St. Maria Skobtsova of Paris Martyr of Ravensbruck
On January 16, 2004, the Ecumenical Patriarch of
Constantinople decreed the official glorification of Mother Maria (Skobstova),
her son George (Yuri), and her assistants, Father Dimitri Klepinine and Elia
Fondaminskii. The life of Mother Maria is one of great contradictions and yet
great inspiration. She was once a socialist revolutionary and mayor of her
Russian town, the first Russian woman to enroll in a theological seminary,
married twice, divorced twice, mother of three, Orthodox nun, servant of the
poor, the sick and the homeless of Paris, protector of Jews from the Nazis and
finally, a martyr at Ravensbruck concentration camp.
Mother Maria was born Elisabeth
Pilenko in 1891 to a well-to-do Russian family in the Latvian city of Riga. Her parents were
devout Orthodox Christians and in this atmosphere of piety Elisabeth was raised
to love and serve God. All this changed at the age of fourteen when her father
died, which seemed meaningless and unjust to her. She decided that she no
longer believed in God and declared herself an atheist. "If there is no justice, there is no God!" she
During her teenage years, Russia
was in the throes of the approaching end of Tsarist rule, the subsequent
revolution and Communist rise to power. Elisabeth became enamored of this
revolutionary movement and at the age of 18 married a member of the Bolshevik
party. Though she still regarded herself as an atheist she began to question
her revolutionary sympathies as she saw the violence, poverty and suffering
that the revolution plunged Russia
into. Little by little, her earlier attraction to Christ and His Church came
back to life and grew deeper in her soul. She began to read the Gospels and
lives of the Saints. She applied for entrance to the Theological Seminary at
St. Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St.
Petersburg, an unprecedented request. Up to this date
only male students preparing for the priesthood were admitted to the seminary
and yet, surprisingly, she was admitted to the renowned school.
By 1913 Elisabeth's marriage had
collapsed and ended in divorce while she was expecting their first child,
Gaiana. Returning home to her family's country estate in Russia's south, she joined the
Social Revolutionary party and in 1918 was elected the mayor of her town.
During the Russian civil war she was arrested, jailed and put on trial for
collaboration with the enemy. Only due to the intervention of a friend, Daniel
Skobtsov, who was now her judge, was she spared execution by firing squad.
After the trial, she sought him out to thank him. Soon they fell in love and
within days were married. Before long Elizabeth
was again pregnant and her son, Yuri, was born and later another daughter,
Anastasia. With the Bolsheviks beginning to gain the upper hand in the civil
war, Daniel and Elizabeth decided it was too dangerous to remain in Russia and after a long journey found themselves
in Paris, France in 1923.
Tragedy struck the family in 1926
when five year old Anastasia died of influenza. After keeping vigil by her
daughter's bedside for a month and watching her beloved child die, Elizabeth penned these
When someone you love has
died, the gates have suddenly opened onto eternity, all natural life has trembled and collapsed, yesterday's laws have been
abolished, desires have faded, meaning
has become meaningless, and another incomprehensible meaning has grown wings on
their backs..... Everything flies into the black
maw of the fresh grave: hopes, plans, calculations, above all, meaning, the meaning of a whole life. If this is
so, then everything has to be reconsidered,
everything rejected, seen in its corruptibility and falseness.
After her daughter's burial, Elizabeth reconsidered her
whole life. She became aware that God was calling her to become a mother to all
people who would cross her path. She felt that she was to share the love she
had for her daughter with all people, especially "for all who need maternal care, assistance, or protection," as
she said. While her husband supported the family by driving a taxi, Elizabeth devoted herself
more and more to social work and theological writing. Perhaps a result of their
daughter's death, Elizabeth's
second marriage to Daniel Skobstov was dying and they soon separated.
Elizabeth acquired a position with an agency that assisted Russian
refugees living in France
and saw first-hand the poverty and dire circumstances in which they lived. With
two failed marriage behind her, Elizabeth
searched for what her true vocation in life was to be. With the support of her
bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy, she began to consider the monastic life. But she
felt herself drawn to a new form of monastic life, one that combined prayer and
contemplation with service to those in need around her. She was tonsured a nun
in 1932 and given the name Maria. Metropolitan Evlogy blessed her to
devote herself to a new kind of monastic life, what she called "monasticism
in the world." She opened a house of hospitality in Paris to serve the poor, the homeless, the
desperate. She was not content to simply wait for the needy to ring her
doorbell but traveled the back alleys and bars of Paris seeking out those in need of her
maternal care. She entered those places where other people were simply afraid
to go; she found beggars and drunkards, took them to her home, washed, clothed,
and fed them.
She was a most unusual type of
Orthodox nun, one that many people could not quite accept. The saintly
Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of London,
who recently fell asleep in the Lord, wrote of his first encounter with Mother
She was a very unusual nun in
her behavior and her manners. I was simply staggered when I saw her for the first time in monastic clothes. I was
walking along the Boulevard Montparnasse and I saw, in
front of a cafe, on the pavement, there was a table, on the table was a glass of beer and behind the glass was sitting
a Russian nun in full monastic robes. I
looked at her and decided that I would never go near that woman. I was young
then and held extreme views.
of the Nazis
The last phase of Mother Maria's
life began when the German Nazis conquered and occupied France during World War II. While
it would have been possible for her to flee France
as the Germans were advancing toward Paris,
she refused to leave. "If the Germans
take Paris, I
shall stay here with my old women. Where else could I send them?"
Early in 1942 the Nazis began
their registration of Jews. Jews began to knock on the door of the house of
hospitality asking if the chaplain, Father Dimitri Klepinine, would issue fake
baptismal certificates to save their lives. With the support of Mother Maria,
Father Dmitri issued the fake documents, convinced that Christ would do the
same. When the order came from Berlin
that the yellow star must be worn by all Jews, many French Christians felt that
this was not their concern since it was not a Christian problem. Mother Maria
replied, "There is no such thing as a Christian problem. Don't you realize
that the battle is being waged against Christianity? If we were true Christians
we would all wear the Star. The age of confessors has arrived."
In July, 1942, mass arrests of
Jews began to take place--12,884 were arrested of whom 6,900 were children.
They were held prisoner in a sports stadium just a kilometer from Mother
Maria's house, before they were sent to Auschwitz.
With her monastic robe gaining her entrance, she spent three days at the sports
stadium distributing food and clothing and even managing to smuggle out some
children by bribing garbage collectors to hide them in trash cans. Her house of
hospitality was literally bursting at the seams with people, many of them Jews.
Mother Maria remarked, "It is amazing
that the Germans haven't pounced on us yet." She also said that if
anyone came looking for Jews she would show them an icon of the Mother of God.
On February 8, 1943 the Nazis did pounce and
arrested Mother Maria, her son Yuri, Father Dmitri, and their helper, Elia
Fondaminski. In the pocket of Yuri was found a letter from a Jewish family
asking for a false baptismal certificate. Father Dmitri was interrogated by
Hans Hoffinan, a Gestapo officer. A portion of the interrogation has been
Hoffman: If we release you, will you give your word never again to
Father Dimitri: I can do no such thing. I am a Christian and must act as I
must. (Hoffinan struck the priest
across the face.)
Hoffman: Jew lover! How dare you talk of helping those swine as
being a Christian duty! Father Dimitri: (holding up the cross from his
cassock): Do you know this Jew?
For this Father Dimitri was
knocked to the floor.
Mother Maria and those arrested
with her were all sent to concentration camps--the men to Buchenwald
and Dora and Mother Maria to Ravensbruck. A letter that Yuri Skobtsov wrote
from the camp survives:
Thanks to our daily
Eucharist, our life here is quite transformed and to tell the honest truth, I
have nothing to complain of. We live in brotherly love with Father Dmitri and
he is preparing me for the priesthood.
God's will needs to be understood.
I am absolutely calm, even
somewhat proud to share Mama's fate.
Whatever happens, sooner or later we shall all be together. I can say in
all honesty that I am not afraid of anything any longer... I ask anyone whom I
have hurt in any way to forgive me. Christ be with you!
All four died as martyrs in the
concentration camps. Mother Maria, Yuri, and Elia were gassed while Father
Dimitri died from pneumonia.
While Mother Maria was unable to
write to her friends from the camp, prisoners who survived the camps shared
their memories of their time with her:
She exercised an enormous
influence on us all. No matter what our nationality, age, political convictions
- this had no significance whatever. Mother Maria was adored by all. The
younger prisoners gained particularly from her concern. She took us under her
wing. We were cut off from our families, and somehow she provided us with a
Some Teachings of Mother
The way to God lies through love
of people. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful
in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I
shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the
prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry, and imprisoned
person the Savior says "I": I was hungry and thirsty; I was sick and in prison.
To think that He puts an equal sign between Himself and anyone in need... I
always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my bones. It fills me with
Christ gave us the firm and true
teaching that we meet Him in every poor and unhappy man. Let us take that into
consideration and give this poor and unhappy man our love, because he only
seems poor and unhappy to us, but in fact he is the King of Heaven, and with
Him our gifts will not go for nothing, but will return to us a hundredfold.
During a service, the priest
does not only cense the icons of the Savior, the Mother of God, and the Saints.
He also censes the icon-people, the image of God in the people who are present.
And as they leave the church precincts, these people remain as much the images
of God, worthy of being censed and venerated. Our relations with people should
be an authentic and profound veneration.
- Very Rev. Edward Pehanich