St Maria Skobtsova
For all the Saints: Mother Maria Skobtsova
Many saints seem to be bloodless phantoms, too perfect and removed from us to be of any earthly use. Not so this month’s saint.
Elizaveta Pilenko was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1891. After her father died, her mother moved the family in 1906 to St. Petersburg, a breeding ground for revolutionaries. Liza jumped into this world heart and soul. She became a poet, married, and bore a daughter, Gaiana. The marriage ended in divorce. Liza’s revolutionary dreams began to die and slowly she returned to the church. She served briefly as vice-mayor of a small town after the 1917 revolution, but she saw the brutality of the incoming communist regime. Married a second time, she fled to Paris. Two children were born but her daughter Anastasia died in 1926 at the age of five. Divorced ecclesiastically in order to become a nun, she entered monasticism in 1932, receiving the name Maria.
Maria became mother to many. She gathered her community from fish markets and flower stalls, subways and slums. Her motto was “each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.” At first able to serve only twenty-five people, she expanded to serve a hundred and twenty. Volunteers flocked around her. The ministry grew and included her son Yuri. In her homemade nun’s habit, smoking her cigarettes, Mother Maria became a familiar beggar at Parisian bakeries, butcher shops, and produce markets.
Mother Maria’s community followed the second gospel commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself.” She thought that monasticism could be a mediocre substitute for real life, so she immersed herself in the world with a deep monastic spirit and broad faith in Christ and the church.
Disaster struck. The Nazis captured France. The community continued to minister to and shelter Jews. The Gestapo finally caught Mother Maria and the community’s priest, Fr Dimitri Klepinin, in 1943. She died in Ravensbruck concentration camp on March 31, 1945, a substitute for another woman slated for the gas chamber that day.
The Orthodox Church declared Mother Maria, her son Yuri, Fr Dimitri, Elie Fondaminskii – all members of the House of Hospitality – and Fr Alexei Medvedkov to be Saints in 2004. French Catholics and Protestants alike supported the call for canonization. Mother Maria and Fr Dimitri are “righteous Gentiles” whose names are inscribed in Yad Vashem Memorial in Israel. They are commemorated on the day of Prophet Elijah, 20 July.