Elizabeth was born in November, 1864. She was the daughter of Grand Duke Louis IV of Hesse-Darmstadt and Princess Alice, a daughter of Queen Victoria of England. Elizabeth was raised a Lutheran, and she was particularly inspired by the life of Elizabeth of Hungary, a 13th century Roman Catholic saint who was noted for her charity and service to the poor.
Elizabeth married Grand Duke Serge of Russia. They had met as children. His mother was the Tsarina of Russia; his brother was Tsar Alexander III; his nephew was Tsar Nicholas II. Nicholas II eventually married Elizabeth’s sister, Alice. (Alice took the name Alexandra when she converted to Orthodoxy from the Lutheran church.)
When Elizabeth married Serge in 1884, she remained a Lutheran. Serge and Elizabeth had no children of their own. Nonetheless, they raised their two nephews. In 1888 Serge and Elizabeth went to the Holy Land. While there they attended the consecration of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives at Jerusalem. Elizabeth remarked that she would like to be buried in that church some day.
After returning to Russia, Elizabeth decided to embrace Orthodox Christianity. This disturbed her Protestant family considerably. She wrote: “I have come to the conclusion that only in this religion (i.e., Orthodox Christianity) can I find all the true and strong faith one must have in God to be a good Christian. I feel within me that this step is bringing me closer to God.” Elizabeth was chrismated on Lazarus Saturday, April 13, 1891. She chose the mother of the Forerunner and Baptist John, St. Elizabeth, as her patron.
Once Elizabeth was asked what her goal in life was. She responded: “To be a fully perfect woman, and this is not easy, because one must learn to forgive everything.” The Grand Duchess was described by those who knew her as being full of peace, calmness, love, goodness and piety. “Rarely has human nature come so near to perfection,” they said.
As governor of the city of Moscow, Serge was not popular with many left-wing, revolutionaries. One terrorist group bombed his carriage in 1905, killing him. The devastated Elizabeth nonetheless visited the assassin in prison and begged him to repent of his sin. She even asked her brother-in-law, Tsar Nicholas, to pardon him.
Elizabeth devoted herself to taking care of wounded soldiers. She gradually took on a monastic style of life. She sold most of her possessions and dedicated the money to a plan which was to develop something somewhere between a hospital and a monastery. It was to be modelled after the image of St. Martha, serving the Lord through serving people — and after the image of St. Mary, serving the Lord through prayer and discipline.
The Ss. Martha and Mary Convent of Mercy opened in 1909 with six nuns. When she herself was tonsured, Elizabeth told her sisters, “I am leaving the brilliant world where I have occupied a lofty position. And now, together with all of you, I am about to ascend to a much greater world, the world of the poor and afflicted.” By 1910 there were thirty nuns living there, and in 1914, the monastic community numbered 97. The nuns were trained in first aid and nursing and in the interior life of a monastic.
The convent had a clinic, a hospital, an orphanage, a school for illiterate women, a soup kitchen for the poor, and a place for poor women laborers to live. The nuns visited the poor in the slums and were trained in the qualities needed to prepare the poor and the terminally-ill for eternal life.
Abbess Elizabeth was known to sleep very little. She spent most of each day and night in work and prayer. She instructed the nuns, nursed the wounded, fed the hungry, administered the community and visited the poor in their homes.
After the Revolution the patients, orphans, poor and indigent residents were gradually removed to state facilities, run by “the people.” As things looked progressively bleaker, Elizabeth had many opportunities to emmigrate to safety. She chose to remain. “We on this earth must look to that Heavenly Homeland with understanding and say with resignation, “Thy will be done.’”
During Bright Week of 1918, Patriarch (later Saint) Tikhon celebrated the Divine Liturgy at Ss. Martha and Mary. Half an hour after he left, Red Army soldiers arrested Abbess Elizabeth. One of the nuns, Mother Barbara, remained with her. They were sent east of Perm to Alapaevsk where they were joined by other imprisoned Romanovs.
During the night of July 17th, eight prisoners were taken to an abandoned mine and thrown down into the 160 ft. deep shaft. A witness who was hidden from sight reported that the Grand Duchess continually prayed, “Forgive them, Lord, they do not know what they are doing.” The Communists threw grenades down the shaft. Apparently only one of the eight died from the blasts. Abbess Elizabeth had actually landed on a ledge about 45 feet down. Despite her own injuries, she used her veil to bandage the wounds of those with her on the ledge. Witnesses later testified to hearing prayers, the singing of the Cherubic Hymn and “O Lord, save Your People” form the mine shaft. Eventually a fire was set in the mine. Nonetheless, singing could be heard until the early morning hours of the next day. Soon all had died.
In October the White Army had captured this area. The eight bodies were discovered in the mine shaft. Funeral rites were held for them at the nearby cathedral on October 18th. The bodies were secretly taken by train to Siberia. When the nuns’ coffins were opened so that Elizabeth and Barbara could be properly vested in their monastic habits, Elizabeth’s body did not show any signs of decomposition. Six months later the bodies were moved to Peking, China where they remained until 1945, when the Red Army occupied Manchuria.
Grand Duchess Elizabeth’s family (who had escaped Russia in time) arranged for the bodies of the two nuns to be transported to Jerusalem. They were entombed in the crypt of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, above the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives.
In 1981, the coffins were again opened. as part of the examination of their remains just prior to their glorification as saints. When Elizabeth’s coffin lid was removed, the room was filled with the pungent fragrance of jasmine and honey. Her body still remained partially uncorrupted. The relics of the two martyrs now rest in the nave of the church.
Why do we keep relics in the church, and why do we venerate them?
“Relic” simply means “remains” — the material remains of a saint after he or she falls asleep in the Lord. We believe that the body is sanctified and transfigured along with the soul. The grace of God is present in the bodies of the saints during their life. God’s grace is also present in their remains after they have died. These relics can be channels of His divine power and healing, just His divine power and healing is present in the saints during their lifetime. He can even use ordinary objects as instruments of His mighty deeds: Elijah’s mantle (2 Kings 2:14), the bones of the Prophet Elisha (2 Kings 12:21), the pieces of cloth of Acts 19:12 which had wondrous power.
Very early in the history of the Church relics of the saints were gathered and honored: In A.D. 156, we know that the faithful of Smyrna took the relics of their martyred bishop Polycarp, venerated and cared for them.
In some instances the bodies of the saints are wondrously preserved from corruption and decay as a sign of the presence in this world of God’s Kingdom. But even when incorruption has not occurred, we show veneration toward the relics of the saints.
Christ took on the flesh (something from the material order of creation) and made it possible for all creation to be changed and redeemed, transfigured, healed and saved. The earth is intrinsically sacred: originally created good. It was corrupted by the fall, but it was redeemed in Christ. Our faith is that the souls and bodies of the saints — in some tangible manner — reflect this transfiguration and restoration to the Kingdom (see Daniel 7:22).
So, when we come into the presence of the remains of the saints, we come into the presence of the Kingdom of God.