wounds. Eyewitnesses heard the chanting of the Cherubim’s Hymn for hours after the execution.
The relics of the martyrs were taken to the Holy Land and buried at the church of St. Mary Magdalene. In 1992, the Reverend Martyr Grand Duchess Elisabeth and Nun Barbara were glorified by the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Saint Elizabeth - notable quotes
Saint Elisabeth left a legacy of letters and writings that shed light on the motives of her actions and her relationships with others. Here is a selection of some of the best-known fragments pertaining to the most critical stages of her life.
Explaining the reasons for her conversion to the Orthodox faith. Saint Elisabeth wrote to her father in 1891:
"I took this step only out of deep faith and I feel that I must appear before God with a pure and believing heart. […] You say that the outward brilliance of the church fascinated me. In this you are wrong. Nothing external attracts me, and not worship - but the foundation of faith. External signs only remind me of the internal.”
In her letter, she asked for her father’s blessing for her conversion. The blessing never came, and she joined the Orthodox faith over the objections of her family.
Her newfound faith gave her the strength to survive the tragedy of her husband's death and find new meaning in her life. In a letter to Empress Maria Fedorovna in 1905, she writes:
“Violent shock [ from the death of her husband] I have been smoothed out by a small white cross placed at the spot where he died. The next evening I went there to pray and I was able to close my eyes and see this pure symbol of Christ. It was a great mercy, and then, in the evenings, before I go to bed, I say: "Good night!" - and I pray, and in my heart and soul I have peace.»
Finding peace in her heart, she dedicated herself to the service of God and took monastic tonsure. She explains the meaning of this move in a note to Tsar Nicholas II in 1909:
...For me, taking monastic vows is something more serious than marriage is for a young woman. I'm becoming engaged to Christ and his service. I give everything I have to him and my neighbour.
Where did find the courage not to despair in the terrible times of a revolution and the fall of the Russian empire? This extract from her correspondence gives us an understanding:
"Always be guided by your heart rather than by your head, and your life will be transformed. Happiness does not consist in living in a palace or enjoying a large fortune; these can be lost. True happiness is something that neither men nor events can take from you. You will find it in Faith, Hope and Charity. Try to make those around you happy, and you will be happy yourself.”
Saint Elisabeth looked to eternity. She believed in a great future for Russia. The epitaph on her grave at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in the Holy land reads:
“Holy Russia and the Orthodox Church, against which ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail,’ exists, and exists more fully than they ever have.”