Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Royal Saint: Princess Elizabeth of Hesse

The lady now known as Saint Elizabeth Romanova began her life as Her Grand Ducal Highness Princess Elisabeth Alexandra Louise of Hesse and by Rhine. She was born on November 1, 1864, the fourth child of Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse and by Rhine and Princess Alice of Great Britain. She was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria (like a great many European royals at the time) and was never after St Elizabeth of Hungary. She was known as “Ella” among her family growing up. She was raised in very modest surroundings compared to what most people today imagine for royals in the 19th Century. She swept her own floors, wore homemade clothes and so on. Because of her mother, her first language was English and also because of her mother she was exposed, at a very early age, to caring for others. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 her mother took the little Princess with her to military hospitals to care for the wounded soldiers and she was impressed early on with the understanding that, as a royal and simply as a Christian, she had a duty to care for those around her.

As she grew older Princess Elizabeth became known as one of the most famous beauties of the royal world. In no time at all royal bachelors from all across Europe were practically standing in line to call on her. The future German Kaiser Wilhelm II was positively crushed with grief when she did not return his affections. She was a very religious, serious young lady, kind and not taken at all with splendor, grandiosity or big talk. The man she finally did fall for was Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, who was a good match, being rather shy, humble and a devotedly pious son of the Orthodox faith. The two had known each other for years as they would often accompany their mother, Empress Maria Alexandrovna, on her visits to Germany to see her Hessian relatives, including Princess Elizabeth who was the Empress’ great-niece. In their youth, the Princess had not been greatly impressed by Grand Duke Sergei who seemed aloof to the charming girl, but when the Princess matured she certainly caught the attention of the young Romanov and the boy who had once seemed cold and distant became a handsome young man whose sincerity and deep faith impressed Elizabeth.

The two became close after the tragic deaths of Empress Maria in 1880 and Emperor Alexander II in 1881. Princess Elizabeth had lost her mother to diphtheria in 1879, so she could sympathize with what Sergei was enduring. Each understood the pain of the other, comforted each other and were drawn closer together because of it. They had similar cultural interests, a mutual love of art and each respected the religious faith of the other. Still, it took more than one proposal before the Hessian princess consented to marry the Romanov Grand Duke. The two were married on June 15, 1894 at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. There were no laws requiring that royal brides take the faith of their husbands and, in their first years of marriage, the new Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia continued to be a Lutheran. She was not the sort of person to abandon Lutheranism for the sake of appearances; she sincerely believed in it. However, over time, certainly with the example of her husband helping, she became convinced of the beauty and authenticity of the Orthodox faith and in 1891 decided to formally convert and join the Russian Orthodox Church. The rest of her life would be an example of sincere Orthodox devotion, leaving positively no room for speculation as to her motivations.

Grand Duchess Elizabeth and Grand Duke Sergei were very happy together, all the more after being fully united in the Orthodox faith. However, the couple were unable to ever have any children but they made up for the lack of children of their own by caring for those of others. They served as foster parents for their niece and nephew Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna (who later married into the Swedish Royal Family) and Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich (who was later involved in the death of Rasputin). The couple also frequently hosted parties at their estate for local children. This was, likely, not only due to their lack of children of their own but also because they refused to associate with much of the fashionable high society because of their disapproval of the immoral way in which so many of these people behaved. Still, they were very popular with Tsar Alexander III and Tsarina Maria, the represented the Romanov dynasty at the Golden Jubilee celebrations for Queen Victoria and undertook other official travels for the imperial court.

It was a happy and very well ordered life the Grand Duchess had when tragedy struck in 1905 when a socialist revolutionary assassinated Grand Duke Sergei with a bomb. It was the most gruesome scene imaginable with most of the body being destroyed completely. Grand Duchess Elizabeth, ever the dutiful royal, suppressed her emotions at first, remaining calm and seemingly in a daze while visitors came to offer their sympathies. Finally, however, her grief came pouring out and many feared she would suffer a complete emotional breakdown. Thankfully, this did not happen, and in such a time of intense trial, the Grand Duchess turned herself completely over to God. She forgave the murderer of her husband and was concerned only that he repent of his crime, offering to intercede with Tsar Nicholas II on his behalf if only he would do so. He did not. The Grand Duchess decided to enter the religious life. She became a vegetarian, sold off all of her worldly possessions and built the Convent of Saints Martha and Mary in Moscow in 1908, becoming its abbess. Her hope was to found a new religious order for women from all walks of life who would be devoted to prayer and serving the poor.

The Grand Duchess was a tireless angel of mercy, taking in and caring for local orphans, visiting the most destitute districts of Moscow and giving aid to the least of society wherever there was need. In quick succession in the following years her growing order built a hospital, orphanage and pharmacy on the convent grounds. All who came in contact with her were touched by her charity and selfless compassion. During World War I the Grand Duchess and her sisters worked tirelessly nursing wounded Russian soldiers, earning the affection of all, but doing so for the glory of God. They carried on their work of mercy as revolution swept away the Russian Empire and as the Bolsheviks swept away the provisional government that replaced it. Finally, the end came in 1918 when the new Soviet dictatorship determined to wipe out every Romanov they could get their hands on. Lenin ordered her arrest and she was taken away along with other prisoners by the Soviet secret police. A short time later, on July 18, 1918 the group was thrown down a pit near a mine some 20 meters deep. A grenade was tossed down after them to ensure no one survived. However, guards reported hearing the Grand Duchess leading the others in singing an Orthodox hymn after which another grenade was tossed into the pit but the singing still continued. Finally brush was piled over the top of the pit and set on fire.

A short time later the forces of the White Army arrived and recovered the remains of the Grand Duchess and her fellow victims. Incredibly, but not surprisingly, they found proof that the Grand Duchess had survived the fall for she had been bandaging one of the others, Prince Ioann Konstantinovich, before her death. Even in her very final minutes of life she had been comforting others. Her remains were taken out of Russia and buried in Jerusalem, which she had visited previously, in the Church of Maria Magdalene. It was a tragedy but not quite the end of the story. In 1926 the Convent of Sts Martha and Mary was closed down by the Communist authorities but in 1981 the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia canonized the Grand Duchess as a saint. In 1992 her status as a martyr was also recognized by the Patriarch of Moscow. In 1992 the chapel she built to Sts Martha and Mary was reopened and in 1994 her convent and order was reestablished and continues to do good works today, now also training nurses as part of their mission. In this way the pious example and works of mercy of St Elizabeth Romanova live on and she is venerated around the world by Orthodox Christians for her shining example of duty, devotion, courage and compassion. May she be an example to us all.


  1. I have seen her relics in Jerusalem. She was the first Russian Orthodox saint I "encountered" before I became Orthodox. It is fitting that she was also a royal martyr, for now I am not only Orthodox but also a supporter of monarchism.

    New Martyr Elizabeth, pray for us!

  2. Thank you for such an informative post about an impressive lady. The Russian revolutionists have a lot to answer for.

  3. I hope her centenary will be properly marked in Britain as well as Russia.


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