The Relics of St Elisabeth
The Relics of St Elisabeth
Troparion, Tone 2
In that meekness, humility, and love, which made their abode in thy soul, thou didst diligently minister to the suffering, O holy Passion-bearer Princess Elisabeth; and with faith didst endure suffering and death for Christ with the Martyr Barbara. With her do thou pray for all who honour thee with love!
Kontakion, Tone 4
Taking up the Cross of Christ, thou didst pass from royal glory to the glory of heaven, praying for thine enemies, O holy Martyr Princess Elisabeth; and with the Martyr Barbara thou didst find everlasting joy. Therefore, pray ye on behalf of our souls!
The life of St Elisabeth is one focused on the love of neighbour and merciful service to the poor and outcast of society. For St Elisabeth, acts of mercy and the proclamation of the Gospel were inseparable.
St Elisabeth was born in 1864, the second of seven children. She was the daughter of Ludwig IV, Grand-Duke of Hessen-Darmstadt and Princess Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria. In 1884, at the age of nineteen, Elisabeth married the Grand Duke Sergei, the son of Emperor Alexander II of Russia.
After two years of study and prayer, Elisabeth chose by conviction to become an Orthodox Christian. She was received into the Faith on the eve of Holy Week in 1891. Of her entire family, only her grandmother, Queen Victoria, offered encouragement and support.
That same year, her husband was appointed Governor of Moscow. Himself a devout Christian, Sergei actively supported the Russian Orthodox Mission in Palestine, building schools, orphanages, and churches and providing aid and support for Arab Christians. Elisabeth also devoted herself to charitable work, caring, in particular, for victims of war. They continued this way happily for 14 years. Then, in 1905, while leaving her home for work, Elisabeth heard a loud explosion. Her husband had been murdered in a political assassination.
The shock of the murder caused a profound change in Elisabeth. On the day of his funeral, she arranged free meals for the poor and homeless of Moscow. She frequently visited her husband's assassin in prison and even brought him a copy of the Bible. As expected, the government pressed for a speedy execution. Elisabeth passionately defended the killer's life, pleading for mercy from the authorities. Eventually she lost this struggle and her husband's assassin was executed. Soon afterwards, Elisabeth abandoned her royal title and withdrew from social life, drawing public criticism and the disapproval of her friends. Using her wealth and personal resources, she purchased a home and a large piece of land in Moscow, where she established a community dedicated to Ss Martha and Mary.
Elisabeth wanted her new community to reflect the table fellowship and hospitality of the home of Martha and Mary, which was visited by Christ in the New Testament, and where our Lord shared a meal with their brother Lazarus. Women from all classes joined Elisabeth, devoting their lives to the sick and to the poor and becoming surrogate mothers for the street children of Moscow. Like the great deaconess, St Olympia (who was also a widow), Elisabeth gave all her wealth to Christian charity. She established a rent-free hostel for female workers and students, a free hospital, a clinic, a school for nurses, a library and a soup kitchen. She had hoped that her ministry might help to revive the ancient vocation of deaconess: women ordained for merciful service.
As in the case of St John Chrysostom, Elisabeth faced powerful opposition both from the government and church authorities. Responding to public criticism of her new social ministry, Elisabeth wrote,
'This is no new creation or concept; neither do I depart from the Church traditions. I only repeat what the Church teaches; for it is Christ who said, "Love your neighbour", and the divine Theologian who thundered, "If you do not love the brother whom you see, how will you be able to love God whom you do not see?"'
In 1909, Elisabeth's community was formally established as the Convent of Mercy of St Martha and St Mary. That day, Elisabeth addressed her companions,
'I am leaving the brilliant world where I occupied a high position, and now, together with all of you, I am about to ascend into a much greater world, the world of the poor and afflicted'.
Elisabeth and the other sisters visited the sick, did housework for struggling families and took care of abandoned children, visiting the poorest and most dangerous parts of Moscow. She took Sergei's place as president of the Russian Palestine Society, continuing his ministry to Palestinian Christians and looking after the needs of Russian pilgrims to the Middle East. Elisabeth also established a community garden for children on the convent grounds. Writing of her ministry in a letter to Tsar (later Saint,) Nicholas, she said, 'I am espousing Christ and His cause. I am giving all I can to Him and to our neighbours'. In 1910, Elisabeth was made Abbess of the Convent, which by then was home to 45 sisters.
When the Revolution came in 1917, Abbess Elisabeth continued to live as before, boldly preaching the Gospel in Moscow, attending church services, nursing the sick and caring for the poor. She turned down the offer of a Swedish Cabinet minister to leave Russia, saying that she wished to share the destiny of her country and its people. At first ignored by the Bolshevik regime, on the third day of Pascha in 1918, the Abbess Elisabeth was ordered to leave Moscow. That same day, Elisabeth had shared her last visit with St Tikhon. Almost immediately after he left the convent, a car with commissars and Red Army soldiers came to arrest her. Escorted by the guards, she was taken to the town of Alapayevsk where she was imprisoned together with two nuns, Catherine and Barbara. From her cell she wrote letters of encouragement to the sisters in Moscow:
Remember everything I told you, my dears. Always be not only my children, but obedient disciples. Keep together and be like one soul - everything for God - and say like St John Chrysostom, as he was sent into exile: "Glory to God for all things!" I live in the hope of being with you again soon and I want to find you all together. Apart from the Gospels, read the letters of the Apostle, together.
The Lord has found that it is time for us to bear His cross...blessed be the name of the Lord.
Elisabeth and her companions were imprisoned in Alapayevsk on 20th May, 1918, until the fateful night of 18th July. It was the Feast Day of St Sergius of Radonezh, her husband's Name Day. That night, Elisabeth and Barbara were murdered, along with five members of the Imperial Family and their secretary. The sisters were blindfolded, beaten and thrown alive into a mine-shaft along with the others. Elisabeth was the first to be thrown in. As the soldiers mocked Elisabeth and beat her, she repeated the prayer of Christ, 'Father, forgive them, they know not what they do'. This was also the inscription engraved on the cross she planted at the site of her husband's murder. After pushing their victims in, the soldiers tossed hand grenades down the mine. Like the early Christian Martyrs, Elisabeth, mortally wounded, was heard praying and singing hymns to God until the following day.
In September, the White Army liberated Alapayevsk and discovered the mine. The soldiers found the body of Elisabeth, not at the bottom of the 200-foot deep mine-shaft, but on a ledge about fifty feet down. Elisabeth was lying next to the Grand Duke John. It was later discovered that she had attempted to dress his wounds before her own death. On her chest she held the icon of Christ which had been given to her by Sergei on the day of her Chrismation.
Before converting to Orthodoxy, the Grand Duchess had expressed her desire to be buried in Palestine, at the Convent of St Mary Magdalene in Gethsemane. She had been with Sergei at the consecration of that very church in 1888. Through the patient efforts of her elder sister, Victoria, Marquess of Milford Haven, Elisabeth's body was moved to the Middle East for burial. In January of 1921, her relics were solemnly received in Jerusalem by Patriarch Damian, Russian, Greek, and Arab clergy, members of the British authorities and innumerable Orthodox faithful. To this day, her relics are kept in that church, where they are venerated by faithful Christians from around the world.
The Life of Saint Elisabeth - Metropolitan Anastassy
An Account of St Elisabeth - Countess Alexandra Olsoufiev
Photographs of Saint Elisabeth
Akathist Hymn - to The Holy Martyred Nun Elisabeth & The Other New Martyrs Of Alapayevsk
Canon - to the Holy and Righteous Nun-Martyrs Elisabeth and Barbara
Our parish also has a great devotion to St Winefride, whose story will appear here in the near future.
Troparion, Tone 4
Thine illustrious life filled the angels with awe and put the demons to flight in terror, while it adorneth the congregations of the faithful with the splendour of grace, O venerable mother Werburga! As in thy charity thou didst extend thy love to all thy fellow creatures, intercede with God in our behalf, that our souls be saved from perdition!
In the year 597, 560 years after St Dorotheus of Tyre dates Bishop (Saint) Aristibule as bringing the Christian Faith to England, one of the greatest difficulties faced by the missionaries in reintroducing the Church to the areas invaded by the pagans from northern Europe was the division of the land into a number of often warring kingdoms. The most effective way of overcoming this disunity was dynastic marriage between members of the royal families, families which, once Christianised, were able to spread the Faith with immense zeal. In this undertaking the main and vital role was played by queens and princesses, the women of the royal families, who, as ever, showed far greater sensitivity to the Truth of Christ than the men. Many of them, as widows, together with unmarried sisters or daughters, turned to the monastic life, which in turn helped weld together the seven kingdoms into national unity. Indeed, Old England had no fewer than thirty-seven holy abbesses, many of them of royal origin. The family tree of this golden age of holiness starts in 597 with the first convert, Ethelburt, King of Kent. From his family emerged an extraordinary catalogue of twenty-seven Saints, including St Werburgh.
On her mother's side, St Werburgh was descended from a long line of Saints from the kingdom of Kent. Her father, however, was Wulfhere, prince of the newly-converted Mercia, and her father's father was none other than Penda, the war-like pagan King of Mercia, responsible for the deaths of Christian kings from neighbouring kingdoms - St Oswald, King of Northumbria and St Sigebert, King of East Anglia. Her father died when she was young and so she was brought up by her great-aunt, St Audrey, at Ely, later going to Minster-in-Sheppey in Kent with her mother St Ermenhild and her grandmother, St Saxburgh.
No doubt here she made the acquaintance of her cousins, Milburgh, Mildred and Mildgyth, and the Kentish and East Anglian traditions of family and monastic piety handed down through the generations, as well as the advice of spiritual fathers and mothers whom the family had known, going right back to St Augustine himself. She was destined to take back these traditions with her to her native Mercia. A late tradition says that Werburgh had a suitor whom she rejected, and it was he who was responsible for martyring her two brothers, Wulfhad and Ruffin, who were protecting her. However this may be, it is clear that, when still young, she had already chosen the monastic life. She was to become nun and then abbess at Minster-in-Sheppey and then at Ely itself. But this was not to last.
On account of both her spiritual and practical experience in the great convents of England, she was invited by her father's brother, King and later St Ethelred of Mercia, to take charge of convents in Mercia, at Weedon, Hanbury and Threckingham. Stories about her from this period particularly concern her links with the animal world. A picturesque legend describes the control she had over wild geese which were devastating crops at Weedon. Abbess Werburgh ordered them into a stable and such was their obedience that next morning they asked her to be released. Another story, which shows her humility, is that of how at Weedon she protected a cowherd, Alnoth, a man of simplicity and holiness, from a cruel steward. She threw herself at the steward's feet and asked him to spare Alnoth, whom she said was more acceptable to God than any of themselves. Later, the same cowherd was to become a hermit in nearby woods at Stowe, and then murdered. He was venerated locally as a Saint on 27th February.
The Abbess Werburgh reposed at Threckingham on 3rd February in about the year 700, certainly not later than 710. Apparently at her own request, the relics were taken from Threckingham to Hanbury, where they remained until 875, much venerated. In this year, for fear of the Danish invasions, the holy remains were transferred to Chester, to the church which became known as St Werburgh's. This is the beginning of her long connection with that city, and she is often called "St Werburga of Chester". The site of St Werburgh's church is today that of Chester Cathedral, where part of the stone base of her shrine still survives. In 1540, Henry VIII made the abbey church of St Werburgh into a cathedral, and, as protestants often did, like the Normans before them, rededicated it. However, even today, it still keeps its link with the Saint through the name of the street leading to the cathedral - St Werburgh Street. St Werburgh's prayers were much sought by the young, especially children and young women.
The church at Hanbury is still dedicated to St Werburgh and this may mean that she actually founded the convent whereas she only reformed Weedon and Threckingham. Near Hanbury, another dedication is at Kingsley. Churches at Derby and nearby Spondon and Blackwell are also dedicated to her, and these, too, are probably her foundations, for it is known that she laboured here and also in nearby Repton. Although Chester was rededicated at the reformation, in Cheshire, the village of Warburton is named after the Saint, (Werburgton), and the church there is also dedicated to her, apparently on the site of a monastery. In the Midlands, there used to be another village, now lost, called Werburgewic.
Werburgh's presence is also remembered in Kent in the present-day village of Hoo St Werburgh near the convent at Minster-in-Sheppey and previously in another lost village of Thanet, Werburghingland. Other dedications to her are in Bristol, Wembury in Devon, and at Treneglos and Warbstow (the "stow" or "holy place" of Werburgh), in Cornwall. These dedications may represent a distribution of relics of the Saint in the West.
The life of St Elisabeth is taken from the website of the St Elizabeth Orthodox Mission in Minnesota. The section of the life of St Werburgh is an edited version of an article which originally appeared in "Orthodox Christianity and the English Tradition", and is here reproduced by kind permission of Fr Andrew Phillips.
This website is published with the blessing of His Eminence Metropiltan Hilarion, First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad and Ruling Hierarch of the Diocese of Great Britain and Ireland (ROCOR)