By Larry Peterson
What follows is a brief story about a woman who would have had to be considered one of the most unlikely candidates for sainthood. A chain-smoking, twice divorced, left leaning nun with a brilliant mind and a heart so big she just could never love enough. However, being part of the Roman Church or the Eastern Orthodox Church mattered not to the Nazis; Catholic was Catholic.
Elizaveta Pilenko was born in Latvia, inside the Russian empire, in 1891. Her parents were devout Orthodox and also quite wealthy. Elizaveta embraced her Catholic faith easily and with open arms. By the time she was seven she was asking her mom if she could become a nun. But when Elizaveta was a teenager, her father died.
The girl was crushed and her heart experienced a profound sorrow that left her feeling empty inside. Her faith crumbled like stale crackers. Elizaveta decided that God’s “nonexistence” was well known to adults but kept secret from children. Her childhood was over. She entered into a personal sea of nothingness called atheism. She was quoted as having said, “If there is no justice, then there is no God.”
Elizaveta’s widowed mom moved the family to St. Petersburg in 1906. It took Elizaveta no time to get involved with some of the radical literary circles within the city. But she soon found herself disappointed in the young “revolutionaries” she was involved with. They all seemed to do nothing but talk, talk, talk and never were willing to put their words into deeds. She said, “…they will not understand that to die for the revolution means to feel a rope around one’s neck.”
In 1910, at the age of eighteen, she married, Dimitri Kuzmin-Karaviev, who was an alcoholic. This marriage lasted only three years but, during this time, Elizaveta gave birth to her first child Gaiana, published a book of poetry, and began to study theology. Even though a woman, she was accepted into the theological academy of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg. Soon, she began to realize that Christ did, truly, exist.
In 1918, while living in the town of Anapa, she was arrested as a Bolshevik and put on trial. However, a local judge, Daniel Skobstova, fell in love with her, married her, and saved her life. Soon she was pregnant with her second child. The family fled to Georgia and she gave birth to another son, Yuri. Then, moving to Yugoslavia, she gave birth to her second daughter, Anastasia. In 1923, it was onto Paris.
In 1926 her daughter, Anastasia, died from influenza. Then her second marriage failed and Yuri went to live with his father. More heartache struck when in 1935, her oldest daughter, Gaiana, suddenly died. This altered Elizaveta’s life immensely. She yearned to care those who were struggling with disabilities, drug addiction, and mental illness. Her bishop encouraged her to become a nun but she would only do so if she could stay with the poor and downtrodden. Things went her way. Her husband granted her an ecclesiastical divorce and she became a nun. Her name became Mother Maria Skobstova.
Mother Maria managed to rent a house in Paris and moved in calling it her “convent”. It became known for its “open door” for refugees, the poor and even the lonely. Father Sergei Bulgakov became he her confessor and Father Dmitri Klepinin took on the job as house chaplain. Word spread quickly and those in need began flocking to Mother Maria’s convent. She was sleeping in the basement near the boiler and using an upstairs room as the chapel. The dining area doubled as a classroom. More room was needed.
Two years later an old, beat up house was found in an area of Paris where there were many Russian refugees. Here, instead of twenty-five people, she could take in a hundred. There were also stables in the back which became the new church. Then came the 10th of May, 1940. Hitler’s army invaded France. One month and fifteen days later, it was over. The Fall of France was complete.
It happened quickly. The Jewish people began coming to Mother Maria for fake baptismal certificates and for refuge. Father Dimitri would provide the “papers” and Mother Maria would hide as many people as she could. She was even sneaking into a local stadium where many Jews were being held. She would smuggle in food and water and one time managed to smuggle four children out in a garbage truck.
Mother Maria, her son Yuri and Father Dimitri fought the good fight as long as they could. Father Dimitri and Yuri were arrested by the Gestapo first. They were sent to the Dora Concentration Camp where they both died, Yuri being executed on February 6, 1944 and Father Dimitri dying on a dirt floor of pneumonia four days later.
Mother Maria Skobstova was arrested on February 10, 1943 and was sent to Ravensbruck. the infamous concentration camp for women. Mother Maria lasted two years, until Holy Week, 1945. She was sent to the gas chamber and died for Christ on Holy Saturday. The war ended shortly thereafter.
Mother Maria, along with Father Dimitri, and Yuri, were canonized on January 16, 2004 in the Cathedral of Saint Alexander Nevsky in Paris. Their feast day is July 20.
We ask them all to pray for us.
copyright©Larry Peterson 2019