Mother Maria Skobtsova
Mother Maria Skobtsova
BORN: December 21, 1891 • Riga, Latvia
DIED: March 30, 1945 • Ravensbrück, Germany
Latvian nun; poet
Mother Maria Skobtsova, a saint of the Eastern Orthodox Church, a branch of Christianity, is honored for her singleminded devotion to the poor and oppressed in France in the years before and during World War II (1939–45; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan). Near the end of the war she died in a Nazi concentration camp, possibly after offering her life in exchange for that of a Jewish prisoner. Throughout her life of service as an Orthodox nun her primary goal was to embody the Christian ideal of love for fellow human beings.
"Mother Maria is a saint of our day and for our day; a woman of flesh and blood possessed by the love of God, who stood face to face with the problems of this century."
—Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, as quoted in "Mother Maria Skobtsova—A Saint of Our Day."
Birth and early life
Mother Maria Skobtsova was born Elizaveta Pilenko in Riga, the capital city of Latvia, on December 21, 1891. At that time Latvia was part of the Russian empire, and Pilenko grew up in Anapa, a town in southern Russia on the shore of the Black Sea. Her family was relatively wealthy and belonged to society's upper class. Her father directed a botanical garden and school, and for a time he served as the mayor of Anapa. Her mother was a descendant of the last governor of the Bastille prison in Paris, which fell at the start of the French Revolution (1789–99; a rebellion resulting in the overthrow of the monarchy and the rise of a democratic government). The home Pilenko's parents provided was a devout Eastern Orthodox one. Eastern Orthodox Christianity believes in the complete authority of the Bible, the Christian holy text, and that Jesus's teachings were preserved in them without error. After her father's death in 1906, her mother took the family to St. Petersburg, the political and cultural center of Russia at the time. The untimely death of Pilenko's father affected her deeply, and for a while she questioned her belief in God.
The early twentieth century was a time of great political unrest in Russia. During her years in St. Petersburg, Pilenko was drawn into radical and revolutionary circles. She was attracted to goals such as the overthrow of the repressive monarchy and the desire to help lift the crushing poverty of many Russians. Even as a teenager she longed to do something great with her life, in the service of others. In 1910 she married a revolutionary poet named Dimitri Kuzmin-Karaviev. Pilenko soon gave birth to a daughter, Gaiana, but the marriage proved short-lived and the couple divorced in 1913.
During this period Pilenko began to rethink her uncertainty about God and was drawn back to Christianity. She wrote a great deal of religious poetry, publishing a collection entitled Scythian Shards in 1912. She even applied for admission to study religion at the Theological Academy of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. The application of a woman at that time was considered shocking, but she was nevertheless accepted.
Revolution and flight
In the mid-1910s Pilenko was growing impatient with the revolutionaries with whom she associated. In her view, they only talked about their political ideals, never actually acting on them, and these ideals had little to do with the lives of ordinary Russians. Then, in 1917, Russia's political unrest erupted into revolution and the overthrow and eventual murder of the tsar, the monarch of Russia, Nicholas II (1868–1918). The Russian Revolution led to the rise to power of the Bolsheviks, the extremist wing of Russia's Social Democratic Party, which later evolved into the Communist Party. Pilenko initially agreed with the party's radical views, such as the revolutionary belief that the tsar should be replaced by a more democratic government that represented the interests of common people which had led to the revolution. During the civil war that followed from 1918 to 1920, however, she came to see the revolution as an event that did more harm than good. The new political leadership seemed just as cruel as the old one. As she traveled back and forth between Anapa and St. Petersburg, she witnessed all around her signs that Russia had descended into terror, mass murder, destruction, hunger, homelessness, and criminal rule.
Pilenko was in Anapa in 1918 when the town was overtaken by the White Army, the counterrevolutionary force that opposed the Bolsheviks. When the mayor of the town fled, Pilenko took his place, but the White Army believed that she was a Bolshevik and arrested her and put her on trial for treason. She narrowly escaped a guilty verdict and execution because the judge, Daniel Skobtsov, had formerly been one of her teachers. She was cleared of the charges. That year she and Skobtsov were married and she became Elizaveta Skobtsova. (In Russian, Skobtsov is the masculine form of the name while Skobtsova is the feminine.)
It soon became clear that the Bolsheviks were winning Russia's civil war. Skobtsova and her family, including her mother, decided to flee the country. Their first destination was the nearby country of Georgia, where Skobtsova gave birth to a son, Yuri. The family then went to Yugoslavia, where a daughter, Anastasia, was born. Finally, the family landed in Paris, France, where Daniel Skobtsov took a job as a schoolteacher. After having witnessed immense suffering in Russia, Skobtsova had grown more deeply religious, and she became actively involved with the spiritual and social work of the Russian Student Christian Movement. Before long she was dedicating herself to theological (religious) studies and to helping the poor in Paris, especially refugees from Russia and other countries.
In the mid-1920s the Skobtsov family fell apart. Tragedy struck in 1926 when Anastasia died of the flu. Soon after, Gaiana left to attend school in Belgium. Then Skobtsova and her husband separated, and Yuri went to live with his father in Paris. By this time Skobtsova was devoting so much of her energy to helping the poor that the Orthodox bishop in Paris urged her to become a nun. She agreed, but only on the condition that she would not be required to live in a convent. The bishop agreed, and in 1932, after she was granted a divorce from Skobtsov, she took her vows as a nun. At this time she took the name Maria.
Service to the poor and oppressed
Throughout the 1930s Mother Maria continued her intense dedication to the welfare of the poor. As cited by Jim Forest on the Traditional Catholic Reflections and Reports Web site, she wrote that she wanted an "authentic and purified life" among "paupers and tramps." She saw the world as her convent and offered help and spiritual comfort to anyone who approached her. The door of her small room in central Paris was open to all those who needed help or simply wanted to talk, especially about religion. She wrote, as quoted by Forest, "If someone turns with his spiritual world toward the spiritual world of another person, he encounters an awesome and inspiring mystery…. He comes into contact with the true image of God in man." Indeed, perhaps in part because of the death of her daughter, she came to see herself as a universal mother figure, providing maternal comfort and aid to any who needed it. Her motto, according to Forest, was, "Each person is the very icon [representation] of God incarnate [in bodily form] in the world."
With the moral and financial support of the bishop, Mother Maria was able to expand her assistance to the community. She moved into larger quarters in a section of Paris where many Russian immigrants lived. She also rented other buildings, one to house single men, another to help families in need. She soon became a common sight around Paris, approaching street vendors and produce merchants to beg for grocery items, many nearly spoiled, that she could serve to the people in her care. In 1939 she acquired a partner, Father Dimitri Klepinin (1904–1944), who loyally served by her side during the early years of World War II.
The war years
In 1939 Germany, led by the Nazi Party, launched World War II by invading Poland. In 1940 German troops marched into France, seizing Paris on June 14 and the rest of France a week later. The German occupiers largely turned their attention to France's Russian immigrants. Many were rounded up and arrested, including one thousand on a single day in June 1941. A number of these people had become close friends with Mother Maria and had assisted with her charitable work. Also targeted by the Nazis were Paris's Jews, many of whom were also Russian. The Nazis were sending their prisoners to concentration camps, where millions died in gas chambers or from starvation and disease. Concentration camps were locations where Germany sent Jews and other people it did not like to be contained and, eventually, put to death. Jews in Paris began showing up at Mother Maria's door, asking for certificates showing that they were Christians, with the hope that having such certificates would protect them from the Nazis. Mother Maria and Father Klepinin gladly agreed to help.
In the months that followed, conditions for Jews in Paris became steadily worse. By 1942 they were denied access to most public places. In July of that year nearly thirteen thousand were arrested, and more than one-half of them were taken to a Paris sports stadium, where they were held captive under horrible conditions. As a nun Mother Maria was still allowed some freedom of movement, so she was able to gain access to the stadium. She brought what food she could, comforted many of the prisoners, and even managed to smuggle some children out by hiding them in garbage cans. Meanwhile, she and Father Klepinin created escape routes for Jews, providing them with fake documents, food, and any other help they could.
By this time Yuri was helping his mother in her activities. On February 8, 1943, the Nazis arrested him after discovering a letter proving his involvement. The following day Father Klepinin was arrested. Then, on February 10, Mother Maria was arrested and taken to a prison in the town of Compiègne. There she met with Yuri one last time before he and Father Klepinin were taken away to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. Later, the two men were transferred to the Mittelbau-Dora camp, where they died in early 1944.
Life in the concentration camp
Mother Maria was taken to the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women, located north of Berlin, Germany. As prisoner number 19,263, she managed to survive for nearly two years, toughened by the poverty she had long endured. During her time at Ravensbrück she served as a counselor and mother figure to other prisoners. She often gave away portions of her tiny food rations so that others could cling to life. As cited by Forest, one of people imprisoned with Mother Maria later recalled:
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…. She took us under her wing. We were cut off from our families, and somehow she provided us with a family.
The conditions endured by Mother Maria were terrible. Food rations were repeatedly cut. Prisoners were forcibly removed from their lice-infested beds at three o'clock in the morning and made to stand outside for hours in the cold and snow for roll call. Blankets, shoes, and socks were taken away. Medical care was nonexistent. Dozens of prisoners died each day from infectious diseases such as dysentery and typhus. Mother Maria's health began to decline, but she continued to survive with the help of other prisoners, who often had to hold her up as they stood during morning roll calls.
In March 1945 Nazi authorities ordered the camp commander to kill any prisoner who was unable to walk. Each morning the guards separated the prisoners into small groups and selected those marked for death in the gas chambers. Mother Maria continued to survive with help from friends. On some occasions guards would enter the barracks at night to make further selections. Mother Maria's friends frequently hid her in a space above the ceiling so that she would not be selected.
During the spring of 1945 the Russian army was invading Germany from the east. The German army was in retreat, and with American and other forces advancing from the west, the end of the war seemed near. Germany's defeat did not come soon enough for Mother Maria, however, and she died on March 30, 1945. According to some accounts, she was simply one of the prisoners selected for death in the camp's gas chamber that day. According to others, she volunteered to take the place of a Jewish prisoner who had been marked for death.
During her lifetime, especially before World War II, Mother Maria was a somewhat controversial figure. Some authorities in the Eastern Orthodox Church were disturbed by her independence and outspokenness. She challenged nationalistic views about religion, meaning a nation's use of religion to encourage patriotism, and she offered aid not only to Christians but also to Jews and others in need. Her refusal to live in a convent and her active involvement with the world of the streets of Paris made some of her critics nervous.
Mother Maria the Poet
Mother Maria wrote a considerable amount of poetry, virtually all with religious themes. In 1942, while she was still living in Paris, the Nazi authorities ordered all Jews to wear yellow stars identifying them as Jews. In response Mother Maria wrote the following poem, which hints at her deep spiritual convictions about the role of suffering:
Two triangles, a star,
The shield of King David, our forefather.
This is election, not offense.
The great path and not an evil.
Once more in a term fulfilled,
Once more roars the trumpet of the end;
And the fate of a great people
Once more is by the prophet proclaimed.
Thou art persecuted again, O Israel,
But what can human malice mean to thee,
Who have heard the thunder from Sinai?
Forest, Jim. "Mother Maria Skobtsova: Nun and Martyr." In Communion. http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/jim_forest/mmaria.htm (accessed on May 23, 2006).
After her death, however, Mother Maria and her life attracted widespread attention and growing respect. Biographies were written, and her many essays and poems were translated into English. In 1982 a Russian film titled Mother Maria was released. Orthodox Christians campaigned for her canonization as a saint. (Canonization is the term for the process a person must go through to officially be designated a saint.) On January 16, 2004, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church, the church's governing body, canonized her as Saint Mary of Paris. Later that year, her son Yuri, Father Klepinin, and one of her dedicated coworkers were also canonized. July 20 is the feast day honoring their lives.
For More Information
Hackel, Sergei. Pearl of Great Price: The Life and Martyrdom of Mother Maria Skobtsova, 1891–1945. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1981.
Skobtsova, Maria. Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings. Edited by Jim Forest. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003.
Forest, Jim. "Mother Maria Skobtsova: Nun and Martyr." In Communion. http://www.incommunion.org/articles/st-maria-skobtsova/saint-of-the-open-door (accessed on June 2, 2006).
Michal, Bonnie A. "Mother Maria Skobtsova—A Saint of Our Day." The St. Nina Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 2. http://www.stnina.org/journal/art/2.2.4 (accessed on June 2, 2006).
Plekon, Michael. "Maria Skobtsova: Woman of Many Faces, Mother in Many Ways." Jacob's Well. http://www.jacwell.org/Fall_Winter99/Plekon_Mother_Maria.htm (accessed on June 2, 2006).